Jean Vanier, named Prairie Messenger Churchperson of the Year in 2014, has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He joins a notable list of people to be honoured for preaching the dignity of the human person and human spirit. Vanier’s name is uniquely associated with the change in our attitude to developmentally disabled people.
Noteworthy is the contrast between Vanier’s vision of disabled people and that of many people in western society. Through the use of advanced medicine, pre-born children with disabilities are often aborted because they are considered to have no intrinsic value. For example, 90 per cent of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are aborted. They are not “perfect” in the eyes of our society and mothers are under increasing pressure, from friends and doctors, to have an abortion.
Vanier has a different vision. He began the L’Arche movement in 1964 when he invited two intellectually disabled men to live with him. The movement today has grown to include 147 L’Arche residential communities in 35 countries.
“There is a change in the way people with intellectual disabilities are seen,” Vanier said on accepting the prize in London March 11. “For many years these wonderful people were seen as ‘errors,’ or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors. . . . They were terribly humiliated and rejected. Today we are discovering that these people have a wealth of human qualities that can change the hearts of those caught up in the culture of winning and of power.”
We applaud the Templeton Foundation for recognizing the strong counter-cultural values that Vanier lives. We are proud to hail him as a Canadian, a Catholic and a great humanitarian.
Last week, the Prairie Messenger reported that the Vatican hosted a celebration for women on International Women’s Day, March 8. Some of the topics covered during the five-hour Voices of Faith event were recently reported on the Vatican Insider blog. They included some remarkably open and frank remarks by women about the limits on their participation in church structures.
Some women asked for a fundamental rethink regarding how prelates and church documents describe them, saying they are often pigeonholed as reflecting only the sensitive or tender half of humanity. This viewpoint has also been expressed in letters to the editor in the Prairie Messenger.
"I would like to see women have (the) opportunity to be strong, courageous, intelligent," said Ulla Gudmundson, a former Swedish ambassador to the Holy See, during the discussion. "I would also like to see men have the opportunity to be tender, patient, sensitive."
"I dream of a church where it won't matter whether you're a man or a woman and you just respond to God's call of service," said Astrid Gajiwala, an Indian biologist who has worked as a consultant for her bishops' conference.
"I also dream of a church where men and women would participate equally in all decision-making, so that they both would contribute to the policies, the structures, the teaching, and the practice of the church," she said. "And both would engage in ministry."
Six other women from various places and circumstances around the world addressed issues as varied as health care needs for women in India, creating opportunities for education for women in refugee camps, and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Voices of Faith also joined with Caritas Internationalis to award two 10,000-euro prizes to two organizations run by women that have developed best practices in addressing world hunger.
Those awards went to a Lebanon-based group called Basmeh & Zeitooneh that is helping Syrian refugees learn work skills and to Caritas Nicaragua, which is helping women to learn farming skills to help sustain their families and earn income independent of their husbands.
The dreams expressed by these women are not far-fetched; fulfilling them would bring both healing and wholeness to those involved in church ministry.