Washington — In 1964, when Jean Vanier quietly began what would become an international network, he had "no idea that this would be a revolutionary reality ... that it would grow," he remarked joyfully.
The founder of L'Arche and this year's winner of the Templeton Prize made the comments in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service from London, where the news of him winning the prize was announced March 11.
Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian, is probably best known for starting L'Arche, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.
The drive to form what would become L'Arche began in the early Sixties, when he started to visit institutions for the intellectually disabled in northern France. He had resigned a naval commission to pursue a career of scholarship and to follow Jesus, though he didn't know where it would lead.
Vanier was introduced to "the whole world of people with disabilities, humiliated and depressed," by a chaplain at such an institution -- a chaplain he calls his "spiritual father."
"I had never even imagined that people were being treated like that," he said of the kinds of things he saw time and time again, remarking on the irony that "God chooses the foolish and the weak to confound the intellectual and the prideful."
"For parents it was a shame to have a son or daughter like that," he added, which led many of them to hide children away in big institutions where they were not given the kind of attention, love and friendship necessary for human life to flourish.
"I just felt that I should do something," Vanier recalled, "The only thing I could do (at that time) was maybe welcome two." So he "bought a house, got permission from the French state and brought in two men with intellectual disabilities" named Rafael and Philip. Both of the men's parents had died.
Today there are 147 L'Arche communities in 35 countries on five continents, and more than 1,500 Faith and Light support groups in 82 countries. These groups similarly urge solidarity among people with and without disabilities.
When asked whose life and examples have inspired him through his journey from a small house in France in the early Sixties to today, Vanier told CNS that "essentially, it's Jesus. That is the heart of the matter."
However, the author also said that he finds inspiration in the lives of men such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, saying that "these are great people who worked for peace."
Vanier also called Mahatma Gandhi "a man of prayer, a man who had an incredible vision that the mission is not to humiliate but love the enemy," while also praising the "little way" of St. Therese of Lisieux, saying that "there is a whole world of people who have gone before us who are our teachers."