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Weak Flesh, Strong Spirit

Faith and Life movement helps the disabled

BY JEFF ZIEGLER

Register Correspondent

September 24-30, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/25/06 at 10:00 AM

 

Parishes and Movement Series, Part 12

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In 1968, two mentally disabled children and their parents asked Jean Vanier and Marie-Hélène Mathieu to organize a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Both organizers were already well known for their work with the disabled: Mathieu had started the Christian Office of Handicapped Persons in France in 1963, and Vanier had founded the first L’Arche community the following year when he began to live with two mentally disabled men.

In 1971, the pilgrimage finally took place, and 12,000 people, 4,000 of them with disabilities, joined together in prayer at the Lourdes grotto.

This pilgrimage also marked the beginning of Faith and Light International, a movement that now comprises 1,462 communities in 77 countries. Typically having 15 to 40 members, Faith and Light communities are made up of persons with mental disabilities, along with their relatives and friends.

Each community’s “essential purpose is to create bonds of trust and affection between the members that are based on, and fulfilled in, Jesus,” according to the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s new Directory of International Associations of the Faithful. Thanks to Faith and Light, parents also “feel supported in their suffering and see their distress changed into hope so that they welcome their disabled infants with humanity and faith,” Pope John Paul said in a 2002 address to the movement’s members.

The core members of these communities are the mentally disabled themselves.

“We know that Jesus loves us as we are,” said Lourdes and Ron Landry, coordinators for Faith and Light USA West. “In Faith and Light, we follow his example and work at accepting others as they are. Many persons with mental disabilities have a unique ability to accept others without a whole lot of preconditions. Because of this ability, they show us the way to acceptance, to love unconditionally.”

Members of Faith and Light International do not commit themselves to special daily practices of piety. Rather, at the heart of the Faith and Light Movement is the monthly community meeting, which often takes place at a parish. Each meeting has three “times,” or essential parts: sharing, prayer, and celebration. Each monthly meeting also has a theme, and recent ones include “God’s presence in the poor” and “blessed are the peacemakers.”

‘Simple Faith’

In addition to the three “times” of sharing, prayer, and celebration, members get together informally between meetings for “fourth time” activities. They “see a movie, eat out, go bowling, visit a shrine, pray together” — anything that “friends would do together,” the Landrys explain. “Friendships are built by spending time together, ‘being with’ as opposed to ‘doing for.’”

Faith and Light, according to the Landrys, has no age requirements; “we have babies and we have great-grandparents.”

“All that is asked,” they say, “is that people show a willingness to grow, a willingness to befriend others, a willingness to accept them as they are, as Jesus did.”

Bill Walker, coordinator of the Faith, Family, and Friends Community in Colorado Springs, told the Register that Faith and Light’s monthly meetings at Sacred Heart Parish usually attract 30 people — 15 or 20 of them disabled. Meetings there include large-group sharing, in which each person mentions a significant event that has taken place in the previous month, as well as small-group sharing and activities. The parish’s parochial vicar, Holy Cross Father Pat Hannon, has become the community’s chaplain, and he usually reads a passage of Scripture and gives a short talk. The time of celebration, also called fiesta, includes games and snacks. Every November, the movement hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for all parishioners.

The Faith and Light community in Colorado Springs is one of many works of mercy and apostolic activities undertaken by parishioners at Sacred Heart. Parishioners help staff a food pantry and a soup kitchen, hold a weekly Sunday meal for the poor, and offer shelter to homeless families.

Holy Cross Father Bob Epping, Sacred Heart’s pastor, is pleased with the presence of Faith and Light, which had been in the parish for a number of years before he arrived. “The members of Faith and Light are an inspiration because of their simple and gentle faith,” he said. “They have an approach to God that welcomes God’s presence into their lives in such a natural way. They have much to teach us in terms of simple receptivity and genuine expression of faith and love.”

Father Epping’s comments echo those of Pope John Paul, who told movement members, “In welcoming all these ‘little ones,’ scarred by mental handicaps, you have recognized them as special witnesses of the tenderness of God. We have much to learn from them and they have to take their own place in the Church.”

Jeff Ziegler is based in Ellenboro, North Carolina.

At a Glance

The Register is looking at various new ecclesial movements and how they operate in parishes.

The Faith and Light Movement, the focus of this article, is an international ecumenical movement supporting persons with developmental disabilities, their families and friends.

Founding: Faith and Light was founded by Jean Vanier and Marie-Hélène Mathieu in France in 1971.

Character: The movement is based on the conviction that each person is loved by God and that Jesus lives within him or her.

How it fits in: Faith and Light communities, some 43 of which are in the United States, are made up of persons with mental disabilities, along with their relatives and friends. Each community’s “essential purpose is to create bonds of trust and affection between the members which are based on, and fulfilled in, Jesus,” according to the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s Directory of International Associations of the Faithful. The heart of the Faith and Light Movement is the monthly community meeting, which often takes place at a parish.

On the Web: www.fel.iscam.net