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Posted April 3, 2007

A Prophet In Our Own Times and a Success Story to be Reduplicated

Focolare founder praised
as new collection of her writings launched

By Peter Feuerherd
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- As the end of the Lenten season approached, participants in a March 29 seminar at Fordham University reflected upon Chiara Lubich's call to unite the world around Jesus' Good Friday plea, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Some 200 gathered at the Jesuit institution's Manhattan law school to celebrate Lubich's work with Focolare, a Catholic renewal movement that began in the Italian city of Trent in the midst of World War II bombings. The seminar also served as a launch for Lubich's new book, a compilation of her writings published by New City Press.

Lubich, 87, is suffering from ill health and was unable to attend the conference. But her presence at the gathering was felt nonetheless.

"Christ is present now too," Lubich said during a 2001 taped interview for Italian television screened at the conference. She said that realization inspired her, as a 23-year-old, to begin Focolare with a small band of friends.

The group assisted the poor and the frightened as bombs fell in Trent in 1944. The Focolare adherents reflected upon connecting the sufferings of the people there with the sufferings of Jesus on the cross.

Lubich and her friends developed a "new way of reading the Gospel, a collective way," said Michel Vandeleene, a professor at the Teresianum Pontifical Institute of Spirituality in Rome and a curator of Lubich's writings.

The movement she founded eventually attracted hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, becoming known for its youth-oriented festivals and its outreach to non-Christians, including Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

In 1997 Lubich spoke on the theme of unity to African-American Muslims at a Harlem mosque. She has also addressed the United Nations and various interfaith and ecumenical conferences.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican nuncio to the United Nations, spoke at the conference in praise of Lubich's approach to international cooperation. In the divided post-World War II world, he noted, Focolare attempted to bring people together by embracing the motto of the French Revolution -- liberty, equality and fraternity.

But, he said, she emphasized fraternity as the "missing link" of the French Revolution and stressed Christian love and the taking up of one's cross in solidarity with the suffering. When the archbishop served as Vatican representative to war-torn Angola, he said, Focolare representatives provided personal support and a faith witness that inspired him in a chaotic situation.

Lubich's vision, he said, "changes the method of political activity" because it calls upon leaders of different political factions to recognize their common humanity. That kind of consensus on universal religious truths is "the precondition of every kind of dialogue and cooperation" on the world stage, said Archbishop Migliore.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, director of organizational development at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said he is inspired by Lubich and considers her a living saint. "She sees us as brothers and sisters," he noted about her warm relationship with the Jewish community which included a 1998 address to the B'nai B'rith of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

As an Orthodox rabbi, he said that Lubich's reliance on Jesus crucified is "a Christian image that a Jew doesn't know what to do with." But Lubich effectively assured her Jewish audience in Argentina that she unites the Jesus on the cross with the long history of the suffering of Jews culminating in the Holocaust.

"I welcome the book," said Rabbi Blanchard, referring to the newly published collection of Lubich's "Essential Writings." "Saints, from whatever tradition, make the presence of God real in a way you can't resist," he said.

Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a columnist for The New York Times, placed Focolare among a number of Catholic renewal groups, including Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation, that formed in 20th-century Europe.

Such apostolic movements, he said, are "eruptions of the Holy Spirit" that have arisen throughout church history among Catholics wanting to make a connection between their faith and the wider world. They have emerged outside usual parish structures, yet have earned the support of the church hierarchy. He said that Focolare's focus on unity with non-Christians is unique among such groups.

He praised Lubich for her "unblinking and courageous faith" that "looks into the abyss of human suffering and does not turn her gaze." Her reaching out in love to other religious groups has a "remarkable audacity," but he said a largely unmet need in today's world is for dialogue within religious traditions.

He said intrareligious disputes, such as those within the Catholic Church, are often much more heated than those between religious traditions and require creative healing approaches.