John McLuckie reviews a new biography on Chiara Lubich by Maurizio Gentilini: ‘Chiara Lubich – Prophet of Unity’
[New City Magazine – November 2020, on page 19]
I think it is reasonable to assume that most people who have any connection with the Focolare Movement across the world have at least some familiarity with the story of Chiara Lubich’s life and work, and will probably also have engaged with some of her writings and talks. Most will be aware of the birth of the Movement in the destruction and hardship of northern Italy in the years during and after the Second World War, of the commitment to the way of the Gospel undertaken by that group of young women who gathered around Chiara. Also of the later growth of the Movement in its ecumenical, political, cultural and inter-faith work. However, for those of us less familiar with the specific political, cultural and ecclesiastical environment in which the Movement was born, Maurizio Gentilini’s new biography of Chiara gives us a vivid and comprehensive introduction to that context. In doing so, he not only helps us to understand some of the influences and challenges that formed Chiara’s thinking and direction – he also shows how Chiara has spoken directly and prophetically into a world facing new and immense challenges. In subtitling his book, ‘Prophet of Unity’, he neatly summarises her distinctive place in and beyond the life of the Church in a period of rapid globalisation and changing patterns of life.
For all that Chiara’s message is universal, and has embraced such an astonishing diversity of religious and cultural movements, Gentilini has shown how it was born in a very specific set of circumstances. In addition to the particular political and ecclesiastical character of the borderlands of the province of Trent, which suffered such instability and destruction in the mid-twentieth century, he also paints a more intimate picture of Chiara’s life and of the people who were closest to her – family, companions in the Movement, politicians and priests – and for some, the inner turmoil that she faced through her life. The Movement’s struggle for ecclesiastical acceptance in the early decades as well as her own ‘dark nights’ of the soul brought her so much closer to the reality of Jesus forsaken, the source of our desperately-needed unity in perfect emptiness, perfect openness towards all.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of this excellent biography is to do exactly what Chiara urged at the end of her life – to remember the origins of the Movement and to build on these foundations. Gentilini’s engaging account of the early summer Mariapolis in Tonadico and, more especially, of the mystical depths of Paradise ’49 that preceded them, shows how profoundly the Movement is rooted in the charism granted to Chiara and her companions as an experience of ‘nothingness in mutual love’. Gentilini combines a historian’s eye for contextual detail with a sensitive appreciation of the mystical life and a genuine respect for his subject. Avoiding the temptations of hagiography, he has, nonetheless, offered us a Spirit-filled account of a Spirit-filled life.
Fr John McLuckie is Rector of Old St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh.
[See the article in full PDF edition on page 19]