L’Arche founder Jean Vanier will be donating the prize money from his Templeton Prize win back to his charities. The Canadian will formally receive the honour May 18 in London. Photo courtesy of L’Arche Canada

Vanier’s ‘revolutionary reality’ lives in L’Arche

By  Catholic Register Wire Services
  • March 22, 2015

In 1964, when Jean Vanier quietly launched L’Arche, he says he had “no idea that this would be a revolutionary reality . . .  that it would grow.”

Over the next 50 years, L’Arche became a thriving international federation of communities that promotes peace, justice and human rights as it established communities in 35 countries for people with intellectual disabilities.

In recognition of that remarkable achievement, the Canadian founder of L’Arche was named on March 11 as the 2015 winner of the Templeton Prize, given to a living person who has made an “exceptional contribution” to affirming the spiritual dimension of life, “whether through insight, discovery or practical works.” The prize is often called the most prestigious award in the world of religion and spirituality and comes with a cash award of about $2 million.
Vanier said he will donate the prize money to his charities so they can expand their work internationally. He believes there is still much work to be done.

Speaking to the media, Vanier called for a “deeper unity of all people” to cope with a world that is both “evolving rapidly” and “in crisis.” But he also cited much-welcomed change: “Change is gradually taking place, like a little seed in fertile earth, a seed of peace,” he said.

“There is also a change in the way people with intellectual disabilities are seen. For many years these wonderful people were seen as ‘errors,’ or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors. . . They were terribly humiliated and rejected. Today we are discovering that these people have a wealth of human qualities that can change the hearts of those caught up in the culture of winning and of power.”

In a statement at a news conference in London, Vanier, 86, said those with intellectual disabilities offer spiritual lessons and gifts to a world too driven by success and power.

“They are essentially people of the heart,” he said. “When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness.

“When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”

Such exposure, he added, can make those in mainstream culture embrace their own weaknesses and vulnerability.

Vanier was introduced half a century ago to “the whole world of people with disabilities, humiliated and depressed” by a chaplain at such an institution — a chaplain he calls his “spiritual father.”

“I had never even imagined that people were being treated like that,” he said of the kinds of things he saw time and time again, remarking on the irony that “God chooses the foolish and the weak to confound the intellectual and the prideful.”

“For parents it was a shame to have a son or daughter like that,” he said.

Many parents hid children away in big institutions where they were not given the kind of attention, love and friendship necessary for human life to flourish, Vanier said.

“I just felt that I should do something,” he recalled. “The only thing I could do (at that time) was maybe welcome two.”

So he “bought a house, got permission from the French state and brought in two men with intellectual disabilities” named Rafael Simi and Philippe Seux.

“What could I do?” he said. “Both had parents who had died, so this seemed like the best way to help them.”

The drive to form what would become L’Arche began in the early 1960s when Vanier first encountered institutions for the intellectually disabled in northern France. He had resigned a naval commission to pursue a career of scholarship and to follow Jesus, though he didn’t know where it would lead.

Today there are 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries (including Canada) on five continents where those with disabilities live side by side as equals with those without disabilities.

When asked whose life and examples have inspired him through his journey from a small house in France in 1964 to today, the Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian replied: “essentially, it’s Jesus. That is the heart of the matter.”

Vanier, the author of more than 30 books, including the best-seller Becoming Human, also said he finds inspiration in the lives of men such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

“These are great people who worked for peace,” Vanier said.

Vanier called Mahatma Gandhi “a man of prayer, a man who had an incredible vision that the mission is not to humiliate but love the enemy.” He also praised the “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, saying that “there is a whole world of people who have gone before us who are our teachers.”

The fourth of five children of Canadian parents — his father Georges Vanier was a decorated  First World War hero who became Canadian Governor General — Vanier grew up in Canada and joined the British Royal Navy as a teen during the Second World War. He left the navy in 1950 and earned a doctorate in 1962 from the Institut Catholique in Paris.

He said his Catholic faith is essential to his work. That now includes being an advocate for interfaith dialogue and improved relations between those whose lives don’t often intersect, such as the wealthy and the poor.

Vanier recalled a visit to Santiago, Chile, where a driver pointed out a road separating a poor neighbourhood from a wealthy, gated community. “Don’t cross the road, because everyone is frightened,” he recalled the driver telling him.

Such divisions must end if the human race is to advance, he said.

In this, Vanier called Pope Francis an ally.

“I am very touched by him,” Vanier said of the pontiff. “He has given us a magnificent vision of who Jesus is. And he is not only saying it, he’s living it.”

Vanier, who continues to live on the grounds of the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, will be formally awarded the Templeton Prize at a public ceremony at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London on May 18.

He joins a distinguished group of Templeton laureates that include Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama and Tutu, in 2013. Last year’s Templeton winner was Tomas Halik, a Czech Roman Catholic priest, philosopher and political activist.

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