Several years ago a former anti-Mafia fighter stopped at America House for a visit. He wanted to chat about a program he was undertaking to establish communication between Democratic politicians in the United States and Vatican officials. At a time when withholding Communion from pro-choice politicians was stirring heated controversy, it seemed a bold and welcome, though quixotic, move. Then he explained to me that fostering unity was the charism of Focolare, the lay religious movement to which he belonged.
I had met Focolarini, as the members are called, around the world. My friends who were members had never spoken to me about their life and mission. My visitor’s quiet consultation about an under-the-radar series of encounters between U.S. politicians and Vatican officials, including the pope, suggested why. As competent and connected as they are, Focalarini work quietly and humbly, without drawing attention to themselves. In addition, my visitor’s mention of unity as their cause also gave the first hint I had received of Focolare’s spirituality and mission: to foster unity in church, society and the global community.
Focolare takes its name from the wartime refuge shared by several young women who remained in an apartment in Trent, Italy, in 1944 after their families had fled the city to avoid Allied bombing. The women stayed in the city to minister to the victims of the war. Focolare means hearth in Italian, suggesting the warmth of home but also the warmth of love that makes a home. Praying over the Gospels in Trent’s bomb shelters, the roommates made their own Jesus’ love command, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Understanding that not all would die as Christ had, wrote Chiara Lubich, the principal founder of the movement, they determined that they could share everything else, “our worries, our sorrows, our meager possessions, our spiritual riches.”
Bound to one another, they found their life gained new vitality. “Someone came into our group,” Lubich wrote, “silently, an invisible Friend, giving us security, a more experiential joy, a new peace, a fullness of life, an inextinguishable light.” Later their palpable sense of Christ’s presence in the neighbor would make Focolare’s work for unity uniquely effective. Where others find adversaries, enemies and infidels, they find God coming toward them. “We live for the sole aim,” wrote Lubich, “of being one with [God], one with each other, one with everyone.”
In a time of religious and political polarization, Focolarini in the United States see the spirituality of unity playing a special role in channeling what they call America’s grace, the acceptance that grows for religious, racial and ethnic differences with the intermingling of people in our heterogenous country. Instead of stimulating indifference and hostility, the intermingling, when imbued with Focolare’s spirituality of unity, becomes a way to better understand and accept others and ourselves.
The movement has befriended Muslims, for example, at a time when they are often held suspect. In 1997, after Chiara Lubich, dressed in a chador, addressed the followers of Imam W. Deen Mohammed at the Malcolm Shabaz Mosque, he told them, “The idea that is in Focolare is something our soul knows and wants. For this reason I embrace them as my friends.”
This year Focolare celebrates its 50th anniversary in the United States. To mark the occasion, Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen have prepared an introduction to the movement and its work, Focolare: Living the Spirituality of Unity in the United States (New City Press). On April 5 the community will hold an all-day symposium at Fordham University, Lincoln Center.