Jean Vanier: Canada’s Most Modest Superstar

What wonderful news! Jean Vanier, the 86-year-old founder of L’Arche, the network of 147 communities in 35 countries around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together as equals, has been named the Templeton Prize Laureate for 2015. The richest prize awarded any individual in the world, it is worth £1,100,000, or $2.1 million.

The Templeton Prize, established in 1972, honours people who have made outstanding contributions in furthering “spiritual progress,” what the Templeton Foundation calls “entrepreneurs of the spirit.” Previous winners include Desmond Tutu (2013), the 14th Dalai Lama (2012), McGill philosophy professor Charles Taylor (2007), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1983) and Mother Teresa (1973). They come from all religious faiths, and from none at all; include scientists, philosophers, theologians, members of the clergy, philanthropists, writers and reformers; all of whom have demonstrated, through a lifetime of achievements, their commitment to exploring the big questions of human existence. For further information on the Templeton Foundation and its prize, and to watch videos of Jean Vanier speaking about the issues on which he has written, visit their webpage

Jean Vanier is the son of Major-General Georges Vanier, a diplomat who became the 19th Governor General of Canada, and his wife, Pauline Vanier. Jean was educated in English and French, in Canada, England and France. During World War II, he attended an English naval academy, served with the Royal Navy and then the Royal Canadian Navy. After resigning his naval commission in 1950, he travelled to Paris where he completed a PhD in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris. He then taught philosophy at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto until 1964.

That year, he returned to France, bought a little house in a village north of Paris, and invited two intellectually disabled men, Philippe Seux and Raphaël Simi, who had been placed in an asylum as children, to join him to live together as friends. This was the first L’Arche community. The first community outside of France was founded in Canada five years later. Today, there are 29 such communities across Canada. Anyone wishing to live as an Assistant in a L’Arche community is invited to apply. 

Apart from L’Arche, Vanier has been instrumental in developing more than 1500 Faith and Light support groups in 82 countries. These groups bring together for mutual support people who are disabled and people who are not, and their families. Vanier has also initiated seminars and retreats around the world to build solidarity between the disabled and the able-bodied, and between people of different faiths. His fundamental theme is that the relationship between those considered weakest in society and others is reciprocal; both learn from each other about what it is to “become human.” Among his 30 books translated into 29 languages are “Becoming Human” (1998, 2008), and “Community and Growth” (1979, 1989).

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