Frank Johnson tells the captivating story of Chiara Amirante, founder of the New Horizons community.
[New City Magazine – February 2021]
A friend in Rome contacted me recently to ask if I could help with interpreting at an online retreat being held by the New Horizons community. My initial reaction was ‘Oh no, not another zoom, and anyway I haven’t got time to spend on working for another movement.’ However, when I calmed down and reflected a bit, I remembered something Chiara Lubich had said that we should love other movements as we love our own. I wrote back to the friend in Rome and offered to help. A saying that has helped me a lot over the years is ‘God is never outdone in generosity.’ And, as it turned out, my tiny act of generosity was richly rewarded. It was a gift from God to participate in this beautiful retreat which reached out to 4,000 souls and 21 countries.
An infectious joy
I was also wanting to see and hear the founder of New Horizons, Chiara Amirante, whose autobiography I had translated into English in 2009. I had never met her, but her story, recounted in that book had made a deep impression on me. It was a thrilling, true-life adventure story of someone who listened to the voice of God, which led her to places that could be very dangerous for any young woman to frequent.
Chiara describes her upbringing, which clearly gave her the foundations for the plans that God had for her in the future. Her parents encouraged her from an early age to ask questions. She wrote: It is really thanks to these annoying and insistent questions of our childhood: Why do evil, suffering, anxiety, war, darkness, lies, slavery, death exist? Why does the world exist? … that I was able to understand how much my spirit needed goodness, love, peace, unity, light, truth, freedom, life…; I realised just how much we need He who created us!
Things really set Chiara on her search for the will of God when her parents got to know the Focolare Movement, focolarini would often visit the Amirante household. Chiara said of these visits: Their infectious joy and their serenity made what they said believable:
‘God is love, God is joy, God is freedom and truth! If you live his word you too can experience “the fullness of his joy”.’ I realised that in them the love, the joy and the freedom they spoke about were not just words, but a tangible reality in their lives. I was convinced by this and so I set off on the same path as them.
When she was 11, Chiara attended a congress for young girls (Gen 3) in Rome. The meeting with Chiara Lubich had an immediate and profound effect on her. She says: Chiara explained to us that for her every painful situation, every suffering neighbour no longer represented a meeting with suffering, but a chance to meet Jesus crucified and forsaken and that every suffering lived with him and out of love for him was transformed into that grain of wheat which dies in order to produce more fruit! … I had the sensation that a divine bomb had exploded inside me, setting fire to the whole of my being with a fire of love. So, for me, the obvious thing to do was immediately to conclude: But you who are God, the Creator, the Infinite One, wanted to give your life for me who am nothing, a miserable sinner, how can I now not give my life for you, how can I now not live to say thank you?
The seeds are sown
Chiara returned home ‘on fire’ from that meeting in Rome. She was determined to follow Jesus wherever he wanted her to go and she started to meet with other girls who also wanted to put the Gospel into practice in their daily lives. She discovered a new freedom: I savoured the beauty of the freedom that comes from the Spirit and not from the flesh. The truth will make you free. Making myself live in the truth, to live the word of God who is Truth, finally the chains of passions, impulses, pride and sin which imprisoned me were broken.
So, the seeds had been sown and Chiara started on her adventure with God which was to lead her to found a new movement in the Church. When she started university Chiara saw that many of her fellow students were feeling lonely and isolated so she and a group of friends decided to do something about it: A group of about 40 of us started to organise meetings to go into depth in the Gospel and to take the revolution of love into that environment. Every occasion was a good one: putting in common textbooks to help those who had financial difficulties; organising concerts for solidarity, trips out, shows, photographic exhibitions, study groups, debates… everything became a good opportunity to share with as many young people as possible the beauty of a life renewed by the Gospel.
Things couldn’t have been better for Chiara. Her union with God was amazing and life had never been more beautiful.
But God is a God of surprises, and just when she least expected it, Chiara was struck by a disorienting black-out and she found herself in the deepest darkness: ‘The light, the joy and the peace which up until that moment had filled my heart to overflowing, suddenly vanished, leaving my soul in the dark, in suffering and anguish. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. It was as if I had suddenly been catapulted into a vast desert, unable to find the well from which, until a short time ago, I had drawn in abundance.’ In the midst of this sudden darkness, a close companion of Chiara’s gave a writing by Chiara Lubich entitled ‘The Divine Comedy’. The words penetrated deep into Chiara’s soul:
Every time you feel despair in your soul and you continue smiling and talking about hope to the others… remember: that is the divine comedy.
A challenge to God
The light returned, but before long Chiara was hit by another huge trial. She contracted a terrible eye disease which was not only extremely painful but reduced her vison by 80% with the possibility of losing her sight altogether. She then caught another illness which affected all the major organs of her body. Chiara describes the experience: The fire of suffering was passing through me to burn all that is not God, to refine the gold and to bring light amidst the darkness. New fruits of a mysterious and profound joy were flowering on the death of that seed. I never failed to be amazed by this miracle: I was crucified with Christ, and yet I felt pervaded by the feast of the resurrection. I wanted to sing out my joy to everyone and often, especially in the moments of deep prayer, I felt a strong urge to seek out all my friends who were immersed in despair, in drugs, in AIDS, in prostitution, to share my great discovery with them: every suffering lived with God is transformed into fire which refines the gold imprinted in us by the Creator, which warms the heart frozen by selfishness and brings light, peace and joy!
She decided to issue a kind of challenge to God, that if it was his will for her to start this mission on the streets, then he would have to heal her physical illnesses. She immediately stopped taken all her medication, which was useless anyway. Suddenly all her pains disappeared and her sight was fully restored! Her doctor commented: ‘For anyone who doesn’t believe, it’s a mystery. For those who believe – it’s a miracle. As far as I am concerned, if you want to find a plausible explanation for your illness and healing you should read Job!’
Total trust in God
The next few years saw Chiara setting about what she felt was her special calling – to dedicate her life to people who lived on the streets. So as not to frighten her parents, she first went to Dublin, with the pretext of wanting to improve her English. In reality, with great courage, she took her first steps towards the street dwellers. These first encounters made a big impression on Chiara: I had imagined that the world of the street would be full of people weighed down with suffering, and when I actually came face to face with these sufferings the impact was very strong. In just one day I had seen despair, violence, darkness and anguish of every sort and I felt the sufferings of all those I had met within me. But I had also seen smiles of hope and consolation flowering. Once again I had experienced his wonders. A bit of listening and a bit of love were enough for something very beautiful to colour each meeting.
On her return to Rome, Chiara started going to Termini, the main railway station, where so many homeless people spent the night. After a couple of years visiting Termini she shared her ‘crazy’ idea of opening a house to shelter the homeless with her friends. She said:
I liked the idea of a family house, because I was very keen that the people who came to live there should be able to live in an atmosphere of warmth and affection. But I was thinking more along the lines of the early Christians where we would be able to live together having the Gospel as the only rule of our life.
Finally, after much prayer and reflection, yet another miracle happened: they were offered two large classrooms and a toilet, right next to the station. They had no money, but a total belief in God’s providence, which never failed to arrive at the crucial moment. She tells of one occasion when she received a bill for 583 Euros. At that moment they had exactly 180 Euros left. A visitor to the community pressed an envelope into Chiara’s hand as she said goodbye. When, sometime later, Chiara opened the envelope, it contained exactly 583 Euros!
With the simplicity of children
Their needs had outgrown the small premises they had been given, but as usual providence came to the rescue. They were offered a beautiful building known as L’Isola, which is where the first real New Horizons community was set up. A few days before they were due to move to their new home, Chiara was once again struck down with a physical illness. The doctors wanted her to go into hospital, but Chiara asked if they could put it off for 9 days. She decided that some divine help was required so she asked Loredana and Sonia, two of her companions, to pray over her.
It was a great trial of faith for all of us, says Chiara, we had to overcome self-love, human respect and logical reasoning. The fact is that with the simplicity of children Loredana and Sonia started to pray for my healing, laying their hands on me. Our heavenly Father was very happy to give us this gift… There was no need for me to go into hospital, because all the symptoms had disappeared and the results of the blood tests were normal.
Since those early days New Horizons has expanded rapidly. There are now five citadels, small ‘villages’ where homeless people are welcomed, integrated into the community and helped to live the life of the Gospel. There are 80 residential centres, 61 listening centres for prevention and service, and 75 families open to providing shelter. These are just a few of their projects.
You can find further information online at: https://www.nuoviorizzonti.org/en/chiara-amirante/