Jean Vanier, the recipient of the 2015 Templeton Prize, has dedicated his life to changing the way the world views intellectual disability. For Vanier, caring for and loving people with disabilities is a religious experience that Jesus Christ himself modeled.
"The disciples meet a man born blind," Vanier explained in a May interview with Odyssey Networks after receiving the award. "[Their] question to Jesus is, 'Why was he born blind? Is it the sins of his parents or his sins?' The reaction of Jesus: 'No question of sin! For the work of God be accomplished.'"
Vanier, a Catholic theologian and humanitarian, has taken this sentiment into his work as a tireless advocate for people with disabilities. In 1964, the Canadian philosopher invited two men with developmental disabilities -- Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux -- to share a house with him in Trosly-Breuil, near Paris. That first leap would serve as the impetus for L’Arche International, today a global network of residential communities in which people with and without disabilities share their lives.
The Templeton Foundation awards the $1.7 million prize annually to a person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The foundation was established by the late billionaire investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. Previous winners include the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.
"Love is to recognize that the other person is a person, is precious, is important and has value," Vanier said during his acceptance speech on May 18 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London. "Each one has a gift to bring to others. Each one has his or her mission in the larger family of humanity. Each one reveals the secret face of God."
Vanier, 86, is also the co-founder of Faith and Light, a network of Christian communities for people with disabilities, their families and friends to meet together for prayer and friendship. There are some 1,500 Faith and Light groups in 82 countries around the world, along with 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries.
The world has come a long way since 1964 in regard to the treatment of people with disabilities, noted columnist David Briggs in a recent HuffPost blog.
"Many nations have guaranteed greater human rights for people with disabilities, and there is a movement to integrate individuals into communities, rather than warehouse them in inadequate facilities," Briggs writes. "The theological stigma that disabilities are a sign of God's judgment is also being widely rejected."
For Vanier, change begins when people actually spend time together and begin to see others as human beings. As he said in a statement in March after his award was first announced:
“We must start to meet: people must meet people; we are all human beings. 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."
Watch the full interview with Vanier below: