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Focolare’s founder Chiara Lubich lived for unity

Adherents of the Focolare Movement are mourning the death of the movement’s founder, Chiara Lubich, who died in Rome, March 14, 2008.
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Chiara Lubich, mystic, bestselling author and spiritual leader, based the international network on small communities whose members are devoted to the ideal of unity between all nations, religions and races. Under her leadership, Focolare spread to around 182 countries, and has 140,000 members and over 2 million adherents, including Christians of various denominations, as well as members of other faiths and different convictions.

Deeply influenced by the ravages of the Second World War, Focolare was one of the so-called ‘new Catholic movements’ that blossomed and reinvigorated the church during the pontificate of John Paul II and continued under Benedict XVI. At the news of Chiara’s death, Pope Benedict XVI immediately sent the movement a telegram of condolence praising her ‘constant commitment for communion in the church, for ecumenical dialogue and for brotherhood among people’.

Born in 1920 in the northern Italian city of Trento, Chiara Lubich was brought up with the traditional Catholic piety of her mother but was equally strongly influenced by her father’s socialist and anti-fascist views.

Chiara Lubich was a 24-year-old primary school teacher when she launched her movement with a group of young women, in her native Trento in 1944. Despite its homespun name—focolare means hearth—the fledgling organisation had a strong impact in its city of birth. Many of its innovations—a reassessment of the importance of the laity, a return to scripture, a joyful liturgy using popular tunes of the day, an emphasis on the key gospel message of love and unity—anticipated the direction that the Second Vatican Council would take 20 years later.

In the final years of the Second World War, Trento, still under German occupation, endured heavy Allied bombing. With death staring them in the face, Chiara and her companions felt the urgency of penetrating to the heart of the gospel. By candlelight in an air-raid shelter, they discovered the biblical phrase that was to be their inspiration for the next 60 years: ‘That all may be one’ (John 17:21). From then on unity, achieved through mutual love, became the catchphrase of the group.

For Chiara and her first companions, ‘That all may be one’ could mean nothing less than the unity of all humankind. It was this vision and single-mindedness that propelled the astonishing growth of the emerging community. By the end of the 1940s Focolare had spread throughout Italy; in the next decade it fanned out across Europe and by the end of the 1960s it had reached every continent.

The NZ connection

In New Zealand, in the late 1970s, Cardinal Delargey, who was aware of the movement, invited Chiara Lubich to establish a Focolare Centre in Wellington. When the first two focolarine arrived in 1981, they were welcomed by Cardinal Tom Williams who provided them with temporary accommodation. There are now two Focolare Centres in Wellington: in Johnsonville and Crofton Downs.

However, Chiara Lubich never saw her movement as purely religious. When she moved the Focolare headquarters to Rome in 1948, she visited the Italian parliament where she met Igino Giordani, a founding member of the Christian Democrat Party. Giordani, who had a lifelong fascination with St Catherine of Siena, saw in this young provincial woman a modern Catherine, whose ideas would influence not only the church but also the political and social fields. Then in his 50s, the veteran politician became Chiara’s most devoted follower and was regarded by her as a co-founder of the movement.

As early as the 1950s, Chiara enthusiastically took up the cause of ecumenism, then almost unthinkable in Catholic circles. Relations with German Lutherans began in 1959, while in the early 1960s the first contacts were established with Anglicans in the UK. The close personal rapport between Chiara and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople led to Chiara acting as something of an emissary between the Orthodox leader and Pope Paul VI.

Later she became involved in multi-faith dialogue and in 1994 was appointed an honorary president of the World Conference for Religion and Peace (WCRP). She was the first Christian and the first woman to preach in the Malcolm X Mosque in Harlem, New York, where in May 1997 she addressed 3,000 African-American Muslims. By special permission of the Vatican, Focolare was the first Catholic organisation to admit members of other Christian churches and other faiths to its communities.

In her late 80s Chiara’s activities, particularly outside the movement, increased and she received numerous civic awards and honorary degrees. To mark her 80th birthday in January 2000, in an extraordinary letter of homage, Pope John Paul II, who had made a practice of calling her personally each year on the feast of Saint Clare, hailed her as ‘a messenger of unity and mercy among many brothers and sisters in every corner of the world’.

Honoured many times

Chiara has received a number of awards and recognitions throughout her lifetime. To note a few, in 1977, she was awarded the Templeton Prize for Religion presented by the Duke of Edinburgh at the Guildhall in London; in 1996 the UNESCO Peace Education Prize; in 1998, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Chiara Lubich addressed a symposium entitled, ‘Toward a Unity of Nations and a Unity of Peoples’. In Strasbourg she received the European Prize for Human Rights awarded by the Council of Europe for her work ‘in defence of individual and social rights’.
On the vigil of Pentecost 1998, during the meeting of ecclesial movements and new communities with Pope John Paul II, Chiara Lubich described the essence of what the Focolare offers. ‘Holy Father, you identified love as the “inspiring spark” of all that is done under the name of Focolare, and it is really true. It is the driving force of our Movement. Being love and spreading love is our general aim. In fact, the Focolare Movement is called to bring an invasion of love into the world.’
A few years ago when asked in an interview to leave a last will and testament, Chiara answered: ‘….. I would leave Jesus in the midst to everyone. Love one another as Jesus has loved us. Be ready to die for one another. Be a family. That’s what I’d say. That’s what it’s all about.’
Based on an article from the Times of London, March 15, 2008.