Birthdays often seem to mark the repetition of an arbitrary date, but that is not how Jean Vanier sees it. To him, birthdays are occasions to celebrate the value and importance of each and every human person, especially those who are "weaker, more fragile, more vulnerable." Today, he himself turns 80.
Though Mr. Vanier has written movingly of his own aging and his consciousness of becoming weaker, this birthday is also a time to celebrate his strengths and accomplishments.
During the Second World War, as the 13-year-old son of a Canadian diplomat (Georges Vanier, governor-general of Canada from 1959 to 1967), he decided, and was permitted, to start training for the Navy, out of an apparent resolve to share the war's dangers as soon as he could.
Later, he turned to another kind of sharing, as a friend and companion of the weak.
In 1964, living in a village in France with no definite profession, he moved into a tiny house with hardly any plumbing, with two men with cognitive disabilities. They named it L'Arche, using the French word for Noah's Ark. L'Arche grew into an international community of houses (including 29 in Canada) where disabled people live with others who assist them, who are not thought of as health-care or social workers.
Mr. Vanier once seemed likely to become a Roman Catholic priest, but L'Arche never became a Catholic institution. Mr. Vanier is a considerable Christian thinker, and a call to holiness is manifest in him - a call of a kind that his Church sometimes formally recognizes as sainthood.
Briefly, Mr. Vanier taught philosophy in a Canadian university; for a long time he returned to Canada every year, and his continuing connection to his native country is strong.
His early scholarship in Aristotle remains alive in him, too, even though compassion was not important to that philosopher. But friendship is at the core of Aristotle's ethics, and Mr. Vanier has lived friendship with the disabled. At the same time, Christ's washing of his disciples' feet is his model for what he calls "the scandal of service." And beyond Christianity, Mahatma Gandhi and non-violence have a large place in his thought.
Mr. Vanier's modest but bold initiative in 1964 has led to a network of 135 communities in 36 countries, to which he has travelled indefatigably.
Alfred Nobel's will calls for the honouring of those who have greatly contributed to fraternity among human beings across the world. It is 51 years since a Canadian, Lester Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Canadians in particular should warmly endorse Jean Vanier, for his peacemaking, ecumenism and humanitarianism, as an eminently deserving recipient of the Peace Prize.