«That all may be one» (Jn. 17,21)
We were born for these words, for unity, to give a contribution to its realization in the world. Chiara Lubich
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|Thursday, February 07, 2008|
as told by Chiara Lubich
My witness of life and faith goes hand in hand with the foundation and development of the Focolare Movement. It is quite a singular experience.
When God takes someone in hand to give rise to one of his works in the Church, the person concerned does now know what he or she will be doing. That person is God's instrument. And I think that this might be true in my case, too.
The Movement which was born has all the qualities of a work of God: unconditional unity with the Church, a fruitfulness and outreach disproportionate to any purely human strength or talent; crosses, but also fruits and fruits, very abundant fruits.
And God's instruments, generally speaking, have one characteristic: smallness, weakness. St. Paul says,"God chose those who by human standards are weak... God chose ... those that count for nothing ... so that no human being may feel boastful before God" (1 Cor 1:27-29). And as God’s hand moves this instrument, he forms it through a thousand deft strokes, making use of joyful as well as sorrowful elements. In this way he makes it more and more suited to the task it has to fulfil, until the point that it acquires a profound knowledge of self and can truly say: I am nothing, God is everything.
When everything began in Trent, I did not have a plan, I knew nothing. The idea for this Movement was in God, the plan was in heaven. It was like this at the beginning. It had been so during the 60 years and more of the Focolare Movement's development.
A first sign. It was 1939. I was invited to go to Loreto, the famous Marian town and shrine located in central Italy, for a gathering of Catholic students. Loreto was to be the starting point of my spiritual experience.
I attended the meetings with all the others. As soon as I could, however, on the first breaks, I ran to the Little House, which is now encased in a fortress-like church and which people think was part of the house of Nazareth. I did not have time to check whether historically this was the place which housed the Holy Family or not. I used to kneel down beside a wall blackened by the smoke of the candles. I could not utter a word. Something new and divine enveloped me, almost overwhelming me.
I contemplated in my mind the life of virginity of those three people. So Mary would have lived here. Joseph would have walked across the room, from here to there. The child Jesus in their midst would have known this place for years. The walls would have echoed with the voice of this child… tears fell uncontrollably. That is what happened the first time. But then, at every break between meetings, I always hurried there. That dwelling together of virgins with Jesus present among them attracted me irresistibly.
Then came the last day. The church was filled with young people. A thought flashed through my mind, one which I will never forget:“you will be followed by an array of virgins.”
Once back in Trent I met with my students ─ I was a primary school teacher ─ and the parish priest. He saw how happy I was and asked:"Have you found your way in life?" "Yes," I said. ""Marriage?" "No." "The Convent?" "No." "A life of virginity in the world?" "No," I said, "it is a fourth way". But I knew nothing more.
Four years went by.
One day, while doing an act of love I realized that God was calling me to give myself to him forever. I asked a priest for permission to do this and obtained it. It was December 7, 1943. The inner joy I experienced was boundless, secret, but contagious. Through different circumstances I came to meet young people my own age. They wanted to follow my way.
It was 1944. The war was raging in Trent, too. It meant disaster, destruction, death. The bombings continued and the people or things that had been in some way the ideal of our young hearts were taken from us. One loved her home: it was damaged. Another was waiting to get married: her fiancé did not come back from the front. Studies were my ideal: the war prevented me from going to the university.
All that was happening affected us deeply. The lesson that God was offering us in these circumstances was clear:everything is vanity of vanities. Everything passes... A question surfaced in our minds: is there an ideal that does not die, that no bomb can destroy, an ideal we can give our whole selves to?
Yes, there is. It is God. Right in the midst of the destruction caused by war and hatred, the light of the charism made us understand something very new. As if for the first time, a dazzling truth emerged before us: “God is Love” (1 Jn 4,8): everything that happens to us – joyful or sad or indifferent – all things appeared to us as an expression of God’s love. The joy and amazement we felt were so great that we did not lose a moment to choose Him, God who is Love, as the Ideal of our lives. Immediately, we shared our great discovery to the people near us – relatives and friends: “God is Love, God loves us, God loves you!”
Our parents found shelter in the many valleys. We stayed in Trent: some for work or their studies. I stayed mostly in order to look after the Movement which was coming to life. We lived together in a small apartment and called it “the little house”.
We ran to the air raid shelters night and day. And took the Gospel with us.
We had found the ideal to live for: God. But what did this imply?
The Gospel gave the answer: “It is not the one who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). So there was no false piety or sentimentalism. To do God’s will: that was what mattered. Everyone can put this into practice: this was the ticket to holiness for the crowds.
I had already put my books in the attic. At 18 years of age I had but one desire: to know God. Philosophy, the subject I passionately loved in school, no longer satisfied me. Since I was choosing a university to enroll in, I thought that in a Catholic university, I could know something more about God and understand who He is. For several reasons I could not be admitted; as I wept bitterly over this, I seemed to hear a voice in my soul which said: “I myself will be your Teacher.”.
Now, after several years, I can say that He who said these words was true to his promise. He sent me a gift of light, a charism of the Holy Spirit that gave us an understanding of the entire Gospel. Jesus’ words in the Gospel are unique, fascinating, incisive. They can be translated into life. They are light for every person who comes into the world and so they are universal words. By living them everything changed: our relationship with God, with our neighbour, with our enemies. Those words gave all values their rightful place and enabled people to put give up everything else, even their father or mother, their brothers or sisters, or their jobs... so as to give God the first place in their lives.
The Gospel makes extraordinary promises: a hundred times more in this life and eternal life. Where was the bent-neck piety, the drone of empty prayers, faith as mere habit, the inaccessible God? No, no, that is not Jesus’ religion. He acts as God. For the little that you give he covers you with gifts. You are alone and you find yourself surrounded by a hundred mothers, a hundred fathers, a thousand brothers, sisters, and all kinds of goods to give to those who have nothing. There is no human situation that cannot find an explicit or implicit answer in that little book which contains words of God.
We tried to put into practice the sentences of the Gospel, one at a time. One day we read, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 19,19). My neighbour? Who is my neighbour? We realized that this meant the person next to us – all those people who suffered from the war, the wounded, those who lacked clothing, a home, those who were hungry and thirsty. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do it to me.” We would cook huge pots of soup to bring to the poor. When they knocked at our door we invited them to sit side by side with us at table.
“Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7:7), the Gospel assures us. We asked for everything we needed. And in the midst of the war came sacks and sacks of flour, crates of milk, of jam, firewood and clothing for the poor of the city.
One day I met a poor man: “Give me a pair of shoes, size 42,” he pleaded. “Where will I find a pair of men’s shoes, size 42 in the midst of this war?” I asked myself. I was then passing by the Church of St. Clare. I entered the church and saw the small tabernacle lamp which told me that Jesus was there. “Jesus, give me a pair of shoes, size 42 for you in that poor man,” I prayed. As I was leaving the church a woman with a package in her hands came towards me, saying, “Chiara, this is for your poor.” It was a pair of shoes, size 42!
The Gospel is true, we experienced it! This encouraged us to pursue the road we had taken, and to make of the Gospel the only rule of the Movement which was coming to life. The Holy Spirit pushed us further to share the experiences we made. We felt a great joy, and the people around us were curious to know how we could be so happy in such sad times. Our new and uplifting experiences in living the gospel spread by word of mouth. They were a small echo of the words of the apostles: Christ is risen. We felt we could say: Christ is alive!
The heart of the Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
The air raid shelter we were in was not safe. We always faced death. Another question arose: is there a will of God that is particularly pleasing to him? If we were to die, we would want to have put that very one into practice, at least in our last moments.
The Gospel gave the answer; it spoke of a new commandment, which Jesus calls his own: “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13). We looked at each other – we were six or seven young women - and we said, “I am ready to give my life for you, I for you, I for you, all for each one”. Not that we were always asked to actually give up our life for the other. We could, however, share everything, our worries, joys, sufferings, the few things we had, our small spiritual achievements. It was a solemn pact, which was to become the foundation of the entire Movement.
Since we put reciprocal love into practice, we noticed that our quality of life changed significantly: we felt a new certainty, a joy we had never known before, a new peace, fullness of life, an unmistakable light. Why? The Gospel itself gave us the answer: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Jesus, very quietly, had entered our group, an invisible Brother. We did not want to lose his presence ever.
Later on, much later, in fact, we understood this was, in bud form, somewhat of a replica of the little house of Nazareth: a dwelling of both persons living in virginity and married people with Jesus in their midst: the focolare. But to have him with us our attitude had to be one of loving to the point of being ready to die for one another. Jesus is spiritually and fully present among us if we are united in this way. From then on we strove to renew our pact of reciprocal love always so that – as Pope Paul VI said – we could “generate” Jesus among us. This is the continual effort of all those who live in the Movement.
One day I took shelter in a dark cellar with my new companions. We had the Gospel with us. By candlelight I opened it. There was the prayer of Jesus before his death, “Father... may they all be one” (Jn 17:21). It was not an easy text for young women like us, but those words seemed to light up one by one and they imprinted in our hearts the conviction that we were born for that page of the Gospel, that is, to contribute to bringing about the unity of men and women with God and with one another, and in this way fulfill God’s plan for mankind.
We met again on the feast of Christ the King and gathered around an altar. We said to Jesus: “You know how unity can come about. Here we are. If you want to, use us.” The liturgy of the day impressed us: “Ask of me, - it said - and I shall give you the nations as your birthright, the whole wide world as your possession” (Psalm 2:8). We asked; God is all powerful.
Jesus said: “May they be one in us, so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). If Christ is present in the unity of brothers and sisters, the world believes. This is what happened around us. After a few months about 500 people of all ages, men and women, of all vocations and of all walks of life wanted to share our Ideal. Everything was held in common among us, as it had been in the first Christian communities.
Among the words of the Gospel we were particularly touched by: “Whoever listens to you listens to me” (Lk 10:16). So as to put it into practice we went to visit our Bishop of Trent, Msgr. Carlo De Ferrari. We told him all that was happening. We were ready to dismantle everything, if this was his decision.
Our Bishop listened; then he smiled and said, “Here is the hand of God,” and his approval and blessing stayed with us until his death. He assured us that the light we were following was an authentic Christian inspiration. Later on, the Catholic Church approved us officially in the person of several Popes.
The war ended. Those who belonged to the Movement were now able to move freely in order to study, to work, or to take this life to others: in fact, they were invited to go to many cities and towns to talk about what they had lived and seen.
Meanwhile, besides the women’s focolare houses which had grown in number, the men’s focolare houses opened. Something new happened: within the focolare communities were welcomed, insofar as their state in life permitted, married people desirous of giving themselves completely (to God). All over Italy, in a quiet way, Christian communities grew up along the lines of the first one in Trent. The Church of Rome, with its centuries of experience and wisdom, studied the new Movement with paternal affection.
There was happiness, discoveries, graces, conquests. This is certainly the life of the Gospel. But right from the start we understood that everything also had another side to it. That the tree had its roots.
The Gospel floods you with love, but demands everything. "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9, 23). Suffering, therefore.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies", Jesus says, “it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Death, therefore.
And this Movement has experienced suffering in many ways, as a consequence of living the Gospel, as a providential means for the purification of its members. But with the grace of God each person has known how to love suffering, making their own the words of St. Paul: “I know only Christ and him crucified” (cf 1 Cor 2:2).
Jesus crucified! Through a circumstance, we came to know that the Jesus’ greatest suffering, the apex of his love, was the moment when, on the cross, he felt abandoned by the Father: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27, 46). Jesus, then, experienced in himself the division of mankind from God and among themselves. He felt the Father far from him. In an outburst of generosity, in which the special help from Heaven was certainly not lacking, we decided that this was the way we would follow Jesus, we would love him in this suffering of his.
From that moment on we seemed to discover his countenance everywhere. We recognized him in our personal sufferings as well as in those of our neighbours, who were often alone, abandoned, forgotten. But we also recognized him in all big or small divisions, traumas, conflicts, the indifference of people to one another within families, between generations, between rich and poor, and sometimes even within the Church.
But all these difficulties did not make us afraid; rather, because of our love for Jesus Forsaken, they attracted us. After Jesus on the cross cried out his abandonment, he entrusted his spirit to the Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23,46). We experienced that as soon as we loved him in any suffering and, as he did, we re-entrusted ourselves to the Father and continued to love him by doing his will at the next moment, suffering – if spiritual – disappeared; if it was physical, its burden was lightened. We found God anew, more “face to face,” in a fuller union with him. Light and joy returned as well as peace, the fruit of the Spirit of Love. Unity broken was recomposed.
One day, the air raid shelter we were in was shaken by a violent bombing nearby. I fell prostrate to the ground and was covered with a thick layer of dust. As the people around me cried out terrified, I got up calmly and peacefully, like someone who was miraculously saved. While my life was in danger, I felt a deep pain in my soul: the pain of realizing that I would no longer be able to pray the Hail Mary. At that time I did not understand the meaning of this idea. Later on, as the first group of focolarine came to life and the work of God took shape, I understood the significance of that suffering.
Perhaps it was part of God’s plans that praise be lifted up to Mary during our times: that Hail Mary had to be made up of living words, people who like another small Mary, gave Love to the world. This was why, as if by supernatural instinct, we called the Movement: “Work of Mary.”
After this first manifestation of Mary to us, for some time we had no other intuitions about her. We thought that she was dealing with us the way she did with the early Church: she did not appear so as to give room to Jesus completely. We compared her to a door, the door to Christ. A door is not a door if it does not open up to let others pass through.
We realized only much later that her influence had been present since the very beginning of the Movement and ever after even though in a hidden way. The new lifestyle, the “spirituality of unity,” the cardinal points of which the Holy Spirit gradually imprinted words of fire in our hearts, seemed to us to be Mary’s nourishing milk for our souls. The truths we gleaned from the Gospel put into practice – God-Love, the will of God, the Word, love of neighbor, Jesus crucified and forsaken, unity – inter-connected one to the other – enabled us to “generate” (as Pope Paul VI once said) through mutual love – Jesus among us: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Mt 18,20). Jesus spiritually present among us! The very same Jesus whom Mary had given birth to.