As It Happens

'A beautiful recognition of people with disabilities': Jean Vanier on winning Templeton Prize

The winners of the Templeton Prize include The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In 2015, Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier was added to that list.
Canadian Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, receives the Templeton Prize from Jennifer Templeton Simpson and Helen Templeton at St Martins-in-the-Fields church in London, Monday, May 18, 2015. L'Arche started in northern France in 1964 now has some 147 communities where people with and without intellectual disabilites live and work together as peers. (AP/Alastair Grant)

Originally published March 11, 2015. Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019 at the age of 90.

The winners of the Templeton Prize include The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Today, Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier was added to that list.

Vanier is the Canadian founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work side-by-side. 

The Templeton Prize recognizes those who have made exceptional contributions to affirming human spirituality. Past winners include Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mother Theresa. 

"It's a beautiful recognition of people with disabilities," Vanier tells As It Happens 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."​

Vanier began L'Arche in 1964, although he didn't realize then he was founding a revolutionary network of homes. He was living in France and had a friend who was a chaplain at an institution for people with intellectual disabilities.

"I found [it] a violent one and a very difficult one. I felt the 80 men there were being mistreated," he explains. "So all I could do is maybe welcome two of them into a small house."

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, laughs during a news conference in central London. Vanier was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Now there are almost 150 such homes around the world, forming L'Arche. Vanier says the key to its success is shared support.

"We want to live together, laugh together, be together, create community together, celebrate together. It's not a group of people doing things for them," Vanier says. "We discover that we are mutually helping each other. I would say mutually healing each other."

Vanier is the son of Georges Vanier, a Canadian diplomat and Governor General. But he chose not to live a life among the privileged.

"To live with people with disabilities, it's a good life. I don't know whether it's a good life to live with powerful people," he says. "I'm not sure that  power brings happiness."

Jean Vanier, poses outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, in this picture taken March 7, 2015. (Tom Heneghan/Reuters)

He has dedicated his life to spreading a message: that a full and successful life should not be measured by status and wealth. And that doing so leaves us isolated.

"We are in a world where people are frightened of each other," Vanier says. "We close up behind groups and there, in some ways, we destroy our humanity."

Although Vanier chose to live a celibate life and not to marry, he says he has never felt lonely.

"L'Arche has become a wonderful family. I've felt fulfilled and I am fulfilled. I can say that I've had a very beautiful life."

He is 86 now and knows that he only has a few years left. He says if he can continue to live them in his L'Arche home, he will be happy.