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The Origins of Couples for Christ

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The Origins of Couples for Christ
by the Ugnayan Multimedia Center
published as a CFC Supplement at the CBCP Monitor, March 3-16, 2008

In this issue, we begin a series on the history of Couples for Christ its origins, its development, the struggles and challenges it faced as it spread not just in the Philippines but worldwide, and its particular charism. This is an honest attempt to finally write the definitive history of CFC, and to leave to future generations a legacy of a true, fair and complete assessment of a community that began as a small group, became a movement and finally a Vatican-recognized international and private lay association of the faithful.

At an earlier time...

Charismatic is an umbrella term used to describe Christians who believe that the manifestations of gifts of the Holy Spirit seen in the first century Christian Church are available to contemporary Christians and may be experienced and practiced today.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal as it exists today is the outgrowth of a retreat held in February 1967 of several faculty members and students from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA. Many of the students experienced a movement of God's Spirit called being "baptized in the Holy Spirit." What happened quickly spread to graduate students and professors at the University of Notre Dame and others serving in campus ministry in Lansing, Michigan. The movement spread rapidly, so that, as of 2003, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal exists in over 230 countries world wide, touching over 119 million members according to David Barret, head of Global Evangelization Movement in Richmond, VA.

The movement was given a major endorsement by Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens, a leading liberal cardinal in the Catholic Church. Three popes have acknowledged the movement: Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI.

In March 1992, Pope John Paul II stated: "At this moment in the Church's history, the Charismatic Renewal can play a significant role in promoting the much-needed defense of Christian life in societies where secularism and materialism have weakened many people's ability to respond to the Spirit and to discern God's loving call. Your contribution to the re-evangelization of society will be made in the first place by personal witness to the indwelling Spirit and by showing forth His presence through works of holiness and solidarity."

The "FOUNDING"...

In the Philippines, the Ligaya ng Panginoon (LnP), founded in July 19, 1975 became the leading group in the charismatic renewal movement. It started as a simple prayer group held every Friday. Fr. Herb Schneider, SJ, who just arrived from Innsbruck, Austria, was invited to join them. By 1979, LnP was conducting two weekly charismatic prayer meetings one in Assumption Convent in San Lorenzo Village, Makati and another one in Christ the King Seminary in Quezon City. Around 800 people usually attended the Assumption prayer meeting every week while the other one had an average weekly attendance of 400. They were practically the biggest prayer groups in Metro Manila during that time. Women comprised about 80% of those who attended. The men stayed away from the prayer meetings, averse to the loud prayers and raising of arms in worship which characterized those meetings.

In one of his trips abroad, Fr. Herb, head of the coordinators of LnP was invited to attend a breakfast forum for men. The experience inspired him to form a similar one back in the Philippines. Together with some LnP businessmen, he started a breakfast meeting for businessmen which eventually led to what is known today as BCBP (Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals). Among those who attended the prayer groups were faculty members from the UST College of Engineering. In time, this led to the first campus based evangelization of students known today as the CYA (Christ's Youth in Action).

So in 1980, the coordinators of LnP led by Fr. Herb, directed one of the Ligaya coordinators, Vic Gutierrez, to design an outreach program that could attract married couples toward a renewed Catholic life. They realized that to effectively renew society, a conversion of both spouses, and consequently families, to Christ was necessary.

Vic Gutierrez formed a team and, after much prayer and discernment, they decided to hold home-based Life in the Spirit Seminars (LSS). They wanted to try a new evangelization method one that could draw the men in. They invited married couples to a social evening in the home of Eli and Ophie Concepcion in Quezon City. Vic told his team: "Our strategy is to introduce these couples to a personal relationship with Jesus in a social setting. We will invite them to a social time, not to a prayer meeting. There, we will share with them God's invitation to a renewed life with Him."

His team arranged the living room to exude a friendly, relaxing atmosphere. They engaged the invited couples in small groups, discussing the challenges and joys of raising a family in the modern world. Light snacks and drinks were served. Before the evening ended, Vic spoke to them about the strong need to support each other in caring for their families and for Divine Guidance in their role as parents. He closed the evening by inviting the couples to come again the next week and start meeting regularly. He said a quick prayer and asked someone to lead in a group singing.

In an interview with Vic Gutierrez, he recalls: "In the succeeding weeks, we held discussions and sharings following the topics of the LSS. The ambiance in the host home was so unlike the atmosphere of a charismatic prayer meeting. In those days, charismatics were often regarded as oddballs. So, we didn't raise our hands in worship. We didn't close our eyes as we prayed. No loud clapping of hands nor of booming 'praise the Lord' clichés. The invited couples, including the husbands, were more relaxed and, thus, more open to listen. We succeeded in bringing them through seven weeks of the LSS. By November 1980, all six couples who finished this LSS joined the community."

Soon, another LSS was held, and 16 couples came. These couples and an equal number of service team members could not fit in the living room of the Concepcions. So, the team sent the other half to the nearby house of Poy and Elvie Estrellado. They all completed the LSS but unlike the previous group of six couples, they could not become part of LnP because the coordinators decided to postpone the community weekend retreat which serves as the entry point for LnP membership.

Vic and his team thought of offering a course that would sustain the interest of these 16 couples and guide them toward Christian maturity while they were waiting to come into the Ligaya. They adapted a program used by The Word of God, a pioneer covenant community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They modified the talks to suit the needs of the couples and added inputs of interest to the families. This became the first Christian Life Program (CLP).

But soon, Vic and his wife, Agnes, felt in their hearts that God had a greater plan. They sensed that God wanted the 16 couples to be the seed for a new movement for the renewal of families. Consulting with their assistant couple, Ed and Flory Montalvan and the rest of the team, they held the first CLP. Before the course ended, they had a name for the group Couples for Christ.

Vic recalls: "In May 1981, I was coming home from a meeting in Rome of the first Council of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services (earlier known as ICO) of which I was a member. I decided to pass by Jerusalem to pray for God's direction in this new ministry. As I visited and prayed in the holy shrines, I felt in my heart that God was urging us to continue with what we had planned to do to establish Couples for Christ. When I got home, I wrote the covenant of the CFC, which we would use at the closing of the CLP."

Thus in June 1981, Vic and Agnes and Ed and Flory led the 16 couples in making their covenant to the Couples for Christ a family life outreach of Ligaya ng Panginoon community. These are the 16 couples:

  1. Danny and Tess Aviado
  2. Romy and Irene Arguelles
  3. Chito and Shirley Borja
  4. Tito and Tuding Collantes
  5. Pete and Fely Cambel
  6. Tony and Cora Espiritu
  7. Manny and Ditas Garcia
  8. Danny and Eggie de Guzman
  9. Larry and Brenda de Guzman
  10. Frank and Gerry Padilla
  11. Monching and Baby Ramirez
  12. Rey and Diday Saavedra
  13. Boy and Elma Santillan
  14. Jimmy and Malou Tan
  15. Jun and Auring Tan
  16. Jojo and Hedy Villegas

The "MOVEMENT"...

The 16 couples were divided into four cell groups called households where they would be formed in the life and spirituality of the new movement, Couples for Christ. Vic and Agnes trained four couples from the Ligaya to serve as the first household heads: Manny and Nida Sandoval, Manny and Josie Gaddi, Manny and Zeny Sy, Henry and Baby Hizon. Ed and Flory assisted Vic and Agnes until they were replaced by Ely and Nena Lademora.

The Christian Life Program (CLP) became the Christian initiation course of CFC. The strategy of introducing people to a renewed personal relationship with Jesus in a relaxed and friendly social setting proved to be very effective. The CLPs were held in the living rooms of the homes of CFC members. The warmth of personal relationships was a key factor in this type of evangelization. Personal evangelization was encouraged. As charismatic renewal gained wider acceptance, CLPs became bolder in their charismatic expression. Evangelization was brisk and, by the end of 1981, CFC had a total of 34 couples. Two years later, the CFC had grown to 160 couples.

Other groups involved in family apostolate began to take notice of the enthusiasm and commitment of the Couples for Christ. Fr. Ruben Tanseco, SJ, was particularly keen on the follow-up program which was part of the pastoral formation tract. He then invited CFC to tie up with Marriage Encounter. Couples for Christ started to conduct CLPs for their ME couples. However it was not pursued as other concerns later surfaced. In the meantime, CFC was invited by Fr. Mark Lesage of Las Piñas and Msgr. Mercado of United Parañaque to introduce CFC to their parish. Two CLP teams were formed to serve in these parishes. Thirty couples in Las Piñas and 13 couples in United Parañaque were the graduates of the first parish-based CLP.

"CHARTING" a new course...

With the growth of CFC came many challenges. The rapid spread of the movement demanded that a clearly shared vision. In 1983, Vic formed and trained a pastoral team to help him lead and manage the growing movement. The team was composed of Ely Lademora, Raul Sarceda, Frank Padilla, Bobby Pilar, Popoy del Rosario, Pio Acampado, Danny Aviado and Jojo Villegas. Danny Aviado was later replaced by Carlos Salinas when Danny migrated to the US. Vic brought this team to a weekend planning session. There he wrote CFC's Statement of Mission while Raul Sarceda did the Statement of Philosophy.

By this time, CFC was beginning to receive many requests from all over the country to help in establishing family life apostolates. To address this need, Vic Gutierrez discussed with the pastoral team the idea of developing what he termed "exportable packages"—a start up kit that would allow other provincial groups to establish new chapters with minimum help from CFC Manila.

Providentially, Ligaya member Raul Sarceda had resigned from his job to make himself more available to the work of Ligaya and its outreaches. Vic appointed him the first Executive Director of CFC and immediately put him to the task of developing the manuals of the CFC programs: CLP Manual, Household Heads Manual, the Marriage Enrichment Manual and the other teaching courses of CFC. These manuals, together with audio teaching tapes, comprised the "exportable packages". A number of overseas CFC chapters tremendously benefited from these materials. Considering CFC's limited resources, and that its overseas offices were set up and operated without much assistance from CFC leaders in Manila, these materials played a tremendous in helping to bring CFC's vision and mission.

Attention at this point was focused on developing and training leaders and imbuing them with the vision of CFC. A number of dedicated and committed leaders—among them, Frank Padilla who was trained and appointed by Vic Gutierrez to replace Raul Sarceda as Executive Director when the latter moved his family to Malaybalay, Bukidnon in 1985 to help build a covenant community.

In 1983, upon the advice of the Ligaya Body of Coordinators, CFC was registered as a non-stock, non-profit corporation at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under the name: Couples for Christ Foundation Inc. The incorporators and members of the first Board of Trustees were:

  1. Victorino B. Gutierez
  2. Raul G. Sarceda
  3. Francisco A. Padilla
  4. Francisco F. del Rosario
  5. Pio S. Acampado
  6. Jose T. Villegas
  7. Roberto Pilar
  8. Carlos C. Salinas
  9. Antonio O. Vasquez
  10. Victor U. Gamboa

Under Vic's leadership, CFC spread out to other provinces and eventually to other countries. The succeeding leadership continued with as much passion in spreading the mission of CFC. In his exhortation at the CFC 9th anniversary, Vic challenged the CFC community: "Let us bring whoever we can into a personal relationship with Jesus just as we ourselves have experienced it. Let us populate this nation with people who shall live according to this new morality the life of God. It is our duty to God. It is our duty to our nation. It is our duty to ourselves and to our children the future generation."

The members heeded Vic's call. By 1992, CFC had grown. The Spirit was leading the community to greater heights. It would not be long before the community would feel the Spirit's stirrings to include their children in their new-found life in the Lord.

It has been more than 26 years since that first group of Christians was introduced to Christ in a social setting. Vic continues to be amazed at how CFC has grown. He now says: "...Since 1981, Couples for Christ has grown beyond our wildest imagination. Today, I watch from the sidelines, amazed at what God has done and continues to do through Couples for Christ. I am grateful for the privilege of having been there in its beginnings."

(In the next issue: The Split of 1993)

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