Maria Bonnici writes about her experience at the Mariapolis held recently in Malta. While she was only able to attend for one afternoon, it left a lasting impression on her.

[New City Magazine – July 2023 page 14-15]

‘Joy and hope: is there space for these in our life today?’ – this was the theme of this year’s Mariapolis, which took place at Mellieħa Bay, Malta, during 17-19 March 2023, after an absence of three years due to the pandemic.

As a member of the Focolare Movement since my early twenties, I attended a great many Mariapolis gatherings in different parts of the world, even as far away as the islands in the Pacific. The Mariapolis – meaning City of Mary – is a tradition that started in the Dolomites by Chiara Lubich and her companions in the 1950s and it’s one annual event most Focolare members would never miss.

Each one is different in style and format but Mariapolis gatherings all have the same basic characteristic which is that of building – for a few days – a visible Christian community based on mutual love. It’s always an invitation to recharge our spiritual batteries encouraging us to then take the same spirit back into our normal everyday lives.

Am I in the right place?

So I rolled up at the venue where this year’s Mariapolis in Malta was being held. With programme in hand, I strode into the foyer in my quest to attend the Spirituality Workshop that afternoon. It wasn’t quite what I expected. There was no banner welcoming me to the Mariapolis, no people smiling at me at reception ready to jump up and give me a big welcome. Instead there were hotel residents wandering around in bathrobes and bathing caps, having obviously just been for a swim, while others were sitting around the bar chatting, and children chasing each other around the central feature of the hotel foyer. Suffice to say I felt a bit bewildered. Did I drive all the way here just to wind up in some tourist resort? I started to think I was in the wrong place.

But not five minutes passed, when some familiar faces appeared. ‘Hi Maria! How nice to see you! Did you just arrive? We had such a wonderful morning downstairs in the meeting hall. There was a speaker who gave us the most insightful talk.’

They offered me a drink and as we sat around the lounge area, they proceeded to tell me about it practically word for word, sharing their innermost impressions. I found out that the invited speaker had been Mr Joseph Bonnici, an associate of a well-known Catholic lay association called The Society of Christian Doctrine, founded in Malta by Saint George Preca. During his talk called ‘Rejoice with Hope’ he said: ‘In those who understand and believe in love, hope is surely born. And the fruit of this is light and joy, a joy that nobody can take away from you, but that you can spread to others.’

We were joined by Claire and her young children who excitedly filled us in on their own separate programme they’d had that morning during which they had played and told stories, and even did some paintings on the theme of joy and hope. They showed me some of their creations. Their exuberance was contagious!

Source of joy and hope

‘So can you point me in the direction of the spirituality workshop that is taking place soon?’ I asked. A swarm of about thirty people ushered me there. The title of this session was ‘Spirituality: Source of joy and hope.’ It was run by Giuliana, a Maltese focolarina and old-time friend, who has the gift of communicating spiritual thoughts that are interspersed with personal experiences, that really speak to your heart. The focus of her talk was hope seen through the eyes of Pope Francis and extraordinary people like Chiara Lubich and Cardinal Văn Thuân. She quoted from his book The road of hope, a treasure trove of spiritual insights written during his imprisonment.

Afterwards we sat around in groups and shared our impressions on this and other spiritual input, including reflections and questions surrounding the living of the Beatitudes in our life. It was edifying to see the love that was circulating among young and old, among people from different walks of life, including a group of religious sisters who run an orphanage with utmost care and dedication. When the time allotted for this workshop was up, you could sense that something really beautiful and profound had been built.

There were other workshops being run concurrently which were equally beautiful and meaningful: Joy and hope in today’s society (education, migration, voluntary work, the workplace and politics) as well as the session on Family: The cradle of joy and hope.

One participant said: ‘The highlight for me was the workshop on refugees, where I met three new people and we shared together our dreams.’

Hope and joy through music and song

Once back in the main hall, the participants were treated to a very original session called Hope and joy through music and song during which various artists shared their talents and experiences. They were able to transmit the beauty and the importance of music in the life of the Focolare Movement itself and this was presented through stories and brief reflections.

The young people too did a presentation based on the book by Pope Francis called Siate felici (Be happy). They were able to involve and motivate the participants with their youthful energy.

As we made our way to the dining room afterwards, Maria, a participant, came bounding up to us bursting with something of interest to tell us. ‘Guess what?’ She said. ‘Just now, one of the hotel residents, a tourist from overseas, came up to me and asked: “What is the name of your group? I have been watching the way you interact with one another, and you all look so happy. Please tell me more!”’

The Mariapolis spirit was starting to shine through. ‘Yes, this is so familiar,’ I thought. ‘I’m definitely at the right place!’

Photos: ©courtesy of Maria Bonnici

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