This column appears in Negros Times, 13-14 October 2008
Both “Lala” and Queen Elizabeth II have have two birthdays, the real one and the official one. “Lala’s” official birthday is September 27 and she turned 29 last Saturday. Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday is celebrated in 53 Commonwealth countries, but not on the same date. Only the Falkland Island observes her official birthday on her real one, April 21. In the United Kingdom the Queen’s official birthday can be on the first, second or third Saturday in June. She turned 82 on her last birthday.
While there’s no confusion about the date of birth of Queen Elizabeth, there is about that of “Lala”. The young Princess Elizabeth was born in a palace in London. “Lala” was found shortly after birth in a trashcan in Cebu. Those who found her took her to the Asilo De La Milagrosa of the Daughters of Charity there. The Sisters noticed that the little girl had Down Syndrome and took her in and raised her. Since they didn’t know who her parents were they had to choose for her.
The Sisters chose “Vicente” as her family name, in honor of St. Vincent de Paul, and “Louilla” as her Christian name, in honor of St. Louise de Marillac. The two saints founded the Daughters of Charity in France in 1633. “Lala”, as all her friends know her, probably has something else in common with St. Louise. She was almost certainly born out of wedlock, as the saint was, and, like St. Louise, never knew her mother. I suspect that “Lala’s” mother, probably very young and unmarried, panicked – this possibly added to when she saw that her daughter wasn’t “normal” - and left her baby where someone could find her and take care of her.
I first met “Lala” in Cebu in 1992 at a Faith and Light celebration. We had just begun a community there, after a retreat given by the co-founder of the movement, Jean Vanier, a Canadian layman, in Holy Family Retreat House, Cebu City, in October 1991. During the retreat he gave a public talk in the auditorium of St. Theresa’s College, as I recall, and a group of interested people got together after that. The gathering at which “Lala” was present included members of Faith and Light from Manila who had come to tell us more about the movement.
I could see immediately that “Lala” had a special gift – she’s a natural “ice-breaker”. Though she seldom says anything, she lights up any group into which she comes, unless she’s in a bad mood, which happens from time to time.
“Lala” became a member of our Faith and Light community in Cebu but I lost contact with her when I went to Lianga, Surigao del Sur, in 1993 as parish priest and to Manila the following year to become vocation director of the Columbans. But one day when I visited the L’Arche community in Cainta, Rizal, known as “Ang Arko”, I was surprised to see “Lala” there. L’Arche, the French for “The Ark” as in Noah’s Ark, was founded by Jean Vanier, in 1964 when he invited two men with learning disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, who had been living in an institution, to join him in a small cottage he had bought and was renovating in the town of Trosly-Breuil, France. Jean had no intention of founding anything, but he realized very quickly that he had made a commitment to these two men. One of them, I forget which, chose to live independently some years later, something he could never have done had he stayed not met Jean. Out of these small beginnings has grown an international movement of about 130 residential communities where those with learning disabilities are enabled to live in a family-type situation and to develop their abilities to the greatest extent possible.
Jordan and Raymon, now young men, were welcomed by Ang Arko when they were very young. Both have physical as well as learning disabilities. The original house was in Manila but the community moved later to Cainta.
In Holy Week 2001, as I mentioned in my last column, I attended the international pilgrimage of Faith and Light to Lourdes as chaplain to the group from the Philippines. “Lala” was one of the twelve or so Filipinos.
The Easter Vigil was celebrated in the underground basilica. Some of the Old Testament Vigil readings were dramatized. During the account of creation when the words “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him” were read, a spotlight shone on a young man in a wheelchair. But what moved me most was when “Lala” was part of a group dramatizing the reading of the Exodus.
I simply marveled at the fact that a young woman who should never have been born, according to the “wisdom” of so many, left after birth among garbage, was on the other side of the world helping to proclaim the Word of God to thousands of people, many like herslelf, and doing so with the joy that permeates her soul.
Queen Elizabeth has been blessed by God with a long and healthy life, in which she continues to serve her people with dignity. Though she is among the richest people in the world, “Lala”, also with her two birthdays, enjoys even greater riches, because the words of Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, have been revealed in her life: “God has lifted up the lowly”.
There is no Faith and Light community yet in Bacolod. Anyone interested may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rafael Simi (left) and Jean Vanier (right). You can listen to an interview with Jean here. He turned 80 on 10 September.