During World War II on the night of May 13, 1944, Allied bombers devastated the city of Trent. Many residents fled to the surrounding mountains, but one woman, Chiara Lubich, whose home was destroyed, had a life-changing religious experience. She met a woman in the ruins who had lost all four of her children and was crazy with grief. As Chiara tried to comfort the mother, she felt she was being asked to embrace the suffering of humanity. Her experience had roots months earlier when in a small chapel she was overwhelmed by God’s love and changed her name from Silvia to Chiara in honor of the woman saint who worked with Francis of Assisi (“Clare” in English).
After the war she met Igino Giordani, a journalist and member of the Italian Parliament, and Pasquale Foresi, who eventually became a Catholic priest. Together they launched Focolare, a movement that has grown to well over 100,000 members in 182 nations. The vision of Focolare, which means “hearth” or “family fireside,” was rooted in Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, “That they may all be one.” Lubich sought to “bring an invasion of love in the world.” Through the power of spirituality she specifically addressed some of the long-standing prejudices and conflicts that divide humanity.
Though the Focolare movement is rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition, it includes Christians from other traditions (Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox) and people of other religions ( Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Baha’i) as well as people who claim no particular religion. They seek to foster dialogues across Christian confessional lines, across religious lines and across political lines. Lubich hosted many sessions of political dialogue in which she challenged national leaders to “love the nation of the other as you love your own.” Within the Christian community she called for improved ecumenical relations and worked toward communion among the different traditions of Christianity. She encouraged believers of different religions to affirm and foster together universal values that respect our common humanity. Even people of no religious affiliation could join in supporting values such as freedom, respect for human rights, solidarity and peace.
Lubich’s encouragement of dialogue resulted in doors being opened for her to speak in places Christian lay women were not known to frequent, such as before 800 Buddhist monks and nuns in Thailand, with 3,000 African-American Muslims at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York, and before the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. She received recognition from UNESCO and the Council of Europe and many other political and religious bodies for her peace education and defense of individual and social rights.
Some people have criticized the intensity and rigorousness that a commitment to life within the Focolare movement required. Other critics have attacked conservative moral stances by Focolare, and yet others have made accusations of syncretism and have charged that Focolare is trying to develop one world faith. Through all this criticism, however, Lubich remained within the Roman Catholic Church and expressed her spirituality within the terms of the Christian Scriptures. To those outside the movement she was respected for fostering dialogue across class, generation, political and ethnic lines as well as religious lines. She was clear in explaining that her passion for crossing religious boundaries arose within her own religious faith. She didn’t require that others share her same religious source. Instead, she encouraged people to meet to work together on shared problems. By living out that message Lubich became an inspiration for people of many faiths.
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This profile on Tenzin Gyatso comes from the pages of my book, Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.