Any way you look at her, Chiara Lubich is a phenomenon: living, concrete, real, observable, influential. In her own words, spoken at the Catholic University of America in 2000, when she received an honorary doctorate in Education: "Our Movement [the Focolare] can be viewed from a theological, philosophical, cultural, social, economic or educative standpoint, as well as from an ecumenical or interreligious perspective.” Such a claim is impressive in itself. The fact that Lubich is 85 years old, and still the inspiration of a spiritual movement that began during WWII is further evidence that she is clearly a person to be reckoned with in the 21st century.
Lubich is the founder of the Focolare, one of the amazingly successful spiritual movements of the 20th century. (The name suggests the “gathering around hearth or home.”) Many of these lay spiritual movements were encouraged by none other than John Paul II.
In Lubich’s words, the key focus of her work and that of the Focolare is “to foster unity and dialogue at all levels - and especially in fields of ecumenism, interfaith relations, economics and politics.” She claims that “from the beginning of our Movement there has been only one educator, the Educator par excellence: God who is Love... who took the initiative in our regard, [and] has accompanied us, renewed us and given us new life along an intensely rich itinerary of formation, both personal and communal.”
She promotes “A future where all people live as one family made up of brothers and sisters who love one another beneath the gaze of one Father. Or, for those who do not know God, a family united in the name of that voice of truth which speaks out in every human conscience.”
Collected in this volume are what she and her followers call “Essential Writings,” excerpts from her spiritual writings over the past six decades, as well as some of her more recent public appearances, some on the occasion of the numerous honors that have been bestowed on her in countries all over the planet.
She is bold in addressing the issues that face believers today. “Rarely has our planet experienced the suspicion, fear and even terror of our times. We only have to remember September 11, 2001, and more recently, March 11, 2004, (in Madrid) without forgetting the hundreds of attacks which, in these last few years, have filled our daily news reports. Terrorism – a disaster just as serious as the dozens of wars which today cause bloodshed throughout our planet.”
What are the causes? Perhaps there is a similarity between the intensity of spiritual movements, like Focolare, and the intensity of those who insist on the right of their own cause to defend itself against the encroachment of what it considers dangerous or even evil outside forces. Critics of movements like the Focolore cite “cult-like” characteristics such as prosyletism, isolation, secrecy and elitism. Yet it must be admitted that these suspicions are not uncommon when voiced by outsiders viewing individuals who feel called and become loyal to any of the more familiar and long-established religious orders.
Other critics observe spiritual movements such as the Focolore as almost a “church within the church,” expecting that members will choose to focus their time and energies on groups and activities within the movement rather than within the structures of the wider church. Again, this is not uncommon.
Does the New Testament testimony of Gamaliel offer any insight? Perhaps. The account given in Acts 5:34-39 has this Pharisee saying “…in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."
Reading Essential Writings alongside other works of spirituality will provide students with a sense of the breadth of approaches to living the spiritual life of a Christian. Comparisons will help them critique what may be either beneficial or limiting in various approaches. Being knowledgeable about the variety of lay spiritual movements is also important if faculty are in a position to counsel students or colleagues who are attracted to them.
These Essential Writings are informative, and while Chiara Lubich’s spirituality may not appeal to the sensibilities of a majority of Catholics, neither do many of the other spiritualities which are promoted just as faithfully by their adherents.