Pat Whitney reports on the recent visit of Maria Voce, the President of the Focolare Movement, to Birmingham. She had been invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of the General Secretaries of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe. She also took the opportunity to meet her friend Bhai Sahib Ji, the spiritual leader of the large Sikh community in Handsworth.
[New City Magazine – Aug-Sep 2019, page 4-5]
In September 2017, New City featured an article describing the experience of the Focolare community in Birmingham which said that the city provided ‘a thousand unexpected opportunities to bring people together.’ This is certainly what happened during a very hot and sunny weekend at the end of June this year.
A few months ago, Maria Voce, President of the Focolare Movement, was invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of the General Secretaries of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe which was to be held in Oscott Seminary to the north of Birmingham from 1‐4 July 2019. Her topic was the relationship between the hierarchical and charismatic dimensions of the Church, ‘Petrine profile and Marian profile: together for a new Pentecost.’ Her acceptance of the invitation caused great excitement among the Focolare community in the West Midlands especially when they heard that although Maria was visiting Britain specifically for the Oscott conference, she had also asked to meet a small group of the local people in our Focolare house in Darlaston.
Maria Voce meets the local Focolare community
The actual meeting with Maria had all the characteristics of a really happy family gathering. There were only twenty-six of us squashed into our sitting room but we certainly did not lack in variety. In addition to being a wide age range, we came from three different continents and from every walk of life. The group included people who have no religious beliefs as well as people from two different Christian denominations and three different faiths. Many of us had brought small gifts, typical of our culture or faith, to give to Maria. There was a basket symbolising friendship from Burundi, pearls from the Philippines, bread and cake freshly baked by our Muslim friends denoting our sharing of the fruits of the earth, English tea complete with mug, Malaysian health products and even locally made chocolate and a model car typical of the Black Country!
There was time to share in a very relaxed way. At one point, Maria was asked how she first came into contact with the Focolare. She explained that when she was a university student in Rome, she met a group of young people whose company really attracted her. She could not understand what they had in common because they seemed so different but she continually searched for them. Eventually, she decided that she was so happy that she must have fallen in love but she was not sure with whom! In time, she understood that it was God’s presence among those young people that filled her with joy and that she had ‘fallen in love’ with him. Maria is also known as ‘Emmaus’ in reference to the Gospel passage (Lk. 24: 13-35) where two disciples encounter the risen Jesus on their way to Emmaus. Quoting from that passage, I think all of us felt ‘our hearts burn within us’, as she told that simple story, all having experienced that we are all children of the one Father in heaven.
The Sikh community in Handsworth
The following day, Maria visited the GNNSJ (Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewa Jatha) gurdwara in Handsworth. Bhai Sahib Ji, her friend and esteemed colleague in interfaith dialogue, is the leader of this Sikh community in north Birmingham. She was accompanied by about fifteen Focolare members who were warmly welcomed and experienced the absolutely exquisite hospitality that is so typical of this Sikh community. The Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley and the Reverend Patrick Gerard, representing Bishop David Urquhart, bishop of the Anglican diocese, were also present adding to the richness of the occasion.
The group first visited the crowded durbar prayer hall where the Granth Sahib is continuously recited and were enveloped in the sacred atmosphere that pervades the temple. They then went up to the glass dome on the second floor where two young men were playing worship music on the sitar and tabla. The rooftop area around the dome provides a stunning view over Birmingham and the Black Country. Whilst there, Bhai Sahib Ji explained that in keeping with a special Sikh practice, a passage was to be chosen randomly from the Sikh sacred book to mark this joyous visit. The poetic passage spoke of the love of the ‘beloved ones’ for their ‘creator God’ and of how fulfilment in life lies in faithfulness to this relationship with the divine.
Charter for Peace, Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Then it was time to move towards the adjoining conference centre where a beautiful meal was served. Between the courses, there was time to listen to short presentations on the work of the GNNSJ community and, in particular, on the Charter for Peace, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (www.charterforforgiveness.org) that will be presented to the United Nations next year. A group of students representing St Paul’s RC and Nishkam Sikh High Schools sang two songs together that refer to hope for the future. The young people first met through the Gen Verde ‘Start Now’ performing arts project which took place in the city in 2015. Their enthusiastic joint performance seemed a tangible sign of the network of relationships that is being built in Birmingham.
The Annual Meeting of the General Secretaries of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe
The Oscott Conference, the initial reason for Maria’s visit to Britain, is still ongoing as this article goes to press. Maria informed us that her talk was warmly received and that many of the clergy present already knew the Focolare well. The full text of Maria’s talk is available on the CCEE website: www.ccee.eu
[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 4-5]