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Marie-Helen Mathieu: A Life Devoted to the Intellectually Disabled

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The inspiring story of the founder of Faith and Light

Forty-five years ago, a family with two severely disabled sons could not find a group willing to let them join in a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Undaunted, the parents of Thaddee and Loic decided to go themselves, but the only hotel that would take them, insisted they only eat in their rooms so as to not disturb the other patrons. Several staff and guest remarked that the trip would not mean anything to the two boys; that the whole endeavor was a waste.

Hearing the story, Marie-Helene Mathieu (already a special educator by profession), said to herself, “This cannot be. We must do something to help.” And she reached out to Jean Vanier, the man who helped form “L’Arche” communities for the disabled.

That initial rejection of a family seeking the consolation and graces of prayer and pilgrimage, became the corner stone of “Faith and Light.” Today the organization boasts over 1,500 communities in 80 countries, spanning every continent. The purpose of these communities is rooted in the Gospel, in the beatitudes, and in the reminder from Jesus himself, “Everything that you do to one of these little ones, you do it to me.”

While care of the intellectually and physically disabled has progressed since that story, autonomy and independence remains the educational and training goal for people with special needs; there is little-to-no focus on the needs of the severely disabled to enjoy friendships that move beyond what is “need-based.” Marie-Helene Mathieu and Jean Vanier understood that the people being served — by social services, the school system, even by parents and the local community — needed “the happiness of being able to contribute,” in order to be seen as fully human. They had to be able to give as well as to receive.

Inspired by that insight, “Faith and Light” would focus on three main ideas:

  • Helping persons with disabilities discover they were specially loved by God, and capable of even true holiness.
  • Responding to the suffering of parents, helping them discover the hidden beauty of their children and meaning in their suffering.
  • Demonstrating the belief of the Church in the dignity of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Speaking in the packed room of a Washington, D.C. retreat house — with some attendees having flown from distant parts of the United States to hear her — Marie-Helene Mathieu told the audience, “Faith and Light is a gift from God given to us in Lourdes. He has chosen to confound the wise, and has given this gift to us at a very specific time in history, when things are progressing rapidly against people with disabilities, and when life itself is seriously compromised.”

Mathieu singled out those with Trisomy 21, noting that in North America and much of Europe, the prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome has resulted in a nearly 90% abortion rate of those children. “We are many parts, one body of Christ,” she said, and “these people are perceived as less valuable by some. On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.”

“People with intellectual disabilities have a capacity to open up and attract the heart of each person (this is part of their mystery).” Those rejected by society because of their apparent uselessness, are in reality, a presence of God — cornerstones. These are the poorest of the poor, the meek, the humble.  In their great need for comfort, for community, for basic connection, they provide the rest of us, (distracted and busy with worldly concerns), with the opportunity to merely serve. “The human family can only find peace if we all turn ourselves toward the weakest to recognize them and lift them up.”

Understanding that the communities of Faith and Light should not have to rely upon an oral history of its origins, passing it around, “like the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert,” Mathieu spent five years working to put the story down on paper, laboring in her Paris office. “Every morning I would stare at the blank page. Some days it was joyful, other days I thought I would never succeed. I knew I had to continue. God just asks us to put in our two fishes and five loaves. He will do the multiplying.”

After her talk, Mathieu listened to hundreds of men, women and children, as they recounted their experiences within Faith and Light. Kneeling down to hug one young child with Down’s syndrome, she whispered to him, “God loves you just as you are.” The boy gave her a shy hug in return, and then ran to the table for some cake, but he kept coming back, for more hugs. Mathieu shared with his parents her dream that every parish will one day have a Faith and Light community, so that no one with disabilities feels cut off from a church that “should be their extended family, and part of what they consider home. People with disabilities should not suffer from the double handicap of having a condition which makes them different from the rest of society, and the rejection of that society because they are different, particularly not in Christ’s church. The story of Faith and Light is a story we continue to live. It’s in our hands.”

Today, Faith and Light boasts over 50,000 members, all committed to meeting at least once a month to celebrate life, play and feast and pray together. “Through such simple things, life is changed,” said Mathieu. The organization also continues to organize pilgrimages for the disabled and their families, and every ten years, the journey is to Lourdes, in thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother, for the gift of Faith and Light.

 

Sherry Antonetti is a former special educator and currently a freelance writer and mother of ten. She writes at Catholicmom.com and her blog, Chocolate For Your Brain. Email her at sherryantonettiwrites@yahoo.com.

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