Jean Vanier, the Canadian humanitarian who spent the past half-century working with people with intellectual disabilities, has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy work and his reflections on the importance of helping the vulnerable.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail after receiving the prize Wednesday, the 86-year-old Mr. Vanier underlined how what he learned in half a century at L’Arche has currency in a volatile, bellicose time.

“We are in a world that is rather terrifying. People close ranks and hide behind their factions. There is great insecurity,” he said.

And yet, he said, “it is possible for humans to live together as long as you let down the walls that separate you.”

Mr. Vanier’s pioneering work led to the creation of L’Arche, a network of communities where the disabled and volunteer caregivers live together, creating meaningful encounters with each other.

Mr. Vanier has long argued that one becomes more fully human when living side by side with those who are different.

Relationships with disabled people are genuine because they are people with no position of power or hidden agenda, he said.

“The problem is that most people disappear behind their titles or their shortcomings. At L’Arche, you are who you are and you reveal yourself as you are.”

He recalled a conversation in his community with a theologian who talked about accepting everyone with kindness.

Someone challenged her how one could feel kindness for jihadists. “They are human beings who have been warped and who are trapped in a mad world,” she replied. “We have to pray for them so they recover what is essential in their human condition.”

In a prepared statement released when he received the prize, Mr. Vanier elaborated further. “Our world is evolving rapidly, and is at a crisis point today,” he said in the statement. “Either we will move together towards a deeper unity of all people, in a spirit of openness, fraternity and mutual respect, or the divisions that exist will grow into terrible forces of fear and hate, encouraging wars, terrorism.”

He added that”for peace, people must meet across differences. I say to meet people, not just to send them money and offer better professionals. All need to change. Fear must be changed into openness.”

Created by the mutual-fund pioneer and philanthropist John Templeton, the prize is one of the world’s most generous annual awards. It honours people who have made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

Past winners include the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor.

The $2.1-milllion (Canadian) prize money will go to the charities behind L’Arche and Faith and Light, an ecumenical movement he found to help those with disabilities.

Mr. Vanier is no stranger to public service. His father, Georges Vanier, was an army general and diplomat who became the first French-Canadian governor-general. His mother, Pauline, was a humanitarian who joined her son in his work at L’Arche until her death.

A former navy officer who resigned his commission in 1950 and looked for an outlet for his Catholic faith and desire to help others, Mr. Vanier was drawn to the plight of institutionalized people.

In 1964, he invited two mentally disabled men to live with him in the village of Trosly Breuil, north of Paris, in a house they called L’Arche, after Noah’s Ark.

More than 50 years later, L’Arche has more than 100 communities worldwide.

Since then, Mr. Vanier said in his statement, the world has changed in some ways for the better, so that slavery and apartheid are no longer acceptable notions and disabled people are no longer seen as lesser humans who need to be concealed.

But in other ways, the world remains a hard place.

“Isn’t it vital that the culture of winning, so common in our societies today, be transformed? This culture of winning means that few people win, and many lose … A terrible rift is created between winners and losers, between the so-called normal and the so-called abnormal, between the rich and the poor. The social difficulties then become enormous. The winners must look after, in every way and in particular financially, all the losers.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 11 2015, 7:22 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 11 2015, 4:22 PM EDT