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Unity and love: the spirit of Focolare

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.

woman stands on mountain over field under cloudy sky at sunrise
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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.

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Visit https://www.focolare.org/ to find out more.

Nostra Aetate over shisha: a conversation about inter-religious experience

We are sitting on cushions at a low table, enjoying shisha from a shared hookah in the corner of a light, airy building in a shopping center in Central Texas. There is country music on the radio, and a minty, fruity smoke rising around us in the late afternoon sun.

Frank, (or as I call him,”Frankly,”) is my first late husband’s oldest brother. Our families have remained close over the years. He and his wife, Karin, are visiting from their home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (Milwaukee area.)

Today, I have set out to interview Frank about his experiences of inter-religious dialogue. I have been reflecting on Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions. It seems to me that our own Frank is a living example of what respectful friendship between the faiths could look like if taken seriously and personally, lived out in individual relationships and respectful, curious overtures, even shared prayer.

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Frank agreed to talk about his journey, though his natural state is somewhat taciturn. It takes him a while to warm up sometimes… so I’ll wait.

Right now Frank is not sure what he thinks of this hookah business, a hobby that I and his son, Hans have taken up from time to time. He stares at the plastic sanitary tip of the hose we have handed him, unsure of what to do with it.

“?”

While he figures this hookah thing out, I will give you some details to confuse you about Frank. (I say confuse because some of the facts about him are not usually found together in one person.)

Introducing Francis K. Pauc, West Point graduate, Army veteran (helicopter pilot) peace activist, father of an Iraq war veteran (Hans, mentioned above.) He is also a volunteer at the local V.A. hospital, an avid defender of immigrants’ rights, friend of Dominican Sisters, assister of people in the Catholic Worker movement (which was founded by Dorothy Day), and writer of many letters to the editor on issues of import.

He has written a book, available on Amazon Kindle, and in paper back, called Father at War. He is a recently retired dock foreman of a shipping company, a devout cradle Catholic with a long and distinguished history of being active in his parish, St. Stephen’s.  He has been twenty years a lector, a past RCIA teacher, and past parish council member, among other activities.

He is also the token Catholic at the Buddhist Sangha at Milwaukee Zen Center, frequent attender of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in his area, and he now and then hangs out at the local mosque. He is a regular pray-er/visitor at the Sikh temple in his neighborhood.

Frank is the father of three adult children, long time husband to Karin, who he met and married while stationed in Germany as a young man.

He is of Slovenian heritage but is sometimes mistaken to be Turkish. Lately he has grown a long beard and looks very Orthodox Jewish. On that last long peace walk his beard became a bit dred-lock-ish.

I have known Frank since the late eighties when I started dating brother # 6 in the Pauc family of seven boys, Marc Blaze.

Frank is starting to be amused with the hookah experience. I can tell he is comfortable enough I can ask him questions now.

Fortunately, besides his big, German village wedding, his journey learning about other faiths is his favorite subject.

His habitually taciturn, crabby look becomes a warm, soft- eyed lucidity now as I begin to ask how all this started for him. When did he first learn about other religions, I ask, blowing out my delicious smoke.

Frank says his first real look at another religion was learning about Islam in the Army, since he had to learn Arabic. Then he took a refresher course in Arabic with someone from work, years later, at a Muslim culture center. He made more friends there. They didn’t necessarily talk about faith all of the time. They moved from learning Arabic to talking about their kids, their wives, their work, their daily lives.

grayscale photography of woman kneeling on area rug
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After 9/11, Frank wanted to do something personal to cross the widening divide in our country between non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans. He ended up going by the mosque. He found the front locked so he went around back to the kitchen. “I thought you guys might need friends.”

“Are you Muslim?”

“No. I am a Catholic.”

Frank is the only person I know who would show up to an unfamiliar place of worship and ask, “Anybody want to talk about God?”

Frank observes that the prohibition on images in Muslim art has created a very masculine looking art form of geometric shapes and calligraphy, which is beautiful, but, to him, missing something. He thinks it’s a conception of the feminine side of the Divine that is absent. This gave him a new appreciation of our knowledge of the the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, “Creator Blessed,” and of our Mother Mary exemplifying and reflecting this to us. He thinks our ability to be spoken to by God through images is related to conscious contact with the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary through whom the Incarnation was accomplished. The Incarnation puts us in touch with how God communicates through what we can see and touch. It’s why, he theorizes, Catholic art is so glorious. It’s because we have Mary, and we are very in touch with that creative motherly energy and imagery.

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He talks about how sad it is that so many Christians have lost their mother. Their art is not as cool as ours, either, he thinks. “There’s got to be a connection here.”

He really did love the Dome of the Rock, though when he went to the Holy Land. “That was awesome.”

But we digress. We smoke in silence a while… listening to the pleasant bubbling sound of the water in the hookah’s base. 

white smoke
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Years ago, Frank says, he became curious about the Sikh Temple in his neighborhood. He smiles when he remembers his visits there. “You have to eat. They always feed you. You never leave without eating.”

He adds that the music is great. Like a cross between our best praise and worship, and the coolest Indian music ever. Frank likes to find someone and ask them questions like, “Do you think God loves you?” and go from there.

The Sikh Temple he liked to visit was the same one where there was a shooting in 2012 . Frank knew one of the people who was killed. He was among those who offered support. He still likes to drop by and pray.

Sometimes he meets interesting people of other religions in his work as a peace activist. He met a Buddhist monk named Senji on a long peace walk he went on to protest drone warfare. The next year, he, his wife Karin, and his son, Stefan, went to visit Senji in his monastery in Oregon. They had a great time, and found a lot in common, especially in the social justice work the monks engaged in, and their quiet, dedicated life.

two monks walking between trees
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The desire for contemplative prayer was what got Frank to visit the Zen Center in the first place. He and Karin had tried to find a place to learn forms of Christian contemplative prayer and practice in a group and had not found one. (They have now.) So Frank and Karin went and sat with the Buddhists. Karin always took her rosary and prayed that. Frank started hanging around all the time and being part of the life of the Sangha, even though there are some things that as a Catholic he can’t do, of course.

He decided to learn more, and he loved hanging around. They appreciated his thoughts. When he thought something was stupid, he always said so, (he always does, regardless of the company,) and he also gave his thoughts as a Christian. They came to appreciate this.  He liked sitting in silence with them.

person meditating
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Going to “Zen practice” regularly brought visible changes to Frank.

I remember seeing these changes in him. He became much more playful and open and calm. Less “‘onry.” I think he really did find peace. I could see it in his face and hear it in his speech. I could tell by  his kinder  attitude, and even the way he carried himself. He still can be found at the Milwaukee Zen Center on a Saturday morning if he’s not volunteering, or traveling somewhere.

He says getting to know his friends at the Zen Center helped him delve into his own faith and prayer traditions all the more.

“It’s made me a better Catholic.”

Learning to sit quietly in what was consciously a form of trusting, un-knowing prayer, for him, brought him nearer to God, and God blessed him with a sense of open-ness and peace. It seems the Lord continued to lead Frank on his unique travels through the spiritual world and to teach him that learning about how other people love and understand God is an act of love.

It is worth remembering that Thomas Merton, a great American Catholic admired by Pope Francis, also got to know Buddhism very well, made friends with Buddhist monks, and found ways to share silence and spiritual practice with them that enriched his own faith.

I asked him what lead him to choose to start showing up at the Orthodox synagogue, rather than Reformed. “Is it because of being Catholic and therefore more into deep, rooted, more ritualistic and mystical worship? ” He said no, that it was because that was the closest synagogue to his house. “What made you want to learn more about Judaism?” One of his more rare expressions crosses his face; an innocent, child like look. “Because I wanted to understand.”

He says he became very close with the Rabbi there and began to take Hebrew lessons. He was often invited to dinner at the Rabbi’s house, and even to Passover. He says he doesn’t think anyone can have the fullest appreciation for their Christianity if they don’t get to know Judaism. He said attending their liturgies changed him as a lector. He grew in his appreciation of the Scripture and reading the Old Testament at mass was a more profound experience for him after seeing the very solemn and reverent way it is read in the synagogue.

He remembers a funny conversation he had with he Rabbi who said, “Oh, you Christians, always forgetting Satan isn’t anything close to equal with God,” when Frank was worried about something.

He still likes going to the Synagogue regularly.

Frank remarks that Jesus was a good Jew, and that he thinks of Jesus as his older brother. I smile, remembering that is what John Paul II said about the Jewish people and the Church. They are our older brother.

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I say that it strikes me that his inter-religious ministry and journey seems to be about making personal connections, about being a friend. He agrees with that, though he says he is less conscious of that than just wanting to understand others and share with them. He feels compelled about this.

He says he is most impressed by the people who are deeply and “completely sold” on their religion. He respects the most those who have “their faith woven into he fabric of their every day life. When it’s just who they are.” Those are the people it’s easiest to talk to, and who return the interest he gives to them about their faith.

At times he has wondered if he should stop hanging around Buddhists and the Orthodox Jews.  They were quick to say they needed him around, and enjoyed what he had to say. They felt spiritually up lifted by their token Catholic.

At one time in his life, following a series of crises and being simultaneously very wounded by some in his own parish,  he actually struggled about whether to remain Catholic or not.  It was his friends at the Zen Center and the synagogue, who said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Catholic Church.” They cared more than anyone else, he said.

Now that he is newly retired, he can spend more time volunteering, working for peace, and walking into temples, synagogues and mosques asking about God and giving the gift of a listening heart to anyone willing to share their faith.

Frank seems to have been aptly named after the great St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach he Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

Frank and Karin are off to their next stop on their summer adventures; a Catholic Worker farm, then a Youth Hostel, a Benedictine guest house, and then on to Mt. Bly in Oregon to visit my off the grid daughter, Maire, and her little family.

I mention, as we get up to leave the cafe, that we’ve actually been talking Nostra Aetate over our shisha. Frank says, “Yeah. That pretty much rocks.”

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Read Nostra Aetate

Hookah: a waterpipe
Mu‘assel, or shisha tobacco: the molasses-based tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah; often comes in various flavors such as rose, lemon, mint, etc.
Hookah lounge, or shisha bar: an establishment where patrons share shisha

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