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... From the Goodnews archives, September/October 2004


Prophet of Unity

Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, one of the biggest lay movements in the Church, came to London in June this year for a ten day visit. Kristina Cooper reflects on her message.


Chiara LubichIn 1998 at the famous Pentecost meeting in St Peter's Square, the Pope called the lay movements and ecclesial communities to a new ecclesial maturity, and asked them instead of concentrating on their own affairs to work with each other more and to bring their gifts to the local church. In the intervening years there have been growing signs that this is beginning to happen, particularly through the meetings organised by the Focolare movement and the Charismatic Renewal, in bringing representatives from these different communities and movements together.

The gifts of the individual movements also seem to be getting more recognition from the Church too. Several of the events that Chiara spoke at during her London visit attracted senior Church leaders including Cardinal Cormac Murphy 0'Connor, as well as a whole host of MPs who came to listen to her when she spoke at the Houses of Parliament. It is always interesting to go events organised by other groups and I went to several during her visit.

I found Focolare spirituality is very different from that of Charismatic gatherings. For a start there is never any communal prayer, community praise and worship or kergymatic preaching. focolare spirituality is based on the belief that when people gather together in the love of Christ, Jesus is there in the midst, through the love they show to each other. Thus the emphasis is very much on people's behaviour to each other, and putting the other first, whether it is in the queue for the loos, or listening to others and making the awkward stranger feel welcome. Rather than quoting from the bible, speakers tend to quote the wisdom of Chiara. Because this, although rooted in the gospel, tends to concentrate on the practical living out of Christianity it finds easy echoes in the golden rule of mutual love which is found in many of the world religions. This means that most people of good will can agree and be inspired by the sentiments expressed. The gatherings are further enriched by drama sketches and songs and short sharings by Focolare people, as they explain how they have tried to put mutual love into practice. At one of the events I was at these included, for example, very varied and inspiring stories which ranged from a young Rwandan refugee girl who, spurred on by her own suffering, was now reaching out in love to other refugees and trying to support them, while a middle class mum shared how she and her children coped when her husband left her and how her forgiveness of him had brought about a transformation in the difficult relationship she had had with her parents in law.

"Love in action"

For someone used to the powerful prayer, praise and explicit gospel preaching at Charismatic gatherings, the Focolare approach can seem a bit disorientating. I saw how it comes into its own, however, when the gathering includes unbelievers or those of other religious faiths. Instead of feeling outsiders unable to share Christian theological beliefs, everyone can feel at one in the presence of so much good will and enthusiasm for love in action. At the meeting in Westminster Central Hall, among the participants for example were leaders from the Moslem and Sikh communities who were enchanted by Chiara's words and the feeling of transcendent love that was palpable in the auditorium.

One woman who is leader of the Swadhyaya movement, a huge spiritual Hindu renewal network, in fact was so impressed with Chiara when she met her, that she has adopted her as her spiritual mother and had come to England expressly to learn more from her about Focolare spirituality. Chiara has had a similar affect on other religious leaders and was invited a couple of years ago by the leader of the Black Muslim Alliance in the United States to address his people at their main mosque. He was so taken by her message of unity that he then went on to restore his relationship with Louis Farrakon, the extreme black Moslem leader who had broken away from the alliance previously but who is now back in the fold.

"Proclamation with respect"

The key to the Focolare way of dialoguing with others - whether they are Christians from other denominations, other Catholic movements or people from other faiths - is to hold back their own opinions and views and beliefs, so as to more completely listen to the other and in doing so find a point of unity so a relationship can be established. "If we are motivated by this kind of love, the other person will be able to express him or herself because they feel accepted, " says Chiara, "So then we become acquainted with their faith, their culture, their terminology. We enter their world, we become inculturated in some way in them and we are enriched". As a result of this the ground is prepared for a sharing of the gospel. "Our complete openness and acceptance then predisposes the other person to listen to us," she says. This "proclamation with respect" as she calls it can cause seeds of the Word to become alive in the other and help them to develop more of the fullness of the truth while retaining their own cultural and religious identity.

"Unity one of the signs of the times"

Chiara sees the call to the unity as one of the "signs of the times" and something that the Holy Spirit is bringing about on all kinds of levels, both spiritual and political. She points at the growing number of countries coming together in the European Union and the work of the United Nations on a political level and the growing number of interfaith dialogues. She sees the role of religion as very important in the world, particularly today with the growth of terrorism and fanaticism and war. "The dialogue, especially among the faithful of different religions, is more than ever indispensable today if we want to avoid the great evils threatening our societies," she comments.
Chiara herself is very much an embodiment of the charism she speaks about and I was struck by her optimism and sense of hope about the world. Not for her the pessimism of most thinking social commentators when they reflect on the situation of the world. Like the Pope she does not seem to fear for the planet but has complete confidence in God to rescue us. She sees, moreover, the ecclesial communities and movements - the charismatic dimension of the church - as part of God's response to this situation. At her talk at St Mary's, Strawberry Hill, she commented, "the Holy Spirit is never sparing in giving the Church, from time to time, spiritualities, for which the Church feels a special need. They are almost like medicines, at times, for the evils of individual eras or new thrusts to live the Gospel with greater fullness." And she has seen God do wonderful things through her and the movement over the last 60 years since she committed her life in a radical way to God's service. Today Focolare is in 182 countries round the world with an estimated membership of about 3.5 million people. This spirituality of unity and belief in God's love and providence in every day life has led to all kinds of initiatives in the world of arts and the media, politics and economics, involving people of many religious backgrounds and faiths as well as those of no religious faith.

"Lay movements medicine for the evils of our times"

She reminded listeners at the Central Hall, that despite all the threats to world peace due to terrorism, war, fanaticism, racism and greed, we should not fear. "A great saint and doctor of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, found himself in a situation which, in some way, was similar to ours. Faced with the fall of the Roman Empire under the pressure of peoples migrating from the north and the east, he had the grace and foresight to help Christians understand that the upheaval taking place in society, which he and his contemporaries were witness to, was not the end of their world, but the birth of a new society. His was a vision that came from the faith and conviction that God is not absent from history. God's love is such that it directs everything to the good. St Paul himself said this; "We know that all things work for good for those who love God." (Rom 8.28) And now it seems to me that this same faith must sustain and guide us in our present day situation."

"God is the only Ideal that never dies"

Chiara's is not an empty optimism but one grounded in faith and experience. Focolare itself was born in very difficult circumstances amid bombs falling on Chiara's home town of Trent in Italy during the second world war. Remembering those early days she said, "Everything was collapsing, yet in the hearts of us young focolarine, a unique truth was appearing with an intensity we had never known before. God is the only Ideal that never dies. God who was showing himself to us for what He is. Love. And precisely in that extreme of hatred and division, God who is Love suggested to us that in order to love him we needed to love one another and to bring this love to everyone." They put this into practice in very practical ways and the name Focolare meaning "hearth" comes from the nickname that was given to the fledgling group by the townspeople because of the love and welcome they showed to everyone in need.

In Charismatic Renewal the emphasis is very much on proclamation, praise of God and ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit. This can have incredible power to bring people to conversion if they are open. But this approach of its nature can have no middle ground and if people aren't open, it becomes difficult to have relationship, whereas no one can argue with love expressed in service.

It is always useful to step outside your usual circle because you can get new insights and perspectives on your own situation. It made me reflect too that in the Charismatic Renewal although we might be good at hearing the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures and the Church, the Focolare approach is much more at home than we are at coping with the working of the Holy Spirit in the world and the way he works in individuals from other religions too. As our society in Britain becomes more and more secularised and multi-faith we need to find new ways of sharing the gospel and building bridges with people who don't share our Christian faith and in this there are things we can leam from Focolare. Our allies in the fight against secularism, consumerism and decadence might be ones that we hadn't considered before.