In a bomb shelter in the Italian town of Trent in 1943, a group of young girls talked about how their hopes dreams were being crushed by World War II. Their town was relentlessly bombed. Families who could were leaving as the town literally fell apart. Those left behind were suddenly living in poverty and ruin. It seemed so hopeless.
Is there anything that no bomb can destroy? An ideal that transcends all? Something to truly live for? The answer that came was, “God.”
During the time in the bomb shelter, they opened the Gospel and read. The words of Jesus came alive for them like never before. They seemed immediate. They began to take a verse or phrase each day and try to live it concretely.
They began to care for and love those around them regardless of race, religion, politics or anything at all; to love them in a personal way and take care of them as Mary had cared for Jesus. They discovered more and more a spirituality of unity and love. Such was their light and joy that more and more people joined them. Eventually they became a new spiritual family in the Church: The Focolare Movement, an International Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, blessed and encouraged by St. John Paul II who was very excited about them and their promotion of the ideals of unity, love, and universal brotherhood.
The official name is actually “The Work of Mary.” They are to bring Jesus to everyone, as Mary did.
Focolare means, “Hearth,” in Italian and that makes sense because they have become true peace makers through their work, their spirit and their inclusiveness. They are a spiritual hearth, nourishing and welcoming the whole world.
Focolare operates in 180 countries now with 140,440 members. When I see what Focolare is, it gives me so much hope for the Church. “This is where we’re going now,” I think. And that makes me smile.
While Focolare is a Catholic organization, it welcomes people of other Christian traditions, people of other religions, people of no particular religion and atheists. As local Focolare member, Julia Mendonca Motekaitis says, “Anyone who wants to be one with the mission of love is welcome!”
Julia says being part of Focolare has given her a “deep sense of the universality of the faith.” She says, “This is one aspect of the Church I can really see that it is moving forward.”
What does it mean to live as a member of the Focolare? Julia says it has given her the tools to interact in society as a Christian, not to be timid, and also not to judge or move away from people who are difficult.
She talks about the ideal of unity in daily life. “You can be one with anyone at any moment. In any interaction with another person we can make Jesus real so they can see him!”
It’s not always easy. She has had to work through judgmentalism and prejudice she didn’t realize she had in order to love and encounter Jesus in others. “We have to see people with new vision, new eyes.”
Focolare was brought to Bryan-College Station by a Focolare priest (now a Bishop) Michael Mulvey, and is still going strong. At monthly meetings, a portion of the Gospel is read. Members talk about their failures and successes in trying to live it out. They support and encourage one another. Julia says the real goal is what happens between meetings, which is to love God by loving others, to be one with others “in all things but sin.” She says the spirituality and ideals of Focolare have given her the courage and resolve to live the Gospel.
Rose Schmitz, who has been part of Focolare for 24 years, described her faith life before Focolare as very satisfactory. She was very happy to be active and involved in the life of the Church. It was as if she was working for “The best boss in the whole world and I loved Him with my whole heart. I knew I was in the right building. But I felt like I was on the bottom floor and this boss was mostly on the top floor. I didn’t get to see him very much. It was as if I only saw the boss in passing on the elevator or something. In Focolare I realized he was in the other person all along. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s you!” Now she feels like she has coffee with the boss every day and he is always with her. She feels freed and more able to love as she has grown in Focolare spirituality.
I asked Rose how she thought we could heal the divisions of our time. She said that when there is a division, to remember that we are dealing with a human person. “People come first before things. People come first before ideas. Peace is more important than being right. ” Once you have prioritized seeing the other person as a human being first, “You can then enter into the division seeking to understand more than to be understood. The goal is not to change the other person, only to understand.” You will come away perhaps not as a winner, “but you will come away enlightened.”
In this way, I reflected, one would also feel more whole and so would the other person. Maybe that is what unity can be.
The Focolare ideal, I am told, is to love until love is returned. In that process of learning to love one another, each person begins to empty themselves. When that happens, the presence of Jesus becomes more clear. “He will begin to speak,” Rose says. “He will begin to solve problems, to bring about the unity he prayed for.”
Matt and Jari Whitacre, also long time Focolarine, talked to me about the annual “Mariopolis” most members try to attend regularly. People bring their whole families. The retreats are usually held on college campuses, and attendants stay in dorms. Their are different events for children of all ages, as well as discussions and talks for adults. There are shared meals and a games night for everyone. The only rule of the retreat is to love one another. Priests, Bishops, the consecrated, lay single and married people attend. Relationships are humble and egalitarian. Adoration is available as well as Reconciliation and daily mass. Jari notes that non-Catholics usually attend daily mass with everyone else even though this is not asked of them. There are times also that all can pray together as one.
All the Focolare family I spoke to talked about how loved and cared for they felt at the Mariopolis. Jari told a story about having a child come down sick and having to take her back to their room. People kept bringing Jari books to read, checking on her, bringing food, offering to help with the other children. There was an attendee who was a doctor who come by and asked if there was anything he could do.
Around the world there are permanent Focolare towns to show that people of all cultures, races and religions can live together in unity and love.
Over the years I have been to several Catholic conferences where there were tables around manned by people from various movements and ministries. I will say, “Oh there are the Focolare people,” pointing them out. And I am always right. There is something about them that is recognizable.
The founder, Chiara Lubich, asked why she didn’t wear a habit, replied, “I have no habit. My habit is my smile.”
Maybe that’s it; it’s that special Focolare smile, joyful and authentic. I consider it a sure sign of the Holy Spirit.
Visit https://www.focolare.org/ to find out more.