Advocate for the Mentally Disabled Jean Vanier wins $1.7 million Templeton Prize for 2015

Jean Vanier, a Canadian who launched an international network of communities for the mentally disabled, recently won the 45th annual Templeton Prize worth $1.7 million. Each year the Templeton Foundation grants the award to the person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The America-based foundation was established by the late billionaire investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. Previous recipients of the award include Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It is one of the world’s largest awards given to an individual and is worth more than the Nobel Prize.

Notably, mental health is front and center this year. 

"It's a beautiful recognition of people with disabilities," Vanier told As It Happens” CBC radio host Carol Off. "They are wonderful people and we have fun together. I feel very privileged to be living with people with disabilities and helping them to discover their incredible beauty and they're helping me to discover what it means to be human."

The son of a Canada’s Ambassador to France who ultimately became Governor General of Canada, Vanier, 86, was schooled in Canada, France and England. As a teenager during WW II, he entered the Royal Navy at Dartmouth Naval College in England. From 1945 to 1949, he served on several British ships as an officer, transferring to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1949. During long stretches on watch he began to pray and realized that his destiny lay elsewhere. He resigned his commission in 1950 and spent the next 12 years in spiritual and theological studies, earning his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Institut Catholique in Paris in 1962. While visiting psychiatric hospitals he developed profound empathy with the patients.

"People with (mental) disabilities have been among the most oppressed and humiliated. They were called idiots," Vanier told Reuters. "But these are beautiful people, people of the heart. It's great to be together."

He taught briefly at the University of Toronto, but resigned from that institution as well. Instead, he took the road less traveled as a writer, ultimately becoming the author of more than 30 books, translated into 29 languages. He most renowned book is the bestseller Becoming Human.  

Back in France, he spent time with a friend who was a chaplain at an institution for people with mental disabilities. "I found [it] a violent one and a very difficult one. I felt the 80 men there were being mistreated," Vanier said to Off. "So all I could do is maybe welcome two of them into a small house."

He founded the first L'Arche ("Ark" after Noah’s) community in 1964, when he bought a home in Trosly-Breuil, a village 60 miles north of Paris, and invited three mentally disabled patients to leave their institution and move in with him. One soon left, but Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux stuck it out. His community in France grew. He never expected to catalyze a movement, but as a lecturer, and theologian his new life’s work struck a chord. In 1969, two Canadian students who had lived at L’Arche returned home to start a supportive household for the mentally handicapped.

Other L’Arche communities grew in other countries. Although originally inspired by Catholic social teaching, as L’Arche households moved to other cultures, they became more ecumenical, involving the world’s other faiths. The L'Arche community in Bangalore, India has Hindus, Muslims and Christians living together. There are now 147 L'Arche communities operating in 35 countries. Vanier also founded the Faith and Light network of support groups for families coping with mentally disabled member. There are now over 1,500 groups in 82 countries. When asked what he would do with the award money, he said he expected it would go to help one of poorer commnities in Bangladesh.

“We must start to meet: people must meet people; we are all human beings.” Vanier said in his statement when the award was announced. “Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving,”

Vanier exemplifies the best of Christian scripture. “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and “Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)

The Templeton Prize is “a cornerstone of the John Templeton Foundation’s international efforts to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.

Anybody can nominate a candidate for the Templeton Prize. Do so here. Nominations for next year close July 1, 2015.