From the very beginning of the Focolare Movement, members of religious orders saw that the spirituality of unity was something they too could live, whilst remaining faithful to their own particular charism. In February a group of religious from various parts of Western Europe came to the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City for their annual meeting. Frank Johnson reports.
The idea behind this meeting was to listen to the theme of the year which is lived by the whole Movement and to deepen the relationships among participants through the sharing of experiences, both formally in the hall, and informally during breaks and meal times. The religious are very keen to let many more religious, both male and female, get to know the charism of unity, so this year they made an open invitation for others to join them, either for the whole meeting, or for the Thursday, when the programme would be particularly for newcomers. In fact, Br David, an Irish Christian Brother, and Sister Jo, a sister of Mercy, both living in Liverpool, though new to this meeting, decided to go the whole hog!
The main theme of the year, Maria Voce’s talk on the Church and the Holy Spirit made a deep impression on the participants as did the video of Pope Francis’ visit to the Focolare ‘town’ of Loppiano last May, in Tuscany. But it was perhaps Chiara Lubich’s talk entitled “A Passion for the Church’, which really captured the hearts and minds of all. Though given in 1966, everyone was amazed at how relevant it was for the situation in which the Church finds herself today.
It was the first time that this meeting had been held in Britain and those who came from Spain, where ecumenism is almost non-existent, were struck by the lived ecumenism they witnessed at the Centre for Unity. They were very taken by the experience shared by Jane Evans, a married Anglican focolarina, whose husband is a priest in the Church of England. Sarah Finch, an Anglican focolarina and an actress, told her experience of being invited by the government in Cuba to teach Shakespeare to drama students. What struck the audience was how she was able to communicate the life of the Gospel through her teaching, because she was forbidden to evangelize openly.
There was some very honest and open sharing of the many difficulties encountered by religious orders today: the lack of vocations, aging communities, the abuse scandals and the lack of communion with brothers and sisters in the community. What the meeting gave them was new hope and an understanding of how the charism of unity can shed light on their own charism.
Jonathan Cotton, an English Benedictine who has known the charism of unity for 45 years said: It was a moment for me to touch the presence of God which is the prophetic aim of all consecrated to God for the world and the Church. The men and women focolarini belong to the lay side of the Church; they make this charism from the Holy Spirit their own and it has the same prophetic element as for the charisms of Religious Orders and other charisms.
Impressions shared by those attending
I found the whole week very helpful, enlightening. From the moment we arrived we felt welcomed immediately and made feel at home. This is family, community at its best… I was greatly impressed by the values Focolare stands for and tries to promote – unity, love, risking taking, all inclusive, reaching out to the forsaken Jesus in others, my pain is all of our pain.
David Ryan (Irish Christian Brother)
The welcome, the house, the whole Focolare Centre of Unity, touched me deeply. We feel, we see the family of Chiara, in its simplicity, its familiarity, its depth and its Marian dimension. Yes, I felt welcomed by Mary. I understand this after reflecting on it… After so many years that Mary gave me the charism of Chiara, I know that I do not have to look at myself, but to be always outside myself; that is to say to recognize always, immediately and with joy, all the faces of Jesus Forsaken and to embrace him.
Claude Passebon from France (Brothers of St Gabriel)
Where I come from it’s like a desert; after this meeting I feel revived, and I see my situation as a privilege instead of a difficulty. I feel encouraged and more ‘connected’.
Sr Susan (Sister of St Joseph of Annecy)
I want to sow the seeds of the Focolare. We are all part of the same thing [after listening to ‘the Passion for the Church’]. Education is needed: education to the fact that we are one. We are all faces of the same Spirit, like a mosaic. Maybe it’s only now that I’m waking up to this. The weakness of one is the weakness of all: for me this is a revelation.
Sr Jo (Sister of Mercy)
I went to Castel Gandolfo near Rome and, coming here, I was amazed to find the same atmosphere and harmony. From the ‘Passion for the Church’ I take away the understanding that everything belongs to me, everything is ours and that I must open my mind to everything.
Sr Ildico (Augustinian sister)
Hearing Chiara talk like that back in 1966 was very special. God is to be thanked that he has put the whole dimension of the Church into Chiara. The sense of family among us (religious) was straightforward and deep; it amazed me: it is a great grace that the branch of the Religious is able to be a part of the Focolare Movement.
Angel (Augustinian and Episcopal Vicar for religious life in the Diocese in Madrid)
I understood more that it is GOD who makes history, our history. Meeting here, in this country, at this moment, was very important. It was nice to discover here a living ecumenism, not something we talk about.
José Antonio (Son of Divine Providence and Parish Priest in Spain)
There was a strong sense of Jesus among us: He was the organizer of everything in this family atmosphere. I understood that I must be more open to others – open my horizons. Often I am limited by what I think, what I can do, what I can contribute. From now on I will try to ‘see’ more with my heart. Things come from the heart, from unity. It was a conversion for me.
Adrian (Blessed Sacrament Father from Amsterdam)