Jean Vanier wins the 2015 Templeton Prize


Jean Vanier has been awarded the Templeton Prize which is valued at $1,7 million. The Templeton prize was established by John Templeton, an American billionaire who made his fortune as a pioneer of mutual funds. He established the Templeton award to acknowledge people who ‘affirm life’s spiritual dimension’.  It is fitting that Jean Vanier should join Mother Theresa and Bishop Desmond Tutu who have previously received the award. He received the reward for ‘his innovative discovery of the central role that vulnerable people play in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society’.


Our Faith and Light community based at Victory Park Parish in Johannesburg was thrilled to hear the news. Many of us met Jean Vanier personally when he visited South Africa in 2003.  We are all grateful to him for his ideologies that have been instrumental in creating our small, caring Faith and Light community. We are one of five communities in South Africa and one of 1500 communities in the world. We meet monthly for prayer, fellowship and celebration. Every year the group is sent guidelines with the format for twelve meetings, which provide a message of joy, hope and encouragement to the members, who consist of people with disabilities and their families and friends.


Jean Vanier is a Philosopher, theologian and author of more than 30 books. I read his book, The Broken Body – Journey to wholeness, a few years before I got married, and was able to reread it after my son was born with Down Syndrome.  I found Jean Vanier’s philosophy very inspiring.  He is now 86 years old and has lived most of his life with people with intellectual disabilities.  In 1964 while visiting a psychiatric hospital, one of the patients asked Jean, ‘will you be my friend?’ Jean was moved to answer with an Invitation for this young man and one of his friends to live with him in a house in France. He called his home L’Arche, meaning an ark or a shelter. His idea of making a home for people with intellectual disabilities was adopted by others, and so other L’Arche homes were established all over the world.


Faith and Light started soon afterwards when a young couple with two children who were intellectually delayed expressed their disappointment that they were not welcome on their parish pilgrimage to Lourdes.  So they decided to make their own pilgrimage to Lourdes as a family.  The first night they arrived, they went down to the inn’s dining room for supper.  The inn keeper politely suggested that their dinner rather be served in their room so that other guests would not be disturbed and made to feel uncomfortable at the sight of their two children.    On their return home they shared their humiliation with Jean Vanier and Marie-Helene Matthieu (co-founder of Faith and Light), who thought of the idea of organising a small pilgrimage to Lourdes where people with mental disabilities would be welcomed to participate. Word got around even outside of France and what was meant to be a pilgrimage for a small group of people, grew to a few thousand wanting to join in. This took three years to organise, during which, because of the growing number, people prepared in small groups which met regularly.  Then for a week around Easter 1971 Lourdes was taken over by families of people with mental disabilities and their friends walking in the streets singing every day.  Nothing like this had been seen in Lourdes before and people looked out their windows cheering and joining in the singing!   It was from this first pilgrimage, that the idea for Faith and Light emerged.  What they had experienced in Lourdes needed to continue.  The seed from a hurt had been planted and the Holy Spirit did the rest.  The small groups continued meeting monthly to support families who had an intellectually disabled member.


Faith and Light communities continued to grow and spread to other countries and in 1981 a second even bigger pilgrimage to Lourdes was organised.  The year after this pilgrimage, Jean Vanier visited South Africa at the invitation of Rev. Trevor Hudson of the Methodist Church and following that, a group began to meet at the Central Methodist Church to discuss and develop Jean’s vision. The group included Rev. Trevor Hudson, Fr. Terry Barnard and Sr. Veronica Mary of the Ursuline sisters.   Sr. Veronica Mary approached Patrick de Laroche who was co-ordinator of the youth group at Krugersdorp Catholic church, to ask if the youth group would like to help start a Faith and Light community.  She went to speak to the group and took along Pat and Brian Bailey and their daughter Paula who has a disability. A bond developed from that first meeting and soon after, Faith and Light started at Krugersdorp. At about the same time, groups were started at the Kempton Park Methodist Church and in Cape Town at Nazareth House, Newclare and Manenberg.  Helpers from the Kensington and Krugersdorp Faith and Light communities together with Sr. Teresa-Marie were instrumental in setting up our St. Charles community.  It started in 1989 with about five families with children at Casa do Sol School, and young helpers from the parish.  Although linked to the parish, not all families were Catholic and so the community was, and still is ecumenical.


In 2002, our family moved to the Victory Park area, and I prayed for friends for my children. It was not long afterwards that Rosemary and Patrick de Laroche moved in next door with their two sons.  When Rosemary invited me to a Faith and Light meeting, I accepted so that the children could spend an afternoon playing together. In reality I was not looking for another commitment to add to my already busy schedule. Slowly, meeting with this group every month, the people with disabilities and their families crept into my heart, until I had a tremendous feeling of love and acceptance when I met with the group. I had seldom been greeted with as much joy and excitement. What a privilege! This feeling of belonging is predicted in Jean Vanier’s book, The Broken body – Journey to Wholeness, where he says,

‘If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else: that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own hurt and the hardness of your heart, and also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal becomes your healer.’

This discovery is what earned Jean Vanier the Templeton award in March this year. When I first read the reason for his award, I questioned the words, ‘innovative discovery!’ We all know the truism that ‘in giving you shall receive”. I thought they were trying to attach some scientific discovery to the simple words of Jesus that motivate many people to do good. But on reflection I thought that often our growth comes in a series of awareness experiences and when we reach a point, we have to look back at the small steps we have taken to get there. Perhaps, in a world where it is all important to be more successful than others, it is not that obvious that when we seek the company of people with disabilities we will find healing for ourselves.


Jean Vanier is careful to explain in his book , Community and Growth, that a community is only truly a body when the majority of its members is making the transition from ‘the community for myself’ to ‘myself for the community’.   I have seen that the journey of a community is not always easy. Our group stopped meeting for a while because of lack of leadership, but after the break we realised that we can’t take our community for granted, and a sense of gratitude and commitment is more noticeable. Jean Vanier says, ‘it is God who has brought us together and inspired us to love each other’ (Community and Growth) and I firmly believe that God will be with our Faith and Light community as we continue on our journey.


As I have got to know the people in my Faith and Light community I have a better understanding of the struggles of someone living with a disability. In some cases, they have to say goodbye to dreams that they had while growing up. Dreams of going to university, getting married, having children of their own. Dreams of driving a car, owning a house, holding a place of importance in society.  They battle in a world that they are not quite equipped to handle. When I see the determination they have, the pride they take in their work, their ability to celebrate and enjoy life, this is a humbling experience. It encourages me to accept the challenges in my own life, be grateful for the blessings I have and to celebrate my own unique course of life. In conclusion I would like to say, ‘Congratulations Jean Vanier, and thank you for your continued advocacy for people with disabilities.’


With thanks to Patrick de Laroche for his input on the history of Faith and Light. For further information on Faith and Light you can email Ann and take a look at the websites  and

Letter from Jean Vanier] Lettre de Jean Vanier – septembre 2009

Dear friends,

I was deeply happy in the monastery of Orval in August. The silence, the monks’ singing and praying, the Eucharists, the forest, my bedroom at the end of the corridor: so many things delighted me and brought me peace. I liked being there, having the time to pray, read, write, rest and walk in the woods. I loved to give thanks, for L’Arche, for Faith and Light, for life, for my life. This monastery is one of these small places that are so essential in our wounded world, which is in continual movement and change, so absorbed by individualism, personal success and the values advocated by the media. The monastery evokes peace, a place where God is, and reveals that love and universal brotherhood and sisterhood are possible.

On 15th August, the feastday of Mary, the Mother of God, my time of retreat and prayer at Orval was marked by the news that Jacqueline d’Halluin was dying. She was somebody precious, both to myself and to L’Arche. I had known her since 1950, when I arrived at l’Eau Vive from the Canadian Navy. She was then Father Thomas Philippe’s secretary. Later she helped me as L’Arche began. The very name of L’Arche was given to us when we were together, at the start of the first home; and it was she who wrote the prayer of L’Arche. She was wonderfully practical, she looked after the renovation out of the decoration of all our homes; a woman of prayer who was so creative in all our celebrations, full of joy and wisdom – the wisdom of love. So many events brought us together, but above all our love for Father Thomas and the many things we lived together, at the heart of L’Arche.

I left Orval immediately to see her, Odile driving me. Yes, Jacqueline was dying, she was so poor, so weak, struggling for breath. She had suffered dreadfully with Parkinson’s disease for the past four years. I was able to spend several hours with her; I know that she recognised me. She knew that I had come to say goodbye and “A Dieu” to her, but she did not die straightaway. She held onto life for several days more, in great human frailty. She did not suffer physically thanks to strong doses of morphine, but I think she was suffering as she waited Jesus’ coming.

I returned to Orval to be close to her through prayer, so that her final passage be enveloped in God’s gentle presence. She went to God on August 24th. What joy for Father Thomas to welcome her in Heaven.

During my time in Orval, I realised how much I love L’Arche and Faith and Light and how God has called me to live so many deep relationships of communion that flow from His heart, not only with people who have a disability but also with the assistants and so many friends who carry also their fragility and weakness.

I am happy to be back in my home of Val Fleuri, happy to be with my brothers and sisters and to witness together to our world the importance and the value of those who are the weakest, if we listen to them, respect them and have a genuine relationship with them.

All this leads me to think about the evolution of L’Arche itself: it has been a gentle evolution. At the beginning I wanted to live in a small community that witnessed to Jesus, in the Catholic Church. I wanted to live generously with people in difficulties, living together as a sign of the Gospel and of the presence of Jesus among people in need.

Gradually, L’Arche discovered that it was called to witness, not just to the goodness and the faith of assistants, but to the value of people with disabilities. Over the years, many of them, still with their serious disabilities, have reached a real human and spiritual maturity. Their spontaneity, their inner freedom, their joy in relationships and “joie de vivre”, their simplicity which flows from these relationships, reveal another way of living in our society. Many people in our society have had enough of a stressed, competitive life, marked by strong individualism and the weakening of the links inside of family and elsewhere. They are seeking a different way of living, less consumption and more relationship life, less individual success, more time spent being and living together and less of a pyramid where a few strong and competent people climb towards the top. They seek the creation of a body where all, the weak and the strong alike, find their place and celebrate their shared humanity together, thereby witnessing a path of peace.

The fact that L’Arche welcomes men and women from different Christian churches, different religions, different cultures (assistants and disabled people) and the fact that our communities are present in many different countries has accentuated this evolution. This is not the result of a well-thought-out desire or an intellectual vision, but rather the fruit of our experience in L’Arche of the universal human suffering in our world. L’Arche does not exclusively bear witness to the christian faith, but to the transformation of weakness and suffering into life, through God’s grace. This is not to diminish the role of faith, of union with God and spiritual growth. On the contrary! In order to live in a community where there are people of different cultures, religions, abilities and disabilities, each person is called to deepen their own inner life and their own faith supported by life in the community. L’Arche is a school of love where we learn to love others who are different. This requires each person to grow in humility and to work on themselves. It means learning to see each person as somebody in whom God dwells, a person from whom we can receive gifts and who can help us to grow in love.

I am in the middle of reading a fascinating book written by Christian Salenson, it is opening my heart and my spirit and reveals a vision of the evolution of mankind today. A prophetic book which gives hope. It is called “La théologie de l’espérance de Christian de Chergé” (Christian de Chergé: A theology of hope).

Christian was a Cistercian monk, (like those at Orval and like my brother Benedict in Quebec,) in a small abbey in Tibhirine, south of Algiers. He lived a deep experience of prayer with a Muslim man, who actually saved his life during the war in Algeria and who was murdered for doing so. As a monk and with his brothers, Christian shared a life of work with Muslims; he also shared times of prayer with the members of a Sufi brotherhood. He and his brother monks were kidnapped by terrorists in 1996 and murdered.

His theology is based on profound spiritual experiences, on the gestures and words of John Paul II and on the teachings of Vatican II. It is a theology of a vision of God, thirsting for unity among all human beings. This book, together with others on and by Christian de Chergé, opens new doors to the profound meeting of the differences between people, differences which are respected and loved in a search for communion in God. Differences can enrich us all instead of dividing us.

Christian’s life helped me to sense the need for what I call “intermediate communities”, where very different people with vulnerable and humble hearts can meet as human beings and as seekers of God, justice and peace.

At the root of these meetings is humility, which implies a loss of fixed ideas and certitudes and from our need to show that we are superior, an elite. One day someone asked Martin Luther King if there would always be groups who believed themselves to be an elite and who despised other groups. “Yes”, replied Martin Luther King, “unless we all become aware of what is wounded within each of us, of our fears, our underlying handicaps and inner darkness.” The question then is how to grow in humility and see all that is from God in other people. What transformation must we undergo and how? Is this not the issue at the very heart of L’Arche?

An assistant at L’Arche (whom I shall call Louis) shared the following with a group of people a few months ago. He was at la Forestière with people who have serious disabilities. He was asked to take particular care of Françoise, who is known as “mamie” in the home. She is 76 years old with a very serious disability, bedridden and blind, unable to communicate through words. Louis was disappointed because he did not feel drawn to her. Faithfully, as he was asked, he fed mamie, but he found it tiresome. Then one day, she placed her hand on his hand and smiled. It was, he said, a special meeting, a magical moment, a moment of transformation, a moment of grace. From that moment on, he loved being with her. What he had found tiresome and difficult became a blessing. Is that not what we want to witness in L’Arche and in Faith and Light? There is a mysterious power which flows from the hearts of weak people like Françoise and which calls us into a relationship, which transforms us. It is this transformation which can be at the root of a new way of living in our societies.

Intermediate communities do exist everywhere. In Israel, there are groups of Palestinians, of Jews, who meet to share together. In Rwanda and Burundi, there are Hutus and Tutsis who meet to share and to pray. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics meet to talk about how their churches help them to live closer to Jesus. These small communities, like L’Arche, witness to the unity of human nature; we are all part of the big human family. When we welcome those who are different we are enriched.

Intermediate communities, few as they are, point to a path of peace; they are built on the desire to love each other, irrespective of our differences. They are a beacon of hope. Jesus, to show who our neighbour is (Luke 10, 29), talks of the love between a Samaritan and a Jew; two groups who hated each other. Jesus reveals that the other person, who is different, is a brother or a sister in humanity: we are called to learn not to hide behind certainties and the safety net of a group which condemns others, but to open up to others who are different.

My health is good. The monks of Orval told me that they thought I looked younger! I don’t know if that’s true. However, I am beginning to feel the weaknesses of my 81 years. I would like to give what is left of my life to announcing this mystery of L’Arche and Faith and Light, through retreats at la Ferme and elsewhere: to announce the value, the importance of weak people who are a sign of God’s presence. Perhaps my own weaknesses will help me to better understand the Good News of Jesus, who Himself became weak and vulnerable. Through his weakness, He give us life and calls us to love more. We possess in our communities a wonderful treasure and I have such a desire to communicate it so that others can discover and live it. Pray for me, that I learn to age slowly and gently, with joy.

I feel deeply in communion with all the communities of Faith and Light and of L’Arche and with so many friends. I carry all your worries and your joys in my heart and in my prayer. Thank you for your letters; I am unable to reply to each of you individually, but each letter expresses the communion which we are all living together.

Together with you in the joy of God,

[note: this letter was enriched by many pictures, I apologise, I am unable to capture them -RP.]