Vanier will be remembered as a man of compassion and peace, a person of deep spiritual insight and gentleness. He spoke easily with scholars and leaders, with princes and popes, but he said often that he was most at home among the intellectually disabled people to whom he dedicated most of his life.
Vanier was the founder of L'Arche, an international community of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their supporters, and of Faith and Light, an ecumenical Christian association of prayer and friendship for those with intellectual disabilities and their families.
He was born in Geneva to Georges and Pauline Vanier. His father was a Canadian diplomat who would become Canada's Governor General. He was educated in Canada, France, and England, his family lived in Paris and Switzerland. At 13 he entered the United Kingdom's naval college, to prepare for commission as a naval officer. He served in the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, until, at 22, he resigned his naval commission.
He studied philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris, completing a doctoral thesis on Aristotle's approach to ethics and human happiness. He taught philosophy at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto.
When Vanier was 36, he left academic life. He began to assist a friend, Fr. Thomas Phillippe, OP, who had just become chaplain of the Val Fleuri, a French institution that was home to 30 men with intellectual disabilities. While there, Vanier visited a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Paris, which housed those with both mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. He was struck by the depravity of the conditions there, and the apparent loneliness of the residents.
Shortly thereafter, Vanier discerned in prayer that he should invite two men, Raphael Simi and Phillippe Seux, to live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil, France. He named the home "L'Arche," or "The Ark."