By Marie-Hélène Mathieu
The tiny shoot of Faith and Light was planted during a pilgrimage – but God had bigger ideas. The shoot has grown into a huge tree spreading across the world. It is wonderful to look back at the way in which Faith and Light has grown and is a story in itself. We can all give thanks to God for the way in which he has guided us and protected us and our story can help us to draw new strength and hope for today.
Solitude and suffering
It all began very quietly and amid great suffering. Many people will be aware that Faith and Light was inspired by two little boys with profound learning difficulties, Loïc and Thaddée. Their parents, Camille and Gérard, wanted to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes with Loïc and Thaddée but there was no room on the diocesan pilgrimage. Camille and Gérard were told that the boys were “too handicapped’, ‘would not be able to understand’ and ‘would upset everybody. So the family set off by themselves. The reception at the hotel left much to be desired ‘Your meals will be served in your room!’. They were told in the streets and at the grotto they overheard people saying ‘Children like that should be kept at home’. People looked away or crossed the road when they saw the boys coming. There is no doubt that people with learning difficulties can frighten us and make us aware of our own vulnerability – but it was a terrible pilgrimage for Camille and Gérard and the boys in 1968.
The First Step
Jean Vanier had started the first l’Àrche community in 1964 and every year they all went on pilgrimage together. Jean had discovered that pilgrimages helped the men and women with whom he lived to grow in their relationship with the Lord and to develop an increasing awareness of brotherhood and of the church as a universal reality. From my own point of view, I had been very much affected by the sufferings of parents and by their desire that their sons and daughters should be fully integrated into the Church and into society.
All this gave rise to the idea of a pilgrimage with children, adolescents and adults with learning difficulties so that the Church, too, could become aware that these were children of God, called to meet Jesus and experience his special love for them. Parents would obviously come too but we did not want them to be on their own again with their children so friends and young people would also be included. It was a marvellous idea and quickly took root. With God everything is possible – even a Faith and Light pilgrimage.
We talked to parents and friends in France and Belgium, to the Bishop of Beauvais, Mgr Demazières who gave us every encouragement and came to our first meeting in Paris on the 8 December 1968.
Why a pilgrimage?
It took three years to prepare and get everything together. There was so much to do with all the travel arrangements – money, lodgings, medical care, security, not to mention the liturgy and spiritual support. Things went wrong too – we had to contend with a great deal of fear and opposition but all the criticism in fact helped us to make improvements and persuaded us to draw up a special document for the pilgrimage – our Charter.
“This pilgrimage is not a gathering of individuals but a meeting between small ‘human’ communities at the heart of which people with learning difficulties will find themselves completely integrated… ”
“The pilgrimage will be prepared during small friendly meetings and through prayer…”
“The object of the pilgrimage is to help parents to bear their difficulties and to discover their child as a person and come to see him/her as a son or daughter of God, capable of a genuine spiritual life and in no way handicapped in terms of his/her relationship with God.”
“The object of the pilgrimage is not to raise false hopes of healing or to provide unreal consolation for parents. Rather it is an opportunity to bring real hope to people with learning difficulties, their families and friends and to provide them with genuine support in the face of their sufferings and difficulties…”
“The pilgrimage is a sign of the incorporation of people with learning difficulties into the Church as brothers and sisters with whom we are all equal in the sight of Jesus and who must be welcomed unreservedly into our parishes, movements and organizations.”
Twenty five years on the ‘seed’ of Faith and Light was obviously there! During the preparations the many obstacles and setbacks obliged us to put ourselves unreservedly into the hands of God. Our little planning group had to constantly keep its spirits up by telling ourselves that we had given the Lord our five loaves and two fishes – it was up to him to do the rest! But we never imagined the extent to which be would multiply our tiny offering.
On April 9th 1971 – Good Friday – there were 12.OOO of us in Lourdes: 4.000 of whom had a learning difficulty. We had come from 15 countries for three days of indescribable peace and joy. The people of Lourdes gradually moved from fear (when some of them pulled down the metal shutters of their shops!) to surprise to a sort of astonished welcome.
How on earth could so much hope come from such a lot of suffering and how could one explain the happiness of this huge crowd singing ‘Alleluia’ from morning till night. There was a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit and an extraordinary unity created between us so that on the last day people were saying ‘it can’t end here!’ Jean replied ‘Do whatever the Holy Spirit inspires you, to create loving communities around people with learning difficulties’.
Faith and Light came into being because of happiness and celebration as well as sadness and sorrow. After Lourdes we became increasingly aware that Jesus had confided to us the gift of people with learning difficulties with all their thirst to love and to be loved and their great desire for unity. In order to respond to them Jesus was inviting us to make a covenant with them. We would create small communities with parents who had been deeply wounded by the trials they had undergone but who could gradually discover the mysterious beauty of their son or daughter and his/her vocation. Alongside them would be friends who had come to know people with learning difficulties and would begin to create links with them. A priest or minister would be with us to help us to come to a greater understanding of the love of God for the weakest. ‘God has chosen what is foolish in order to shame the wise, and what is weak in order to shame the strong’.
Charter and Constitution
The next few years saw the growth of new communities as well as the disappearance of some which had been showing signs of increasing frailty. Some communities were not really ‘Faith and Light’ as we understood it. In one country they were organising huge celebrations with two or three thousand people (but not really taking account of the needs of people with handicaps when the big celebration was finished). Another country was arranging prayer groups. It seemed to be increasingly important to draw up a Charter to detail the inspiration behind Faith and Light as well as its specific vocation and the activities proper to the organisation. Also a Constitution to detail the structures and day to day running.
Therefore in 1978 we decided to work particularly closely with those countries in which Faith and Light had taken root and to enshrine our experiences in order to be able to transmit them to others. In 1982 the Charter and the Constitution were unanimously adopted by the General Assembly meeting in England.
Both documents have enabled us to remain true to God’s original inspiration and have facilitated the establishment and growth of new communities across the world.
An International Family
Over the past 25 years a number of international pilgrimages have enabled us to rediscover our first enthusiasm and become increasingly aware of the fact that we belong to one international family with a common mission.
In 1975 the warm welcome of Pope Paul VI in Rome was a sort of consecration by the Church, and the Pope underlined the privileged place of people with learning difficulties within the Church “You are loved by God, exactly as you are.”
In 1981 we came together again in Lourdes from 27 countries, one huge family united by the weakest in our midst. This was truly a renewal of our commitment to people with learning difficulties at a time when their very existence is increasingly threatened, both before and after birth.
In 1991 our ecumenical vocation was deepened by our Unity pilgrimage to Lourdes in which christians of different denominations came to Lourdes from 63 countries to pray “Father make us one, that the world may believe”.
Faith and Light and ecumenism
We have become increasingly aware of our ecumenical vocation. Faith and Light began in a catholic ambience at Lourdes but right at the beginning dozens of protestant pilgrims were involved and gradually the movement has spread to countries where the majority of christians do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church. In Switzerland, the UK, Scandinavia, the USA, Austria and South Africa communities of differing denominations have come into existence and orthodox communities have begun with the opening up of the countries of Eastern Europe.
Some communities bring together members belonging to various christian denominations with each member being encouraged to become increasingly aware of the richness of his/her tradition.
As we get to know one another better, we become increasingly aware that which unites us if of far greater importance that the areas of division. Thus we journey towards our desired goal of unity, to which no one aspires more strongly that those within our midst who are ‘the least of our brethren’.
Community and mission
Faith and Light is growing in 78 countries across five continents. The tiny shoot has grown into a vast tree and ‘the birds of the air are nesting in its branches.’ I see each community as a nest – a place of peace and unity, a place of tenderness in which each member discovers himself/herself to be loved by brothers and sisters. A place where each member discovers that Jesus has called us individually to live a covenant relationship with the ‘least of our brethren’. But Faith and Light communities are not so much cosy corners in which we find peace and quiet as a place of refuge for those who are wounded and suffering. We are each limited by mental blockages, egoism, frustration and particular dislikes. We are continually required to come to terms with our weakness and inability, to recognise and overcome conflict and to help each person to discover his/her gift in order that it may be at the service of others.
The tree is certainly growing upwards but it also has to put roots down into the soil of truth and love as well into the world as it is (rather than as we might like it to be). Communities and their leaders are faced with a number of questions:
How can we highlight the prophetic dimension of our brothers and sisters with whom Jesus is so closely identified?
How can we help them to live the spirit of the Beatitudes while at the same time becoming more fully integrated into the world without being affected by its materialism?
How can we help parents to discover the unique vocation of their son or daughter and thus help him or her to grow rather than focussing upon the handicap?
How can we help young people to become more fully committed to people with learning difficulties rather than seeing Faith and Light as ‘a nice meeting once a month’?
How can we help our communities to become less of a place where we do things and more of a family in which we become increasingly conscious of the love of our brothers and sisters and more aware of the call to give of our best?
How do we deal with a world which sees it as ‘normal’ to ‘get rid of’ people with learning difficulties either before or after birth?
The mission confided to us by God is foolishness indeed. But the branches of the tree are spreading from Tokyo to Santiago (Chile) and from Uppsala to Johannesburg. And there are invisible branches reaching up to heaven: brothers and sisters who have gone ahead: Camille, Gérard, Francesco, Teresa, Lupita, Sophie, Véronique, Philippe, Chicca and so many more. They are close to the Lord and watch over us, that the tree remains faithful to the original shoot and that each community remains faithful to the gift of God, the will of the Lord.