Jean Vanier, 86, is an extraordinary French-Canadian humanitarian, Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a federation of communities worldwide for people with disabilities. I had friends who would spend up to a year at his communities in Trosly-Breuil, France and near Toronto.
There are few things in my mind less glamorous than helping the mentally ill, so I was glad to hear that his years of efforts had resulted in winning the Templeton Prize earlier this month. I’m sure he’ll put that $2.1 million to good use.
So what is the journalism problem here?
To be blunt about it: I was surprised at how many of the mainstream news stories about this humble man skirted his Christian commitment.
Is it hard to find this information?
Look, here’s a man who almost became a Catholic priest, but instead found he had a more unusual worldwide parish. He’s never married and any interview with him -- such as this 2006 piece by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly -- will produce a ton of quotes having to do with God.
So what happened in the new coverage? This recent Toronto Star piece -- except for the very end -- skirts the religion angle. This Huffington Post piece totally avoids it. At least this editorial in The Toronto Globe and Mail notes that Vanier’s award was given to someone whose work has been built on his faith.
Spirituality is too often defined within sectarian limits. But the values expressed by Jean Vanier, as he’s lived a humble life of compassion for wounded humanity, transcend the Biblical message and Catholic theology that inspired him.
To be honest, I am not sure what the writer meant by that -- Vanier more exemplifies those things more than transcends them – but at least the writer was onto something basic and true about this man's life.
Most mentions I found of Vanier were in editorials, columns and blogs. On the brighter side, The Montreal Gazette openly linked Vanier’s Catholic faith with winning the award.
Meanwhile, the team at Catholic News Service did the best job at covering this simple man, doing a phone interview, getting original quotes and filling the article with information on how Vanier got where he is today by simply following Jesus. In other words, CNS covered the story.