Monday, March 17, 2008

Chiara Lubich

There have been many tributes to Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement, who died on March 14, 2008, aged 88. Her death has been widely reported internationally.

John Paul II hailed her as “a great Catholic”. He also hailed her as “a messenger of unity and mercy among many brothers and sisters in every corner of the world”.

Under her leadership, Focolare spread to more than 180 countries, and had 140,000 members as well as 2.1 million affiliates, including Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox believers as well as members of other faiths.

The obituary in The Times is a specially fine one and worth quoting in full as a full and balanced assessment of her life and work.

"Chiara Lubich, mystic, bestselling author and spiritual leader, was the founder and president of the Focolare movement, an international network modelled on small communities whose members, whether married or single, were devoted to the ideal of unity between all nations, religions and races. Under her leadership, Focolare spread to more than 180 countries, and had 140,000 members as well as 2.1 million affiliates, including Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox believers as well as members of other faiths.

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. But the road to official recognition had been long and, at times, hard.

Born in 1920 in the northern Italian city of Trento, Lubich was baptised Silvia but changed it to Chiara (Clare) on joining the Franciscan Third Order in her teens. She 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, some of them former pupils, in her native Trento in 1944. Despite its homespun name - focolare means hearth - the fledgeling organisation had a revolutionary impact on the stagnating Catholicism of its time. 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, Lubich and her disciples felt the urgency of penetrating to the heart of the Christian message by closely studying the gospels. By candle-light in a makeshift 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 xvii, 21). Unity, achieved through mutual love, became the watchword of the group from that day on. Not surprisingly, the practice of reading the New Testament drew accusations of Protestantism and the predilection for the word “unity” aroused suspicions of communism.

Early followers were amazed that the movement could achieve unity between members from Trento and the nearby city of Bolzano: this was an improbable achievement in a country famous for its campanilismo (local chauvinism). But already Lubich had set her sights on a far more ambitious goal. For her, “That all may be one” could mean nothing less than the unity of all mankind. It was this vision and single-mindedness that propelled the astonishing growth of the nascent 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. But Lubich never saw her movement as of a purely religious nature. As early as 1948, when she moved the Focolare headquarters to Rome, 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 20th-century Catherine, whose ideas would influence not only the Church but also the political and social fields. Then in his fifties, the veteran politician became Lubich's most devoted follower and was regarded by her as a co-founder of the movement.

The Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, another Trentino and one of the founding fathers of the European Union, was also impressed, becoming a disciple. Much later this aspect of Lubich's activities resulted in a new school of economics - the Economy of Communion, which applied the movement's practice of sharing material goods to business enterprises - and the International Political Movement for Unity, which encouraged cross-party collaboration and drew such political luminaries as Romano Prodi, who collaborated with Lubich on a number of projects.

After a gruelling examination by the pre-conciliar Holy Office, much of it directed at Lubich herself by the notoriously conservative Cardinal Ottaviani, Focolare was granted official Vatican approval in the mid-1960s. In this period Lubich was founding new branches for priests, religious, seminarians, young people, professionals, families - even toddlers had their own special section. She had begun to establish model towns intended to serve as laboratories for the reconstruction of society - today there are 20 of them around the globe, although the founder envisaged there should eventually be a thousand.

As early as the 1950s Lubich 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 Lubich and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople led to Lubich 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.

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 eighties Lubich's activities, particularly outside the movement, actually 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”.

Her religious awards included the Templeton Prize for Religion presented by the Duke of Edinburgh at Guildhall in 1977 and the Order of St Augustine, which she received from Archbishops Runcie and Carey.

Although in the 1940s and 1950s her movement had been in the vanguard of Catholicism, by the end of the 1990s, it was doctrinally firmly in the Church's conservative camp - a trajectory not unlike that of Opus Dei, an organisation that in many ways it resembles.

In spite of her innovations, her work for ecumenism and interfaith understanding, Lubich was at heart a traditionalist, inspired as much by Catholicism's illustrious past as the possibilities for its future. John Paul II chose his words advisedly when he hailed her as “a great Catholic”.

Another prominent tribute as obituary is in The Telegraph.

The obit is here Again, it is worthwhile quoting it in full:

"Chiara Lubich, who died on Friday aged 88, founded the Work of Mary, commonly known as the Focolare, a worldwide movement of 140,000 members and more than two million adherents.

Silvia Lubich was born in Trento in northern Italy on January 22 1920. When her father lost his job, she became the family breadwinner at 13 and a primary school teacher at 19. (A philosophy course begun at the University of Venice could not be completed because of the war.)

It was in that same year, 1939, on a students' pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, that she had a vision of herself living in the world dedicated to Christ - and that others would follow her. She took the name Chiara, after St Clare of Assisi, as was traditional upon joining the Third Order of Franciscans.

But it was not as a member of an established religious order that she would live out her own consecration. One morning in 1943, as she was running an errand for her mother, she suddenly felt a call.

She later said that "It was as if God were saying 'Give yourself to me'."

On December 7 she made a vow of "perfect and perpetual chastity". Her friends soon noticed a change in her and she became an inspiration to growing numbers of people.

During the aerial bombardment of Trento she and her friends brought food and comfort to those in need. It was at this time that they earned their nickname of focolarine because of their homeliness; focolare means "hearth".

Some of them moved in together. A group of young Catholic single women living together in 1940s provincial Italy was not always looked upon favourably. Chiara Lubich soon realised that they would have to seek approval from, and protection by, the Church authorities.

While the young Chiara and her companions in wartime and postwar Italy shared the Communists' concern for the poor, for the focolarine it was not a political cause. It was a question of living the Gospel. In particular, during the course of her life Chiara Lubich highlighted, developed and taught a spirituality of devotion to the Forsaken Jesus.

Within months of Chiara's private vow there were some 500 people following her "way", and she and her first companions were invited to speak to meetings in parish halls throughout the region and then further afield. The local Archbishop of Trento had watched them carefully and concluded: "The finger of God is here."

In the summer of 1949 Chiara Lubich experienced a series of religious insights at Tonadico in the Dolomites. Soon afterwards she moved to Rome, where one of her young followers had a distant contact in the Vatican, a Monsignor Montini, who met Chiara Lubich and some of the group and was impressed by them. He later became Pope Paul VI.

Chiara Lubich had cordial relations with all the Popes from the point when Pope Pius XII warmly received her and her first companions in the Marian year of 1954. But it was John Paul II, she felt, who understood her work the best.

As a priest and young bishop Wojtyla had encountered the Focolare which was working "underground" in Poland and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. For her part, Chiara Lubich felt that Wojtyla was a "Marian Pope". Her group is officially known as The Work of Mary in legal documents and a constitution submitted to Pope John Paul II for approval in 1990.

By that time the Work included men, women and children, clerics and laity, monks and nuns, even bishops and cardinals. In a meeting with the Pope, Chiara Lubich asked if it were possible that the president of the Work would always be a woman.

The condition was formalised in the statutes of the movement. John Paul II also invited her on two occasions to address the worldwide Synod of Bishops held in Rome, an honour she shared with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Chiara Lubich's movement had begun to spread in the 1950s, when she had sent her closest "first companions" to work in different countries. After the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 she appealed for an army of volunteers and sent some of her closest companions to work with the underground Church in the Soviet Bloc.

They would volunteer to work in those countries as doctors, nurses or language teachers. Some of them were held for months in a detention camp in East Germany. The focolarine were for the most part under surveillance as foreigners and as known Christians.

When they were catechising young people they would have a cake and the makings of a birthday party at the ready in case they were interrupted by the police.

During the Second Vatican Council many bishops gathered from around the world brought invitations for Chiara Lubich and her companions to bring the movement to other countries.

After her work in Cameroon, the local tribespeople built a little town, a Mariapolis dedicated to Mary and living the ideal of the movement. The movement today has 35 such "little towns" throughout the world, inspired by the great monastic settlements of the Middle Ages.

The Vatican Council also brought ecumenical observers to Rome. In 1964 the movement opened an ecumenical centre there.

Chiara Lubich met every Archbishop of Canterbury from Michael Ramsey and acquired a following among some Anglican clergy and laity; in Germany the movement has its own little town near Augsburg where Catholics and Lutherans live together.

In 1967 she was invited to visit the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople at his home in Istanbul, becoming an informal go-between between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI.

When she was presented with the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1977, Chiara Lubich said that she would give part of the prize money to the Bishop of Rome for the House of Charity which he was building for needy disabled people.

The rest of the money would be used "to enlarge the maternity wing of the hospital in the little town of Fontem in Cameroon; to build two houses for those who are living in the mocambos shanty town in Recife Brazil; and to build the last stage of a religious and social training centre for Asians at Tagaytay in the Philippines". At Tagaytay the movement now has a little town dedicated to furthering inter-religious dialogue.

Today the movement has about 20,000 diocesan priests and deacons who follow its inspiration. Nearly four and a half thousand parishes in 430 dioceses have been entrusted to the Focolare. Around 100 Catholic bishops meet annually at the movement's congress centre at Castel Gandolfo, given to them by John Paul II. Bishops of other Christian denominations also meet together to explore Chiara Lubich's teaching.

Chiara Lubich established the headquarters of her movement not far from Castel Gandolfo, at Rocca di Papa, on land donated by the family of a member. As well as a chapel (in which she will be interred), administrative buildings and meeting rooms, her own house was sited on this complex.

Her last 24 hours were spent there, and hundreds of people processed through her room to say their last farewells. Those unable to enter remained in prayer in the courtyard outside. When a priest close to her asked "Are you ready to go to the Heart of the Father?" she uttered her final word, "Yes". She published more than 30 books.

Chiara Lubich's requiem funeral mass will be held in the Vatican's Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-Walls tomorrow. The Holy See's Cardinal Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, will be the principal celebrant."

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