This month we begin a new series where a variety of people from different Churches, share their ecumenical journey. Here we begin with Joan Patricia Back, who was at the Focolare’s Ecumenical Centre in Rome from 1975 to 2014. She is currently the ecumenical co-ordinator for the Focolare in Ireland. (The second from the left in the photo)
[New City Magazine – November 2020 pages 8-10]
I concluded my review* of Chiara Lubich’s book My Ecumenical Journey with the phrase ‘Hopefully this book will inspire us to reflect and write our own ecumenical journey along the Emmaus road to unity!’ That set me thinking of the many people I have met along this road, some of whom will share their journey from December’s issue of New City onwards.
I began to look back over my own continuing ecumenical journey. It dawned on me that from when I can remember I was ecumenical! My passion for Christian unity spans the whole of my life.
An ecumenical upbringing
My Mother is Irish from a Catholic family and Daddy, English, from an Anglican family. My summer holidays were spent in Ireland between Derry/Londonderry and Donegal with my Granma and Aunties who were very ecumenical, even before ecumenism was spoken of. Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians were at home in their house.
I was born in Devon in front of an Anglican Church, but as the only Catholic family in the village, we travelled to the Catholic Church and School.
When we moved to Lincolnshire, I went to a school in which initially mine was the only Catholic family. My teachers and friends were mainly Methodists and Anglicans. I asked what they did in Religious Education lessons from which I was exonerated being a Catholic. They told me about Bible stories familiar to me from the readings at Mass. I was in the choir and orchestra and through performances in many different Churches I became familiar with their services.
We had no Bible in our house, just our Sunday Missal. I asked my parish priest for one as I realized that it was common to all Christians. I began to read from Genesis, but it was too difficult to understand! I started praying that someone would explain the Bible to me and how to live it.
Encounter with Focolare
God answered my prayers a few years later on going to Liverpool to study where, by chance, I was invited to a Focolare meeting, which being a music student sounded like a Folk evening! They did sing, but what impressed me was that Christians of different Churches spontaneously shared how they lived a certain phrase of the Gospel. That night I went back to the halls of residence and knelt down thanking God that I had found people who could teach me how to live according to the Gospel and I too began to live it.
After finishing my degree I went to Focolare’s little town at Loppiano in Italy because I felt God was calling me to give my life to him in this Movement whose goal is to contribute to ‘That all may be one’ (Cf. Jn 17).
After the course there I was asked to go to Focolare’s ecumenical centre in Rome, ‘Centro Uno’ for the unity of Christians and to study theology. From then on, my journey accelerated! ‘Centre Uno’ is the international secretariat that promotes and follows Focolare’s ecumenical commitment worldwide. This entailed working for and with Chiara Lubich. I had the privilege to have been present at many of the speeches published in her book My Ecumenical Journey. These and many other events in which Chiara shared her ecumenical vision, opened up to me a completely new landscape.
I had the privilege of working with Focolare’s co-founder, Igino Giordani, an ecumenical pioneer from pre-Vatican II days and director of ‘Centro Uno’, from whom I also learnt much.
At ‘Centro Uno’ my ecumenical journey took on new horizons because until then I really only knew Christians from the Western World. That soon changed. I participated at a meeting for Orthodox youth in France. There the riches of Eastern Christianity opened my mind and heart and I began breathing with the two lungs of Western and Eastern Christianity.
Ecumenism of the people – the dialogue of life
Simultaneously through my theological studies in Rome at the Lateran University and at the Oriental Institute, I became more convinced that Chiara was opening up a new road in the ecumenical movement. She, who understood in pre-Vatican II days, the ecumenical implications of Christians living the Gospel together, unbeknown was laying the foundation for a new dialogue. The ecumenical movement has seen Christians praying together, studying together through theological dialogues, collaborating on social and justice issues, but through Focolare’s spirituality of unity, a new dialogue was born: the ‘dialogue of life’. Chiara ‘discovered’ in 1995 that Focolare people from different Churches were living a new dialogue together. This ‘dialogue of the people’ does not substitute the other dialogues, nor is it a grass roots dialogue in competition with official dialogues, but it undergirds all types of dialogue, like a humus on which they can flourish.
Through one of the fundamental points of Chiara’s theological thought, based on the ecumenical implications of Matthew 18: 20 ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’3 I began studying the new awakening in the ecumenical world of the importance of building up the koinonia (communion) among Christians. Theological dialogues between the Churches underline how our common Christian heritage is the way forward towards Christian unity. That is why I wrote my doctoral thesis on Focolare’s contribution to the ecumenical koinonia.
From 1995 onwards as part of the Abba School, Focolare’s interdisciplinary study centre, I have studied Chiara’s writings from an ecumenical perspective. My discovery many years ago of her ecumenical intuitions and their potential for Christian unity, have been reinforced continually by the fruits of her vision and work, which continue after her death in 2008.
One intuition is related to a new and simple concept that is developing in the ecumenical world. A key phrase of Chiara was ‘make yourself one [with the other]’ (Cf. 1Cor 9: 19-23). This I find helpful in living ‘receptive ecumenism’. Essentially, it means that each one asks themselves what have I to learn from other Churches, how can I receive their gifts? It is a reciprocal ecumenical learning curve that, while understanding other Churches better, we deepen the knowledge of our own ecclesial identity. I have had many experiences of this.
A recent example – I am involved in ecumenical formation and this year there was a student from a Pentecostal Church. Pentecostalism is a global dynamic expanding reality. I thought it was important that the students who came from different continents had a correct understanding of what Pentecostalism is and asked her to give a lesson to the class. On her reticence, I suggested we did it together. To this, she replied ‘yes!’ Both of us learnt a lot, as did the class, from this joint lesson. And I am continually learning!
The journey continues
Over the years I have seen how Chiara’s charism of unity continues to inspire new generations on their ecumenical journey, so my journey continues, travelling with optimism alongside many others on this road towards Christian Unity: our ‘quo vadis’.
* Joan Patricia Back, My ecumenical journey by Chiara Lubich, New City, July 2020, p.17.