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M.H. Mathieu: Christians in the Process of European Integration

13 marca 2004 | 18:35 | Ⓒ Ⓟ


I am very touched because I can be in Poland today morning, twenty one years after my first trip here. It took place during martial law. I took part in a pilgrimage of the Faith and Light communities to Licheń. These communities were developing spontaneously in Poland, even though the movement was illegal, just like all other movements. I had been invited by Marcin Przeciszewski. He was a co-founder of the first Faith and Light community in Warsaw and during the pilgrimage to Licheń he was elected the country coordinator for Poland; later he was deputy coordinator of the international Faith and Light movement. There were around 100 pilgrims there: persons with developmental disabilities, their families and friends. The material conditions were extremely austere: our meals were composed of sandwiches with jam and pâté, we slept in a huge hall on bunk beds or in a barn, and in the morning we washed outside, at a pump with cold water. And at the same time, there was an incessant admiration for the handicapped: their kindness and joy were contagious. All intellectual, age, or social barriers were instantaneously removed… We saw how the mystery of love makes joy possible even in the midst of sometimes excessive suffering.

Those in charge of the movement knew that the secret service was aware of our existence and activity. They also knew that there were one or two secret agents among us who reported on our words and conduct. I was amazed at the cheerful disposition of those in charge in the face of this unbearable supervision. “It is dreadful to suspect each of those present here!” They responded to me as follows: “But we do not suspect anyone. We believe that the people who have entered our communities for such reasons must feel accepted as brothers here. We count on persons with disabilities: they will let such people discover the world of love and trust, a world in which we are to live thanks to grace”.

And so I would like to start the discussion of the subject by remembering persons with disabilities from the Polish Faith and Light communities and their capacity for building unity. And now I will pose a specific question: how can such persons contribute to the unity of Europe which we are constructing at the present moment?

How does the Council of Europe Perceive Persons with Disabilities

First of all, how are these people perceived in the official European agendas? What lies in store for them in the upcoming years?
I had a comprehensive insight into those matters while participating in the work of the Council of Europe, in the committee for rehabilitation and integration of the disabled. The Holy See had asked me to represent it at a key moment, since this Committee was in charge of the preparation and implementation of the resolutions of the conference organised in May last year in Malaga; the conference was attended by ministers and high officials for the disabled from 45 European states. In the very middle of the European Year of Persons with Disabilities, the conference was to delineate the action plan for the following ten years in the area of persons with disabilities. The delegation of the Holy See was headed by Bishop Monteiro de Castro, apostolic nuncio in Madrid, invited in the capacity of an observer.

The first observation we were able to make was the following: the rehabilitation and social integration of 80-100 million persons afflicted with physical, sensory, mental, and psychic handicaps was a vast area for action. Without a doubt, for the past half-century much progress in this respect has been made, especially in the Nordic and Western countries. However, many such persons continue to be ignored, misunderstood, or rejected, especially in the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, on account of major economic hardships. If the Council of Europe must face this challenge, how much more it concerns the Church.

The second observation: the magnanimity and determination of many of those ministers and high officials to confirm the dignity of the disabled and to take their problems into account. I was thinking about Saint-Exupéry’s words: “Give people a purse with money to share, and you will make enemies for yourself. Let them build a tower, and you will make friends of them”.

The third observation: the unanimously adopted action plan fully recognises the right of the disabled person to equal opportunities, independent life, full enjoyment of civil rights, and an active participation in community life.
This optics, while commendable in many respects, is not free from dangers, either. We may juxtapose it with John Paul II reflection from his message of 5 January this year : “A certain subtle form of discrimination is present in various political trends and in education programmes, which try to conceal and strongly deny the deficiencies of a person with disabilities, proposing lifestyles that are not suited to such a person’s reality and in truth prove frustrating and unjust”. We might fear a real threat of discrimination, especially in reference to persons with the most serious disabilities. In the wake of de-institutionalisation, they would be increasingly marginalized and forgotten. Still, as the Pope tells us, “For a disabled person, just as for each other human person, it is important not so much to do the same as others, but rather to do what is really good for them, take ever greater advantage of their resources and faithfully respond to their human and supernatural vocation”.
We may also deplore the excessively individualistic perspective of the action plan: each person should be able to live in accordance with his or her own choice, independently, defending their rights, while no reference is made here to obligations and to the responsibility for others. The Church also clearly shows here the person in all of his or her dimensions – physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and religious – and indicates his or her most fundamental needs: to be loved, to love, to feel needed, irrespective of the degree of the handicap.

The participants of the meeting in Malaga do not seem to be hostile towards this holistic dimension. We saw evidence for this on the last day of the conference, in the very last minute of the debates. Prior to delivering the final address, the chairman asked whether anyone would like to take the floor. To the general astonishment, Bishop Monteiro de Castro expressed such a wish and said the following words (I quote): “It seems to me that a story about little Frank I heard yesterday would be a proper summary of our debates. Frank is mentally handicapped. He has just received his First Communion. His parents had a small celebration after Mass. The boy’s godfather approached his mother and said: ‘What a nice celebration! It is only a pity that the poor thing did not understand a bit!” The boy’s mother felt like crying. Frank sensed what was going on. He kissed his mother and told her: ‘Do not worry, Mum, God loves me the way I am’. It was the godfather who did not understand anything, comments the Bishop, while Frank comprehended all. It is true; ‘God loves us the way we are’, and it is great when we are reminded of it by one of the persons who have been at the very heart of our debates”. A voluble silence fell after those words …

By means of these few words a representative of the Holy See introduces us into the mystery of a person with mental disabilities who is impoverished as to his or her intellectual abilities, but not as to the most profound self. At the same time, we are reminded that even the most pressing recommendations and laws are to no avail if they are not accompanied by a transformation of glances and hearts. It is not natural for us to listen in to a cry of a person with disabilities, who frequently interrupts and tires us, to respond to this cry and discover everything that this person can offer our divided world.

Faith and Light

Mother Teresa made one observation. In our meetings with a person who is weak, socially disadvantaged, destitute, or involved in prostitution, afflicted with a disability or an illness, a physical, mental, or psychic handicap, there are usually tree stages: first there is escape, then compassion, and finally transformation of the heart. I would like to describe this way for you on the basis of the Faith and Light history.

Faith and Light – a movement which in reality we have not founded but rather has been given by the Lord – was born in response to the suffering of mentally disabled persons and their parents. Camilla and Gerard’s both children were born with very serious physical and mental disabilities. The spouses were refused to enrol their children for a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes since they were “too deeply handicapped to understand and were too much of a burden for the other pilgrims”.
In Lourdes, where they decided to go on their own, they were met with the apprehension of hotel owners. Only one hotel agreed to offer them accommodation on the condition that they had meals in their room. For three days Camilla and Gerard with their children felt excluded from the town of Our Lady. They could not help the thought that they were excluded from the Church.
Along with Jean Vanier and some parents we hit upon an idea of organising a pilgrimage for persons with mental handicaps, their families and friends, especially young ones. We were preparing for it in small communities, approximately 30 people each. We got to know one another, we learned how to love and assist one another as in a family. We did not set out for Lourdes in order to ask for being cured of handicaps, but solely to ask for the cure of our hearts: so that we might be able to discover a disabled person with all of his or her capacity for love and the unique call as the Church’s treasure.
For Easter 1971 we met in Lourdes – there were people from 15 countries, 12,000 pilgrims, including 4,000 with mental handicaps. Two days full of compassion, consolation, and transformation – we would never have imagined anything like that. It was there that the movement was born, in response to the insistence of all the pilgrims, who did not want to relapse into loneliness and frequently in despair.
Today, Faith and Light develops in 78 countries on five continents; there are 150 communities in Poland.
How could the Faith and Light communities be born and develop all over the world without an earlier adoption of a plan, without material resources? To my mind, this was possible first of all because they are a very simple yet principal response to the cry of the disabled person who calls for love and for community. It is an answer to estrangement, sometimes to despair, to the rebellion of the parents, and finally to the desire of friends, especially young ones, who wish to discover the most essential values which will restore sense to their lives. When approaching a weak person, many people either discover or re-discover the Gospel and its beatitudes.
It must be remembered that each community gathers 20-40 members: children, young people or adults with developmental handicaps, their families and friends, especially young ones, and a chaplain. The community meets at least once a month, in friendship, to share joy and suffering, pray and celebrate life. To start a Faith and Light community does not require substantial resources. There is no need for formalities, budget, or a room; there will always be a room in a parish or at a monastery. That is why it was possible for the Faith and Light to develop in Africa, or Asia… in very poor countries where there where no structures or forms of assistance for persons with mental handicaps.
Some mother from a community in Rwanda, composed by the way of the Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen, told me once: “Prior to Faith and Light it had seemed to me that Augustine was a curse from God, a punishment for a sin committed many years before. Augustine would sit in a room corner or in the yard and I kept thinking that such suffering had befallen us only. When the Faith and Light movement came around, I was very disappointed since I learned that they were not going to offer food aid, provide us with medications, or a place in a centre. Still, I came here and now my life has changed. I got to know other families like ours. I take Augustine to a marketplace and to Mass; I know that Augustine is not a curse but, on the contrary, that God likes him all the more for his pure and good heart. Augustine has changed a lot …”
As one father said: “If but one family has regained hope, it justifies the existence of the Faith and Light movement”.
If I have dared to tell you about Faith and Light, like Karol Okęcki will speak about the Arch, this is because I am confident that God has entrusted to us those two realities for today’s world. Not so much as an answer to the great needs of the weak and disabled and their families, but rather as a sign of hope. A small faint light in the Europe of tomorrow.
This is a very serious question: what kind of Europe will we build?
A Europe of economy, where money, productivity, and efficiency are of prime importance? A Europe patterning itself on America, aiming to catch up with or even surpasses America’s level of wealth and power?
Or will we build a Europe of compassion, whose heart will be the weak, poor, and handicapped person? Is it not at least a challenge that Christians are called to face? Will they unite so that Europe might be one body whose all members have their place, and those most embarrassing are given the most respect (cf. St. Paul)? Will solidarity create communicating vessels between the rich countries of the North and the West and the countries of the South, some of them in dire straits, or the countries of the East, sometimes experiencing poverty at the brink of endurance?
The suffering of the handicapped and their families calls for unity, since the pain of parents who get to know that their child is handicapped is the same, irrespective of whether they are poor or rich, Black or White, or whether they are Christians or Muslims. The grief of a handicapped child who has been dismissed, rejected or offended is as profound in Norway as it is in Georgia.
What are we to do so that a person with a handicap, an “icon of Christ”, as John Paul II reminds us, might find a place in society and in the Church where they might fulfil their mission as a leaven of peace and unity?

John Paul II encourages us in his apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte to continue the mission of brotherly love towards the poor, the mission which has been entrusted to the Church. At the same time, the Pope calls today for a greater creative inventiveness, a new “imagination of mercy”. Not only are we to provide the poor with efficient and varied assistance, but also “ensure that in every Christian community the poor feel at home”.
An appeal to all Christian communities, starting from the family and the parish, but also to schools, movements, associations, and enterprises. All of them are called, in accordance with their vocation, to creativity in opening up to weak or handicapped persons and to service for those persons. “Love is infinitely creative”, tells us St. Vincent de Paul.

I am thinking primarily about the family, whose mission is to accept the small child, the most defenceless of all creatures, especially when it is afflicted with a handicap. The parents absolutely need to feel other’s support. They are so helpless when a serious impairment is diagnosed in the child who is still in the mother’s womb. They are under very strong pressure to give up this child, who is seen as an excessive burden, an unhappy life which will make all around it miserable. In France the abortion law makes it possible to kill a child throughout the entire pregnancy. 96 % of children with Down’s syndrome will not see the light of day. This might be in fact the gravest drama of our society. “The only attitude that can be taken into account, says the Pope, is the absolute solidarity with the woman expecting a baby. She cannot be left alone …”
This solidarity must continue at all stages of life and in all structures of society and the Church.
This concerns first of all, quite obviously, parishes. “Take your place at the heart of the Church”, John Paul II told us during his meeting with Faith and Light. This does not always happen. Parishes frequently feel that to accept the afflicted and the poor is beyond their reach. A poll conducted some years ago in France among parish priests indicates that part of them do not know a single person with a handicap. On average, less than 1% of such persons was identified, while according to statistics they account for around 10% of the population. How can they be reached? How can we create accompanying teams for them that will drive those persons to all sorts of classes and drive them back home, how can we construct ramps for persons in wheelchairs, provide hearing aids to the deaf …
The best initiatives cannot result simply from an impulse of enthusiasm and magnanimity, or from a decision of will. It is not easy to accept the fragile, retarded, or handicapped person whose behaviour is cumbersome. This requires wisdom, prudence, and competence. And besides, as John Paul II advises us, “before we plan particular initiatives, we need to foster a community spirituality. It consists first of all in looking with our hearts into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity who live in us and whose light we should discern in the faces of our brothers around us”. This spirituality, necessary at the beginning of each project, is all the more necessary on a day-to-day basis, when we are overpowered by doubts, discouragement, and tiredness. Only the unity with God and the brothers whom He gives us, handicapped or not, protects us from the temptation of relying on structures and organisation to the detriment of life. What was born out of the inspiration of the Spirit has to grow in trust and openness.

“When you have a party, Jesus tells us, invite the poor, disabled, lame, and blind. And you will be happy”. Yes, if we accept a handicapped person to our hearts, families, communities, countries, to Europe, all over the world … we will be happy! When we accept one of those least brothers, we accept Jesus Himself.
I would like to conclude with the words of John Paul II: “Disabled persons can teach everyone what love that saves means. They can be the harbingers of a new world, in which strength, violence, and aggressiveness do not reign any longer, but which is governed by love”.

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