Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche movement, was awarded the Templeton Prize last night, at a moving ceremony in St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London.
The Vicar of St Martin's Rev Dr Sam Wells, welcomed the congregation, which included representatives from many Christian churches, as well as Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Zoroastrian leaders. Speeches were interspersed with a beautiful mix of songs, classical and modern from Mick Sands and St Martin's Voices.
Mr Douglas Scott-Proudfoot from the Canadian High Commission and Her Excellency Mrs Sylvie Berman from the French embassy both paid tribute to Vanier's achievements.
Sir John Templeton was a global investor and philanthropist. The Templeton Prize, which he created in 1972, (valued at £1.1 million pounds - higher than the Nobel Prize) rewards an individual who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works."
The prize was presented to Jean Vanier by Sir John Templeton's granddaughters Heather Templeton Dill and Jennifer Templeton Simpson. They said the church of St Martin in the Fields had been chosen for the ceremony, because of its great tradition of inclusiveness, working with the homeless in central London.
Vanier received a standing ovation from the congregation as he received the prize. After expressing his gratitude to all present he went on to speak about people with learning disabilities. They are often the most overlooked, the most ignored, the most humiliated people in our society, he said. In the past, disabilities have been seen as a punishment from God and and often these people were hidden away in institutions.
"People who are not endowed with intellectual gifts have ... unique and marvelous gifts of the heart, and can open us to love in a special way," he said. "They are not crying out for advancement or knowledge or power, but simply for a personal relationship of love that will give them life and meaning."
Vanier pointed out: "Jesus said, 'When you give a special meal, don't invite your family and rich neighbours, so that they invite you back in return. No, when you give a meal, invite rather the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: that they cannot repay your invitation means you will be blessed.'"
Society is so divided, he said. "Let us meet across differences - intellectual, cultural, national, racial, religious and other differences. Then from this initial meeting we can begin to build community together. "Community is a place of belonging where each person can grow to become fully him or herself. It is belonging for becoming. We belong to each other so that each member can become more human, more loving, more open to others, particularly to those who are different, and finally more free."
Towards the end of the ceremony, a group from L'Arche came forward and laid a symbolic table for a feast and invited people with disabilities forward to join the party.
Before the final blessing by Rev Sam Wells, a prayer written by Jean Vanier's sister Therese, was read by all present.
The celebration continued with a reception in the Crypt of St Martin's. The Bishop of London, Richard Chatres was present. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, Archbishop Bernard Longley from Birmingham, Westminster Bishop Nicholas Hudson, Fr Christopher Jamison, Director of the National Office for Vocation and Sir Anthony Bailey were among leading Catholics who attended.
Previous Templeton Prize winners include Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The organisers are asking for nominations for next year's prize. The deadline for submission is 1 July 2015.
For more information about the Templeton Prize and videos of Jean Vanier speaking, see: www.templetonprize.org
Find out more about L'Arche here: www.larche.org.uk/
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