Jean Vanier was born to a prominent Canadian family. His father was a highly decorated veteran of World War I, lawyer, diplomat and later Governor General of Canada. Vanier was born in 1928 and received a broad education in English and French first in Canada, and then England and France where his father was posted as a diplomat. Vanier and his family fled Paris just before the Nazi occupation. He spent much of the War at an English naval academy, preparing for a career as a naval officer.
In early 1945, Vanier was visiting Paris where his father was Canadian Ambassador; there he went with his mother to assist concentration camp survivor survivors. The emaciated victims, their faces twisted with fear and anguish, were a profoundly moving encounter with a wounded humanity, an encounter he has never forgotten. Shortly thereafter, at age seventeen, with World War II still raging, he joined the Royal Navy and later transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy.
In 1950, feeling a strong inner spiritual calling to do “something else,” he resigned his naval commission. He trained as a theologian and philosopher, completing his Doctorate on Aristotle. After a short and very successful period teaching at the University of Toronto, Vanier left academia in 1964 to continue to be true to his inner, spiritual quest.