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Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international organization which creates communities for people with developmental disabilities. Mr. Vanier is photographed here during a lunch in one of the community houses.

Michel Setboun/Michel Setboun/Getty Images

There's no St. Christopher's medal to protect passengers on the dashboard of Jean Vanier's little red car, although perhaps there should be. With only its headlights and a full moon to light the way, the car creeps along the frosty country roads near Trosly-Breuil, an hour north of Paris, where he has lived for the past 44 years in the first of the many communities he has built for the disabled.

As Mr. Vanier inches along, various irate French motorists swerve past honking, but the 80-year-old at the wheel is supremely serene. At the age of 13, he crossed the Atlantic in mid-war, unaccompanied, and was later an officer on a Canadian aircraft carrier, and once nearly drowned. He has spent most of his life in the company of the pained and desperate. What's a little highway aggravation compared with that?

Finally, he spots his destination and pulls into the parking lot. This is La Petite Source, one of the foyers (group homes) that make up L'Arche (The Ark), the international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities that Mr. Vanier founded in 1964.

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Marie-Claire and Benjamin, two of the residents of La Petite Source, are waiting for him outside, coatless, in slippers. (The community prefers to keep members' surnames private.) Benjamin runs over to give Mr. Vanier a high five and tells him, in French, that although it's his free night - he could be visiting family, or another foyer - he decided to stay when he heard who was coming to dinner.

Mr. Vanier claps him on the back with a huge hand and laughs. "You have made a great sacrifice, Benjamin."

Inside, Fairuz, the Franco-Lebanese woman who has run this foyer for 22 years, brings a pot of vegetable soup to the table. At the heart of L'Arche is the notion that mentally handicapped people and volunteer caregivers live together. And at the heart of that is the sacrament of mealtime - it is France, after all.

There are three volunteers, a priest and six residents at dinner. They are intrigued to hear that Mr. Vanier has been chosen as the nation builder of the year by a newspaper halfway around the world because of the work he has done with people like them.

Mainly, though, there's village gossip, world news and good-natured jokes about who has a crush on whom. Mr. Vanier inquires after Jean-Francois's mother and hears, from the end of the table, that Michel would like to go to Berlin. He has known Michel for four decades and lived with him for some of those years, since removing him from a dire local psychiatric hospital.

"Do you know any German?" Mr. Vanier asks.

Michel pauses for a moment and says, " Danke schön."

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Food is plentiful but reverence is in short supply for a man many regard - to his quiet but intense irritation - as a living saint. When Mr. Vanier pulls out an over-full date book in order to find time to meet with the priest, a volunteer named Stephanie begins to hum the theme from Mission: Impossible. Benjamin joins in.

After dinner, the entire household gathers to pray and read from a children's book of Bible stories - tonight, there is a passage about Jesus's love for " les faibles," the weak.

Later, as Mr. Vanier leaves, the residents gather outside to wave goodbye. He fears that one day the frailties of age might make his visits not a pleasure for them to anticipate but a burden for them to endure. But that's a worry for another day.

A seed sprouts

From Mr. Vanier's tiny front yard, you can see where L'Arche began - the derelict house he bought at the age of 36 in order to live with Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi, two mentally handicapped men from a nearby institution.

A devout Roman Catholic, he had moved to Trosly-Breuil to be near his spiritual adviser, Rev. Thomas Philippe, a theologian and philosopher. Mr. Vanier knew little at that point except that his faith was leading him to share his life with the weak and dispossessed, to learn from them by living together.

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But he also knew that he loved to travel, so he didn't want the community to contain more members than could fit in a car.

Now, there are nine foyers in Trosly-Breuil alone, with 29 more in Canada and 132 chapters of L'Arche worldwide, as well as more than 1,500 non-residential support groups in its sister network, Faith and Light. There are many more applicants for places in L'Arche homes than there are vacancies, especially in countries such as India and Haiti.

Could Mr. Vanier ever have imagined that the seed - as he likes to call the beginning of L'Arche - would have sprouted an entire sheltering forest?

"Not in my wildest dreams," he says.

He is folded into his favourite chair and even if he is a bit stooped, he is still much too tall for this little house. Some of his own bestselling books sit on the shelves, but otherwise there is no hint of the Order of Canada and the Legion d'honneur or that this is a man who has been put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There are images of Mary and the infant Jesus on the walls, books of theology and philosophy stacked everywhere - and silence. No radio, no computer, no television. Even when Mr. Vanier is staying in a hotel, giving talks or travelling on L'Arche business, he's worried about being "seduced" by television's lazy embrace.

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Not that he travels as much these days; he is officially retired, and not responsible for the day-to-day running of the foyers. "Now, I'm free to do what I like, and what I like is to announce the message: That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it's important to listen to them. In some mysterious way, they change us. Being in a world of the strong and powerful, you collect attitudes of power and hardness and invulnerability."

Yet Mr. Vanier's own journey took him from the world of power and privilege to his discovery, as a young man with a spiritual thirst, that "it is vulnerability that brings us together."

He remembers watching the coronation parade of King George VI from the top of Canada House, where his father, Georges Vanier, was the second-in-command to the High Commissioner, Vincent Massey. It was Georges Vanier, along with his wife, Pauline, who installed in their five children a sense of public service, and an abiding faith.

Setting sail

When Jean Vanier was 13, he persuaded his father, the future governor-general of Canada, to let him move to England and begin training at the Royal Navy College.

It was no small request: In 1941, one of five ships making the transatlantic crossing was sunk by German submarines. Georges Vanier, who had spent three years in the trenches and lost a leg in the First World War, took a deep breath and said yes.

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His mother took a little more convincing. But Pauline Vanier was won over to her son's naval career in the same way that, eventually, she was won over to L'Arche: The pale stone house where she lived for almost 20 years, until her death in 1991, sits just down the road in Trosly-Breuil, surrounded by chestnut trees.

"She was the grandmother to all of L'Arche," her son recalls today.

Family, both real and metaphorical, is at the core of the community. Mr. Vanier has chosen to live a celibate life, unmarried and childless. Asked if he has ever regretted that decision, he shakes his big head slowly. The residents and the volunteers are his family. He is a central, patriarchal figure in their world.

"Although he's not a parent himself, he's a father figure to so many people," says Mary, an actress from London, who is attending a retreat at Trosly-Breuil where Mr. Vanier is speaking on one of his favourite topics, the Gospel of St. John. She and her husband have an autistic son; when they discovered Mr. Vanier's message about communion with the handicapped, "we were carried away by his thinking, very comforted by it."

But family can also be the seat of what Mr. Vanier calls "the central anguish," especially when one of its members is suffering and the others are incapable of providing consolation.

Recently, a couple came to him with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, who had an undiagnosed disorder and screamed incessantly. Mr. Vanier asked the mother how she was, and she muttered, "Okay." He asked the father, a military man, the same question. "Sometimes," the father said, "I want to throw him out the window."

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Mr. Vanier leans forward in his chair. "And I said to him, 'I understand. I've lived the same thing.'"

He is referring to Lucien, a severely handicapped man who used to live with him and whose endless shrieking began with his mother's death and rarely stopped. Mr. Vanier often returns to Lucien in his writing: Suffering through that noise helped him understand not only his own limitations but what the families of disabled people must go through, isolated as they often are.

"It obviously penetrated through all my protective systems and awoke anguish, and I could see violence within me," he says. "If I hadn't been in a community, I don't know what I would have done."

Lucien died a few years ago; his screaming never ceased entirely. It is easy, when hearing this story, to understand why L'Arche is always facing a shortage of volunteers. Most people would find such a life too taxing to endure.

What Mr. Vanier finds surprising is that very often it's the volunteers' parents who don't want them to work at L'Arche.

"Parents will say, 'We gave you education, university, and now you want to live with these people?'"

This leads to one of the cornerstones of Mr. Vanier's philosophy, which is essentially that we've lost track of the different ways to measure a successful life. We have become hypnotized by competition and desire for material success.

"There's obviously a good aspect in competition - the development of the body, the mind, creativity," Mr. Vanier says. "But there's something where we can very quickly walk on people - I want to prove I'm better than you. How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?"

He notes that the United Nations has recommended that the study of non-violence be included on all school curricula.

"I'm amazed that this is not being done. What is more important is that I should go back home and show that I'm better than the others. … The pain of parents comes when children don't seem to be doing as well as others. Everything becomes competition."

What Mr. Vanier hopes the Nation Builder award will mean, perhaps, is that more young people will be compelled to work at L'Arche, "to come and live, and discover people with disabilities."

One of those who came and stayed was Cariosa Kilcommons. Disillusioned with her pre-med studies, Ms. Kilcommons dropped out of St. Francis Xavier University more than 20 years ago to live at the L'Arche home in Cape Breton. Four years later, she came to stay in Trosly; now, she returns to her family home in Pincher Creek, Alta., only for the occasional holiday.

"It was pretty radical," she says of her decision to make L'Arche her life. "But I was filled with inner certitude. It's true that a lot is asked of us here, but we get a lot back. The hours are long, but the experience is so rich."

Now, she lives with the residents at a foyer called Val Fleuri and, when she can grab him for 15 minutes, she has the duty - she would say the privilege - of cutting Mr. Vanier's shaggy hair. While she has him in the chair, they talk about many things: the residents, their faith and the future of L'Arche.

"Jean is very wise," she says, "because he knows when to give concrete support, but he also knows how to sit back and let us find our way."

The next generation

Increasingly, it will mean watching others take the lead at L'Arche. Mr. Vanier says he is content to leave the community in the hands of the next generation. If he has worries, they have to do with what he calls "the pain of age" - that infirmity will rob him of his position in the community.

It happened to his friend Jacqueline d'Halluin, one of the co-founders of L'Arche, who has such severe Parkinson's that she can no longer live at a foyer. Mr. Vanier goes to sit with her, but he cannot understand what she says any more. "And I find that very painful."

For now, though, he is hearty, barring a bit of deafness. He is mobile, able to ponder issues as he travels between foyers and to forge life-preserving relationships wherever he goes.

The other day, riding the Metro in Paris, he found a young girl, wearing a head scarf, begging in the station. Perhaps she had been thrown out of her house or had run away. Mr. Vanier put a coin in her cup, then bent down, took her hand and asked her name. The girl looked up, surprised, and gave him a huge smile.

"What she was waiting for was someone to ask her name, for a relationship," he says. "I gave her a euro, but the smile she gave me was worth 300 euros. I carried her face all day."

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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