Paul Gateshill reports on the celebration of Chiara Lubich’s centenary at Birmingham University in January this year.
[New City Magazine – March 2020, page 14-18]
The Centenary of Chiara Lubich’s birth, the foundress of the Focolare Movement, was celebrated with nearly four hundred people on 18th January 2020 in the Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham. Like the other similar events being held worldwide during this centenary year, the focus was not on remembering someone who died in 2008, but on someone who still lives on in the Charism of Unity and in the lives of all those who find their inspiration in Chiara Lubich.
Throughout the day keynote speakers representing Christianity, Islam and Sikhism reflected on what Chiara Lubich and the spirituality of unity meant to them. This was interspersed with artistic moments of music and drama. The day began with a dramatic rendition of how Focolare originated in war torn Trent in Northern Italy – how a young woman consecrated herself to God, and how this act of generosity spiralled into a worldwide movement.
The music group was made up of young people from the Focolare and pupils from two local secondary schools – one Roman Catholic and the other Sikh. It was obvious from their faces that they enjoyed an ongoing, shared experience of building relationships together through inter-school music workshops and other activities.
A combination of gentleness and passion
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham Bernard Longley opened the day. Here are some extracts from his address:
Chiara Lubich was a woman of deep faith who had the confidence to declare and witness to her Christian faith in the terrible aftermath of the Second World War. But she also had the vision to see that the pathway to peace involved a commitment to dialogue. She was a woman ahead of her times with a prophetic intuition that respectful and loving dialogue was an essential ingredient of her faithfulness to Jesus Christ, mirroring the pattern of his own life. (…)
When I met Chiara… I was very struck by the strength of her presence and by her very attractive combination of gentleness and passion. There was a charisma – a giftedness – that clearly came from God and it touched and influenced those who met her. Our meeting lasted for just two or three minutes, yet it was an unforgettable experience.
I believe Chiara would have felt entirely at home at our gathering today. She saw that the witness of each person’s faith contributes to the building-up of a just and truthful society on the basis of so many virtues and values that we share in common.
Today we offer thanks for Chiara and for all those who have been inspired by her to commit their time and energy to the goals of interfaith understanding and of common witness to our shared values.
Jesus said: Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Chiara is surely numbered among the blessed. Let us pray today for God’s blessing on all the members and friends of the Focolare Movement – and let us also re-commit ourselves to loving friendship and mutual support – in gratitude for each other’s faithful witness and for the inspiration and friendship of Chiara Lubich as we celebrate her hundredth birthday.
Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh
Chiara is a saint
Bhai Sahib Ji Mohinder Singh, Spiritual Leader of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ) had known and respected Chiara for many years. (See New City Aug/Sept 2019) He was interviewed by Pat Whitney who lives in the new Focolare house in Darlaston, Birmingham. He explained why Birmingham was such an appropriate city on which to hold this centenary celebration.
To me Chiara was a living saint because of her activities of love. I met her in Assisi the first time and I could feel vibrations. I have been really privileged to have met a few saints in my life and I felt the same vibrations. I felt very close to her and I felt she was a blessed soul. I could talk to her very freely… very welcoming, very warm, a loving individual.
Together on the mountain top
Dr Ahmed Khweir, Education Facillitator, Ahl Al Bait Society Scotland and Chair of Glasgow Ahlul-Bayt Association, spoke about his various encounters with Focolare and described the extraordinary moment of prayer and unity when 20 Muslims and 20 Christians climbed a mountain in the Dolomites together, forming part of a school of dialogue. He described the event:
We scaled heights physically but arguably more spiritually… A difference I noted is that normally when you travel with a group, you think about time i.e. time climbing, time on the mountain top, time to eat, time to take photos but with this group it was as if time stood still. Individual reflections were occurring collectively, one by one people started sitting and meditating together, some burst into prayer/supplication, some burst into song. Different individuals, different voices, different styles but a collective spirit calling to God the Almighty.
I’m delighted that in Glasgow and wider Scotland we have a strong, vibrant and solid relationship between our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters from the Focolare community and beyond. And have frequently shared time and space organising various events including dialogues, residential trips, BBQs, tree planting and more… The spirit of planting more seeds of unity is there to continue, God willing, in the name of God, the First, the Last, the Only.
Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali
Unity is more than dialogue
Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, Director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies, has known and lived the spirituality of the Focolare for more than twenty years. In the introduction to his talk he said:
I am delighted to be here and grateful to God… celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chiara Lubich – Chiara who was born to an Italian family in Trent but now belongs to all of humanity. This is what we are going to celebrate. And I think, without exaggeration, I can say that when someone devotes themselves to God, there is no death for them. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of someone who is ever living with us.
He described his experience over the last twenty years – how he had started off being a caution observer of Focolare, to becoming a friend, but is now publicly committed to spreading Chiara’s Charism amongst Muslims and Christians. He described the work he is now doing with Professor Piero Coda at Sophia University, the ongoing project which he named ‘Wings of Unity’ (see New City Aug/Sept 2018), and how they have discovered:
Unity is more than dialogue. ‘Dialogue’ is no longer a good term when you reach unity. We are no longer in a state of dialogue with the Focolare. We are united. And through our unity we want to bring God first between us but also to the whole world.
I hope that in this unity we can build a sacred space where God will send his inspirations. I think in order to have universal fraternity it’s no longer the case that one saint can work… This is the time when we need collective sainthood. We need people from different traditions to remove all the barriers and partitions and join their hearts so that it becomes one holy and sacred space that belongs to Muslims and Christians and all believers in God equally. And that is where the greatest inspiration of God can come, because the greatest inspiration is the inspiration that leads to universal fraternity. That’s the great achievement of humanity. And we need collective sainthood.
So, I think that with everything we know from God and all of his mercy, we can confidently say that now we are going to witness a rebirth of the spirituality that God gave to Chiara. It’s not just celebrating the 100th anniversary. I hope that this is a rebirth of this Charism of Unity and we just need to be open and let God work in us and in our relations to carry out what he wants.
Professor G J Pillay
Chiara is a prophet
Professor G J Pillay, Vice-Chancellor & Rector of Liverpool Hope University, gave the final talk of the day:
On the anniversary of Chiara’s birth, we should use the opportunity today in Birmingham to reflect on that important speech that she made in 2004 at the Methodist central Hall, London. It captures well the task facing us in our day and age to find a way to reach out to other cultures, ethnicities and religions. Chiara’s words are as pertinent for us today as they were when the movement was established in the context of war and in the midst of much suffering and loss. The exhortation she gave was to bring to our consciousness that the Father is closer than we are aware and as real (here she cites the Quran) as our ‘jugular vein’. We call to remembrance her words ‘how can we view God’s creation, God’s children (all colours and races) through their Father’s eyes for there is one Father?’ She mentioned that for those without faith this reaching out to others could be described as ‘philanthropy, solidarity and non-violent action’ but for people of faith it is ‘to treat one another as brother and sister and to love each other’.
Chiara calls us to go beyond tolerance, which is the least one can expect in a democracy, and to look seriously at other people as children of one Father; to view each other through the Father’s eye; in other words, to transcend our own group affiliation and our own allegiances and to place ourselves in the place of the ‘other’. Only then is the other one of us and we become one of them. She, therefore, urges us to go beyond multiculturalism and to become inter-cultural. Multi-culturalism is where all groups aspire to live peaceably alongside each other, making room for each other and even showing great respect and civility to each other. Chiara’s call is to go even beyond civility because ‘inter-cultural’ means being open to each other as part of one family.
I suspect that is the difference between priests and prophets. Priests administer with care the will of the institution and safeguard the cultural integrity of the institution, but prophets who are part of a community have the ability to call the institution to question and to expose its limitation. In that sense, Chiara is a prophet to us.
I have come to see that the perspective we have of things is entirely dependent on where we are standing. That is why, perhaps, Pope Francis sounds different to many of his peers. If he came straight from the seminary or from leadership of a religious order or even from positions of ecclesiastical authority, he probably would have just been a very good priest and papal Father; but his journey took him also through the slums of Argentina which radically shaped his perspective. The changing of perspective can often make the priest a prophet. It is well to remember that Chiara and the Focolare movement began in the context of poverty and war. Her own spiritual experiences happened in the context of bombs dropping and her father losing his job under a fascist government. She, too, therefore articulated concerns for others in a new and refreshing way.
She calls us, therefore, to change perspective from being part of the group to standing in the place of ‘the other’ and to learn to look at others, if we can, through the Father’s eye.
Bishop Robin Smith
How she would have rejoiced
Bishop Robin Smith, also present (Anglican Diocese of St Albans, Bishop Emeritus), sent us this impression a few days after the event.
Not only was Chiara’s photo the backdrop for the whole day; but by the Spirit her presence was in everything that was said and done on stage, and throughout the vast auditorium. It was a truly memorable occasion and a prophetic one. For we were both looking back through her life during so many formative moments in the development of the Movement, and also living out her prophecy ‘that all may be one’. The dramatic and spoken contributions, all pointing to her legacy… and the speakers themselves… all bore powerful testimony to the depth of unity they had experienced through their association and growing friendship with Focolare. Every one of us is committed to working for that unity across the barriers of difference, a work we believe, with Chiara, will transform the world by love.
Yes, she will indeed be rejoicing in all that God has been doing; and in the promise of greater things to come.
Pat Kane and Duncan Harper
During the lunch interval Pat Kane and Duncan Harper showed a film loop of artists’ work inspired by the Charism of Unity. They explained:
We were invited to put together something on art for the celebration in Birmingham. Initially we thought of a small exhibition, but this presented difficulties of transporting work, setting up, security, and returning everything afterwards. So instead we invited artists who are working professionally in this field and who have been inspired by Chiara, to send images of their work digitally, along with their artist’s statement which we then curated.
This was our opportunity as artists, to say a ‘thank you’ for the light which Chiara gave us, and to identify in an artist’s statement, how this has influenced our work. Everyone responded immediately and with great generosity. We felt that each one gave the essence of their inspiration in an open and deep way.
The result is a film, ‘nine artists’. Not everyone who was at the day would have seen it, or seen all of it. It will be available through the Focolares and the local communities in the UK.
Impressions of the day
What came over so powerfully was the humility of everyone beginning with Chiara but then expressed by everyone else in front of the work that God is doing. And that from her simple ‘yes’ and those small beginnings, a family has been born. A true family which contains such a mixture of individuals who together are learning more and more what it means to genuinely love one another, and to have the presence of God among them. It gave a vision of humanity as surely God must long for us to be.
A true gift for the heart and soul, as well as the body and mind.
I feel renewed, encouraged, strengthened, full of joy.
It was a wonderful tribute to Chiara, and a real witness to how the light of the Charism has inspired so many different fields of activity and contributed to dialogue among Christians and different faiths.
The Charism of Chiara came out in all its power and beauty!
It was an absolute privilege to be part of this celebration and witness of unity, a very moving, beautiful programme. Thank you for all the planning and all the love that went into such an historic, powerful and hopeful celebration. Joy to heaven and joy to earth. My heart is full, so very thankful to God for Chiara.
Chiara’s Charism was present everywhere and emanated from the speakers. It was clear this was a day full of graces from heaven. I felt a collective peace, joy and hope – all signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit!