“We are each a miracle. We are the miracles that God made. We are precious.” These words first spoken by Ben Okri encapsulate the ethos of an almost 50-year-old Christian movement which celebrates the profound gifts of people with learning difficulties.
Faith and Light is an international Christian community movement bringing together people with a learning disability, their families, carers and friends. The communities meet regularly to pray, to share and to celebrate together. Friendships are formed and groups link to share outings and pilgrimages.
Fr Niall Ahern, national chaplain of Faith and Light, initially became involved in the movement because he felt compelled to engage with people who had special needs, a desire which was integral to his vocation.
Speaking about his role, the Co. Sligo priest says that he witnesses to God’s presence in his ministry which is “a source of great joy and an enormous challenge each day”, adding that Faith and Light allows for “a sharing of the Faith” as well as the “accompaniment of God”.
This is particularly evident at the regional level, says Fr Niall, where we “accompany each local community at monthly meetings, through prayer and social outings”.
As chaplain, there is a relationship of equality among the group, Fr Niall says, which shares in the “mutual support of one another”.
During these monthly gatherings, bonds of friendship are woven between parents who can discover supportive friends that can help them to recognise the particular gift their child has to offer them, their family, friends, society and finally the whole Church. Through these bonds, members can grow humanly and spiritually, and so find new meaning in their life, whether they be parents, friends, or persons with an intellectual disability.
Most important for the Faith and Light movement is that the common perceptions of children with disabilities, including the parents’ own perception, changes, and in this way, those who are frequently marginalised in society can reveal their voice, service and gifts.
For Fr Niall, the Irish phrase for a child with learning difficulties, ‘duine le Dia’, which means ‘child of God’, perfectly encapsulates the divine worth of these children.
“We are blessed in ways beyond our imagining to be so confirmed in our cherishing of each ‘Duine le Dia’ in our midst,” he says.
The movement was inspired by two little boys with severe learning difficulties, Loïc and Thaddée. Their parents, Camille and Gérard wanted the family to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, but there was no room on the diocesan pilgrimage, and the parents were told that the boys were “too handicapped”, “would not be able to understand” and “would upset everybody”. Still determined, the family decided to pursue the pilgrimage themselves, but were treated in an obstinate manner, by both the hotel staff who would only serve them their meals in their room, and people in the streets and grottos who would say, “Children like that should be kept at home”.
Motivated by Jean Vanier, who started the first L’Arche community in 1964, after discovering that pilgrimages help men and women grow in relationship with the Lord and each other, Marie-Hélène Mathieu along with the help of friends and Bishop of Beauvais, Msgr Demazières began the first meeting of what was to be known as Faith and Light in 1968.
Three years later, in 1971 following steadfast preparation, 12,000 people attended the Faith and Light pilgrimage from 15 different countries, 4,000 of whom had learning difficulties. Moving gradually from fear, the people of Lourdes embraced the group, and huge crowds sang ‘Alleluia’ from morning until night. Towards the end of the pilgrimage Jean Vanier offered some words of encouragement to the zealous crowds: “Do whatever the Holy Spirit inspires you, to create loving communities around people with learning difficulties.”
Since then, a number of international pilgrimages have taken place, like in 1991, where the ecumenical vision of the movement was deepened by a Unity pilgrimage in which Christians of different denominations came to Lourdes from 63 countries to pray: “Father make us one that the world may believe.”
Last year, Faith and Light celebrated its 45th anniversary, and recently Fr Niall accompanied an Irish group to Lourdes in celebration of its longstanding impact as well as to pray and grow together. “I connected with them all,” says Fr Niall, adding that, “by acknowledging our shared weakness and vulnerability it can bring us closer to God.”
Fr Niall also recognised that over the last few decades, Irish society has become more accustomed to and embracive of people with intellectual disabilities.
“We have grown enormously in appreciating special needs people as part of our community,” he says, continuing, “there is a rich awareness of their sacred place in society and we must continue to show their beauty and their presence from God.”
Despite this more welcoming attitude in our society, Fr Niall still thinks that God and faith are foundational in understanding the true worth and meaning of every human being.
“At a time when the sacredness of life is so much at the forefront of our minds in Ireland, it is imperative”, he says, “that we rejoice in the presence of one another, and return to our covenant of origin in reaffirming the uniqueness of our love of God.”
Faith and Light continues to grow throughout the world, in 78 countries across five continents, spreading its message of hope.