By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
One of the most remarkable women in the Catholic church passed from the scene today. Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement, died at roughly 2:00 am on March 14 at her home in Rocca del Papa, outside Rome, at the age of 88.
Lubich had been treated for complications related to age at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, and then returned home for her final hours.
Founded by Lubich in 1943, today Focolare claims to reach 182 countries, “touching” 4.5 million people. Its primary emphasis is universal brotherhood, which prompts the focolarini, as members are known, to be especially involved in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. The watchword of the Focolare movement is “unity,” born from Lubich’s experience of the horrors of the Second World War while growing up in Trent, Italy.
(During the “Battle of the Brenner,” almost 7,000 Allied sorties were flown over the Trent region, dropping more than 10,000 tons of bombs. Lubich has described passing long hours with her early Focolare companions in Trent’s air raid shelters, dreaming of a more unified world.)
“The spirituality of unity,” Lubich said in her last interview just days ago, “has through the years revealed itself to be ever more universal. It’s shared in various ways not only by Catholics and Christians of other churches, but also by the followers of other religions and by people without any religious faith, all joined in the single objective of contributing to the creation of spaces of fraternity everywhere, in order to rebuild the unity of the human family.”
Three years ago, a book chronicling the Focolare movement was presented during a gala event at Rome’s Campidoglio, or City Hall. Walter Veltroni, the city’s mayor and currently the center-left candidate to become Italy’s Prime Minister, spoke in praise of Lubich and the Focolare movement.
“In Bosnia, one of the first things combatants did was to blow up the bridges,” Veltroni said. “They wanted to close people in on themselves.” The focolarini, Veltroni said, are instead builders of bridges. He called their way of life an “anticipated paradise,” and said that Rome is grateful.
Lubich, true to form, stressed that from her point of view, “the primary author” of Focolare’s progress “is God.”
Tributes to Lubich poured in today from across the Catholic world. Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, highlighted Lubich's importance as a lay woman who rose to global prominence in the church.
"Beyond our long and deep friendship," Riccardi said in a statement, "I'm convinced that Chiara's absence will be felt in the church. She was a lay person, a woman, someone from humble beginnings, who became an expert in the wisdom of the heart, and finally a grand old woman. She showed what a lay person can do in the church. She poured herself out for a dream, a great dream: unity among human beings, unity among peoples, unity with God."
In 2003, I interviewed Lubich during a congress held at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the hills outside Rome. The focolarini have a major center there in the old papal audience hall, given to them by Paul VI as a sign of encouragement for their commitment to unity.
Here’s a snippet of what I wrote then:
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I had the pleasure of meeting Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare movement, at an April 28-30 congress held at the movement’s conference center in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the hills outside Rome.
Lubich, 83, launched the Focolare (“hearth”) phenomenon in 1943 after the bombing of her hometown of Trent in Italy. Its goal is to promote unity and universal brotherhood, which has led the focolarini to be active in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues.
One of the reasons they are prized by John Paul is that they have never soft-pedaled their Catholic identity, and are known for tenacious loyalty to the pope and the Church.
Focolare is present in 182 nations, and claims two million members and sympathizers. There are three levels of affiliation. Consecrated members take vows of celibacy, live in Focolare communities, and turn over their earnings to the community. Married members turn over what they can afford. Affiliates have a looser connection. All told, there are 18 branches to the Focolare cluster of groups and associations. Several Vatican offices have focolarini on staff.
The topic of this congress was Mary and the rosary. In Church documents, Focolare’s formal name is the Opera di Maria, or the “Work of Mary,” so the movement has a special Marian interest. Lubich gave a much-anticipated talk explaining the role of Mary within the spirituality of Focolare. Mary is the “personification of scripture,” Lubich said, and Focolare is in a sense a “continuing presence” of Mary on earth.
In comments to the press afterwards, Lubich revealed that she had once asked John Paul II over lunch if he was comfortable with a woman being president of a major international Catholic movement (the Focolare constitution actually requires that the president be a woman). Magari! was the pope’s Italian response, roughly the equivalent of “Are you kidding?” He was content with the arrangement, Lubich said, because he believes in what Catholic theologian Hans von Balthasar described as a balance between the “Petrine” and “Marian” principles in the church, between the hierarchical and the charismatic.
I asked Lubich about the frequent complaint that Marian devotion, and especially the rosary, is “anti-ecumenical.” She responded that “we have to explain” these things to our non-Catholic conversation partners.
“It requires good judgment, and we have to be prudent,” she said. “In the Focolare movement we have 350 different Christian groups with us, and it’s a wonderful show of unity. We are called to respectfully explain what Catholics believe, but never to impose it,” she said.
Support for the focolarini was reflected in the fact that 28 bishops were in attendance at one point or another at Castel Gandolfo, including the former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, now the archbishop of Genoa. [Note: Bertone is today a cardinal and the Vatican’s Secretary of State.]