Unity & Community
…An Interview With Chiara Lubich
By William Proctor
Publisher: New City Press
Review Author: Greg Erlandson
Given the isolation that Christians feel in today’s world, many have become increasingly fascinated with the possibilities of forming a community of fellow believers who can share the Gospel and help strengthen each other’s faith. Early Christian life as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles is perhaps the best known example of this kind of communitarian Christian life. Traditional monastic or religious communities are another.
But for most of us — lay Christians with families or plans for families — the doubts remain. Can one be fully a parent, a husband, a wife, while living simultaneously within such a community? What is the nature of authority in such a group? And is such a community possible in the midst of all the urban distractions and duties we face?
Examples that many people look to today include charismatic covenant communities, Catholic Worker-type communities, and groups like Opus Dei. But one group not well known in this country, which also tries to address this need for community, is the Focolare Movement.
The Focolare Movement was founded by Chiara Lubich in 1944 in Trent, Italy, in the midst of World War II. With several other young women she attempted to put into action her hunger to serve the Lord, her feelings about community, and her desire for religious unity.
The Focolare consists of both men and women members (Focolarino and Focolarina) and is defined as “a small community of celibate and married men or women whose first aim is to achieve among themselves the unity Jesus prayed for, through the constant practice of mutual love.”
From early on Lubich saw the particular charism of her group as a striving for Christian unity. For Lubich, love is the hallmark of the Christian. Love for one’s fellows is a sign of spiritual maturity. It is also the source of strength by which one struggles to live the Christian life. One fruit of this love should be the fostering of true unity. “Unity is what needs to be stressed in this moment in history,” Lubich told William Proctor.
For Lubich and the Focolare, this unity means first recognizing the “mutual enrichment” that has taken place between denominations and communions. Moreover, it is “possible to learn some truth from non-Christians,” Lubich said, “although this truth is already entirely present in Jesus Christ.”
As general statements of purpose, these goals are both undeniable and unexceptional. Of greater interest is how the Focolarine implement these goals in a daily way. Unfortunately, how one lives as a Focolarino is not answered in this book. But the conversation recorded here does let one see the philosophy that animates the movement’s practices.
Focolare groups, at least those at the core, participate in a process of “mutual correction” and “mutual emulation.” At such a meeting, one person becomes the focus of the group’s critique. Each person in turn says what he sees in that person which “is not in conformity with the Christian ideal that we want to live.”
After all have had their turn, the process is repeated, only then “each one says something good that he or she has observed in this person.”
Though Lubich herself sounds very enthusiastic about this process, it smacks a bit of “sensitivity” or “consciousness raising” sessions. And it raises, without answering, the ongoing problem of the group versus the individual. Does Christianity provide the safeguards to keep such a process from being destructive of the individual? This is not the book for answers to such questions, but it cannot help but raise them.
To his credit, however, Proctor does try to ask many of the questions we would like to ask saints or the founders of great spiritual movements if we ever had the chance: How do you live? How do you pray? How do you hear the voice of God? How do you live in voluntary community without going crazy?
Unfortunately, he also gets the answers we would be likely to get as well: inspiring but vague. “What is the most difficult problem you face now,” Proctor asks. “No problem is difficult when we have Jesus crucified and forsaken before us,” Lubich (sort of) answers.
Proctor tries again: Does she fear for her movement when she dies? “We are trying to prepare ourselves for that moment,” she replies.
What we get in this book, in short, is not any sort of primer on community, or the Focolare, or a biography of Lubich herself, but simply a glimpse at a remarkable founder of an intriguing movement. It is likely to make the reader hungry for more.
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