[New City Magazine – October 2020 page 14-15]

Helen Copeland reports on GB’s first ‘virtual Mariapolis’ which attracted 400+ participants.

‘History’s in the making if you dare’ – the lines of a song which opened the first ‘virtual’ Mariapolis in Great Britain, held on Saturday 25th July. Many of the 400+ participants agreed at the end that this indeed had been a day like no other.

The annual summer gatherings of the Focolare Movement – Mariapolis – are the highlight of the year for many members and friends of the Movement. This glimpse of a society built on the law of the gospel ‘love one another as I have loved you’ is seen at the events which also bring together people of different belief systems, connected by the desire to build a united world.

When it became clear that the usual week-long residential would not be possible in 2020, work began to set up Mariapolis ‘online’.

An essential characteristic of Mariapolis is the participation by people of all ages and backgrounds. The challenge to make an online event child-friendly and accessible to those unfamiliar with current technology was a huge one. However, teams working together over many Zoom and phone hours developed a programme that crossed these barriers more effectively than could have been expected.

An exceptional joy was the participation by many who would have been unable to attend a physical event due to health limits or other restrictions. Also, the international aspect of Mariapolis was enhanced by connection points in the USA, Finland, Canada, Sweden, India and Nigeria – to name but a few!

Live input of reflections on the theme ‘Jesus in our midst – a light for the world’ were interspersed with real life experiences from the family, workplace and community. Contributors shared how trying to love those around them, especially in difficult situations, generates a ‘light’ as hearts and minds are transformed, and a response of love occurs.

One particularly moving moment was the interview with two women, one originally from Angola and the other from Nigeria, who shared how they had tried to bring love into situations where there was racism and had seen those situations transformed.

Looking outwards to building a ‘culture of unity’ the #Daretocare* project was launched. This international initiative of the Focolare Movement seeks to bring this ‘light’ into society, from grassroots projects, collaboration with existing actions to higher levels of political, academic and social activity.

Workshops in the afternoon offered smaller group discussions on different topics such as active citizenship and the climate emergency, as well as chances to relax together with craft, games or a walk ‘virtually’ together.

Children and young people played an intrinsic part in the programme. The youngest ones had recorded a song recalling Jesus’ promise to be with those who love, and the young adults prepared much of the evening entertainment ‘Mariapolis TV’. Musical contributions allowed reflection and relaxation, and there was also comedy, an interactive quiz, poetry and a virtual art gallery of works sent in by participants.

A moment of reflection featuring contributions from world religions and humanist perspectives offered a time for all to take stock of the light that each one had received, and to consider how it could be shared to contribute to a world of peace and justice.

A word that sums up Mariapolis has always been ‘family’. This family, many of whom had never met, lit a small flame together that they hope continues to be a light for the world.

Some impressions from those who participated in the day

‘I loved the way technology was used creatively to bring the Focolare family and friends together for an online Mariapolis. Although we were in different places, it really did feel like the usual Mariapolis. I loved the ideas and admired the way lots of hard work and planning behind the scenes made it seem spontaneous! Well done!

‘Being together. Nothing makes up for not being in one place but yesterday was as good as anyone could possible achieve.’

‘It showed me how social distancing cannot stop the closeness and power of a united world. In fact there was a real sense that through using this format, this was even more tangible. Thank you all!’

‘I went for a walk afterwards and I can honestly say that I felt my heart burning within me! I was alone and felt totally uplifted by the whole experience. Thank you so much.’

‘This light was truly visible in the programme of the day, particularly through the experiences. However, the most significant witness was the spirit of family and unity among all participants, regardless of their geographic locations, ages, races, faiths, cultures and backgrounds.’

‘This was my first Mariapolis (having been invited by friends in Dorchester). I was struck by the joy of everyone and it was great to see the film about the founder, Chiara Lubich. I felt as though I learnt more about love… I had a lot to reflect on. I loved the personal stories/testimonies and to hear the wonderful results where people have reached out to others (be the first to love)! It gave me a better insight as to how we make Jesus present through acts of charity.’

‘The variety of offerings. The genuineness of it all. It was my first Mariapolis and it has left me with a desire to put love into action.’

‘This was the first Mariapolis gathering I attended and it was particularly good because I could connect with people of like-spirit worldwide. The gathering was available to nearly all as it broke through barriers that would have otherwise prevented people from attending – health, time, commitments, travel, financial…’

* see New City August/September 2020

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