The famous American Vaticanist John Allen Jr. once narrated: “Not long ago, I was invited to address a Catholic organization in the United States that was experiencing tensions with other sectors of the church. A couple of bishops also took part in the meeting. Well into the exchange, someone asked if I saw any concrete signs of hope. The answer was anticipated by one of the bishops.
He said: “If what we’re talking about is overcoming divisions, there’s a great resource to draw upon the Focolare, a Catholic movement whose spirituality is premised on unity. I was enthusiastic of the remark.”
“In my experience, I had observed that it is hard to “pick a fight with a focolarino. They tend to be open, ego-free, and just relentlessly nice. In a time of bitter divisions, Focolare is one of the few outfits with a track record of bringing people together.”
The lay movement includes members belonging to other Christian churches and even other religions. Their originality is marked also by the fact that their overall leader is and will always be a woman.
From the Chaos of War
In the Northern Italian city of Trent in 1943, in the climate of violence and hatred of the Second World War, the young elementary school teacher Chiara Lubich saw God’s love as the only antidote when civil life was crumbling around her. With Bible in hand, in the shelters during air raids, she felt deeply Jesus’ desire “that they all may be one.” A group sharing her vision joined in helping those in the shelters and in the poorest parts of town, and their numbers grew.
Chiara gave the name “Focolare” to the movement. The word Focolare is Italian for “hearth” or “family fireside.” It symbolizes the warmth of God’s love in action. While Focolare is the common designation given to this organization, its official name is “Work of Mary” and it was approved by Rome as an “International Association of the Faithful.”
In 1948, the journalist Igino Giordani, a member of Parliament and pioneer of ecumenism, joined the group, bringing his spirituality of social unity. Another co-founder was Fr. Pasquale Foresi who gave theological background to the movement.
Numbers increased in the yearly encounter of the Focolare and by 1955 this gathering took on the name “Mariapolis,” a model settlement for peace under Mother Mary’s patronage. In 1964 Loppiano, the first permanent Mariapolis, was built near Florence.
It has grown to include 900 people of worldwide origins and diverse occupations, married and single, priests and religious, who work and study together and strive to live in exemplary Christian charity. Each year an average of 40,000 visitors pass through Loppiano.
Twenty other such towns have sprung up worldwide. In these towns religious and cultural differences are respected, to exemplify Jesus’ dream: “Father, may they all be one, as you and I are one.”
The tenets of Chiara’s charism are two: the words of Jesus who said that when two or three are united in his name, He is in their midst. The second is the devotion to the crucified Christ in His cry: “My God, why have You abandoned Me?”
Following the spirituality of communion, the movement has branched out to address a variety of groups including families, youth, and different religions. Special projects have sprung up within the movement, such as the Abba school (Young People for a United World), Gen Verde and Gen Rosso (artistic and musical groups) and especially Economy of Communion (involving more than 800 companies) and 27 publishing houses.
The Focolare has around 150,000 hard core members in more than 180 countries. People more broadly involved in the movement are estimated at more than four million.
School of Saints
The extraordinary quality of Chiara’s charism is exemplified also by the number of would-be saints who are lining up in view of canonization by the authority of the Church. The leader is Chiara Badano, a young lady who died prematurely at the age of 19, who was declared blessed in 2010.
She is the first of an impressive little crowd of saintly Focolare members, comprising four “Venerables,” including the famous confessor of faith in the Vietnamese prison, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, 18 Servants of God, among them the founder Chiara Lubich, the co-founders Igino Giordani and Fr. Pasquale Foresi. An extraordinarily abundant harvest of saints that shows the truth of Jesus’ words: “From the fruits you will know the goodness of the tree.”