by Abraham M. de la Torre
WEBSTER DEFINES FAMILY as “a group of people related to each other;” a person’s children;” and “a group of related people including people who lived in the past” while community is “a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town or neighborhood);” “a group of people who have the same interest, religion, race, etc.;” and “a group of nations.”
Article 149 of the New Family Code offers that “the family, being the foundation of the nation, is a basic social institution which public policy cherishes and protects. Consequently, family relations are governed by law and no custom, practice or agreement destructive of the family shall be recognized or given effect.”
Despite that public policy protection, no family is perfect. This could not be overemphasized because precluded by the fall of Adam and Eve and Cain’s killing of Abel. But God is perfect. He may have banished them out of paradise, because man is destined to return to it along with the Second Coming, as long as he has carried his own cross to resurrection, but His punishment is not without reward. From the First Family emerged communities, proof that civilization is not limited to a single cell, but replicates to multiple kawans, to fulfill the basic ecclesial mandate of the church. Like what God promised Abraham that “he will have as many descendants as the stars in the sky.”
And yet, even from the communities descended from Adam to Noah, the Lord saw how wicked everyone on earth was and how evil their thoughts were all the time. He was so filled with regret that He said, “I will wipe out these people I have created…” But He was pleased with Noah. Whose family and the animals with them were saved from the flood and were promised never again will all living beings be destroyed by it. The rainbow sealed that covenant.
And then the Lord sent the angel Gabriel to an old priest Zechariah whose wife, Elizabeth, was chosen to bear a son in her old age. In her sixth month or pregnancy, the Lord sent Gabriel to Nazareth to proclaim to Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, that she will be the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, whose kingdom will never end.
Mary’s immaculate conception by her mother Anne was repeated in her. An angel of the Lord was again responsible for her husband Joseph’s reconsideration of his plan to break their engagement so as not to disgrace her (not by him) pregnancy.
In PREX (Parish Renewal Experience) seminars, participants are welcomed and bade goodbye to by the all-time favorite “Welcome to the Family.” There is another song, “Family of God,” which is not only sung but also danced to, the dance (L.A. Walk) assuming a “theme” nature because of its popularity in choreography and musicality from seminar day one to graduation to reunion. If the welcome song breaks the ice and puts the participants at ease, the song-and-dance number binds the candidates with the service staff, singing and dancing in filial solidarity.
There is another song, “Community,” which enumerates the self, the other, us, love and Christ as the components with which we build communities. The action song captures the essence of PREX in more ways than “family” hymns do because it is encompassing and not confined to a nucleus.
It is a fact that, no matter the intense desire of the graduates to recruit their family members to the next seminar and the ones succeeding it, only a few succeed, many are frustrated. Fortunately, the frustration is not to fret over. The community is equally welcoming and, where saturation has reached its peak in the host parish, the next practical step is to reach out to neighbors and sustain the evangelization efforts of the church.
Love is a given in families. This is the perfect tie that binds. No matter the imperfections, a family stays together. Until children grow up and marry and have children of their own which creates a component – reunion – that keeps the tie sustained, albeit periodically.
While there is no perfect family, the societal unit has a heart which functions to shape its members into caring serving and loving parts of a whole. Such that when the time comes for the member to go out of his shell and join the world outside it, he is equipped to interact with people vaguely eligible to be deemed his relations. Yet families, because of their tendency to be confined to their biological ties, even if they are warm and welcoming to non-relatives and outsiders, do not hold long-term relationships with communities at large save for a few select friends time has forged unto them. Friends who, like family extensions, they have found peace and security with, until some sort of inevitable friction casts them apart.
Arko ng Pilipinas, Inc. (see April 12 issue) has the Punla community which runs two homes for mentally challenged kiddults. Their sense of community was put to fore last Good Friday in a moving reenactment of the Way of the Cross. The venue was their front yard. The stations were posted in different areas of the compound indicated by drawings of the kiddults themselves. A big cross was carried from one station to another. The readers were the house leaders paired off with a core member. Most of the readings and the reflections were done by the house leaders and guest seminarians. Except for Station No. 1, which Social Worker Ate Yenyen and Lala did. The house leaders and some of the kiddults obviously understood Lala where some did not. But whatever it was that Lala said, Ate Betty knew it came from the heart and was relevant. Lala was crying as she gave her reflection. Who does not understand the universality of tears. While the others did not cry along with her, they were in communion with the core member. Which underscored the message of the Via Crucis. Where Christ walked the Via Dolorosa by His lonesome, with only Simon of Cyrene lifting a hand to carry His cross, we are now more than a family to Jesus, sharing His passion with all the sacredness and sincerity we could offer to ease our Savior’s suffering.
In Webster’s definition, the Punla community hardly qualifies to be a family. The core members are not related to one another nor are the house leaders. They were brought together by Jean Vanier’s aim “to constitute a family in which handicapped people can find security and peace in which to grow.”
Vanier has written that “l’Arche is the French word for both ark and arch. The Ark is the first covenant between God and humanity even before the birth of the Jewish people. So it’s the whole vision of the boat where we welcome people who are in pain. It’s the place where we are saved. It’s the place of the covenant, and that’s very important to us. Also Mary, who carried the savior in her womb, has been referred to by the fathers of the church as the “Ark of the Covenant.” There is also the idea of the arch as a bridge, the bridge between two worlds.” It is worth remembering here the rainbow which sealed the covenant.
Vanier did not want in family nor was he impoverished. And he was hardly equipped for life with handicapped people. He was born on September 10, 1928, the fourth of five children of Pauline Archer Vanier and Georges Philias Varnier, 19th Governor-General of Canada. He became a young officer at the navy and, because of his 6-foot-four-inch frame, excelled in tennis and football. He left the navy because he felt his place in the world was somewhere else. He gravitated towards French Dominican priest Pere Thomas Philippe, his mother’s spiritual director (they were practicing Roman Catholics) at whose feet he would “receive the gift of prayer.” He and Pere Thomas would discover together at l’Arche the particular wound of a person with a handicap stemming from the “broken communion” between mother and child.
This discovery was bolstered by what overwhelmed him when he visited different centers for people with a mental handicap. In one asylum in Paris, some 80 mentally handicapped men lived together in two dormitories and a chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar. Solid concrete walls surrounded buildings constructed of cement blocks. The occupants had no work. They went around in circles all day long. From 2 to 4 pm, there was an obligatory siesta and then a walk. One man, Dany, had lived all his life in a collar and spat at anyone who approached him.
In contrast, Arko is a house in the real sense of the word. Its gates are not locked. The kiddults and the house leaders housed in it live in harmony, like a family would. They pray, eat, exercise and work together. At least two of the kiddults, Lala and Rhea, have been to France accompanied by a house leader. Except for Jordan and Mon-Mon, who cannot do things independently, all core members function in rhythm with their house leaders.
Now 87, Vanier can no longer cope with the rigors of travel, if only to visit the growth of the seeds he has sown. He does not worry, however, for he receives reports of the well-being of the fammunities he has fostered. Fammunities that evolved because, although raptured by the broken communion between and among families, adopted by communities with heart.
As these fammunities thrive, so do the “assisted” and their “assistants” who were prepared not to turn away from, but who sought instead to share their lives with, them. Years of “living together” with mentally handicapped people, with those afflicted with a very particular form of poverty, have served to bring home the fact that God has chosen the weak, the “crazy” and the despised of our world to confound the strong, the clever and the respected.”
To repeat, PREX’s song “Community” underscores that to build communities, the self is nothing without the other, us, love and Christ.
*The inspiration for “Fammunity” is the book “Jean Vanier & L’Arche: A Commujnion of Love” by Kathryn Spink, published by Crossroad Publication