A New York Times obituary described Chiara Lubich (1920-2008) as “one of the most influential women in the Roman Catholic Church.” Chiara passed away peacefully on March 14, 2008, at her home outside of Rome but the movement she began, almost six decades ago, continues to grow and mature around the world. During World War II, while bombs were destroying the famous Italian town of Trent, Lubich had a powerful religious experience that she described as “stronger than the bombs that were falling on Trent.” She shared this experience with her closest friends. After her friends heard her account they declared that, should they all be killed, they wished to have only one inscription carved on their tomb: “And we have believed in love.”

Until early 2012 I had never heard of Focolare, much less of Chiara Lubich. Now I have shared several evenings of wonderful fellowship over meals with Focolare members here in Chicago. Today I am an invited guest and speaker for their Midwest retreat being held at Valparaiso University (Indiana).

The Focolare Movement is not an order, much less an ecclesial structure. It is an experience of life inspired by the spirituality of unity. Focolare is present in over 180 countries and has the characteristics of a small “people” of different races, cultures and languages. The movement has 140,000 core members and over 2 million affiliates, including some 30,000 friends of non-Christian faith traditions. Pope John Paul II described Focolare as “a people” which works as a body toward the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus in John 17. In 1990 John Paul II spoke to a youth gathering of some 10,000 Focolare and expressed the aspiration of the entire movement: “The perspective of a united world is the great expectation of people today . . . toward a civilization that is truly expressed in the civilization of love.” That expresses the prayer of my heart very well: “a civilization of love.”

Each year the Focolare has a series of gatherings in various places where friends old and new can share life together. These gatherings include presentations and experiences on living the spirituality of unity in everyday life, prayer, recollection, sharing, games and outdoor activities. This year’s theme is: “The Word of God.” I shared the platform yesterday at a regional Focolare gathering in Indiana by presenting my personal response to the question of what the Word of God means to me as a Christian. Alongside me, answering the same question, was a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi, who each answered the same question according to their faith and experience. We were then each allowed to respond and have a dialogue with one another and the gathered participants.

In the early twenty-first century the Focolare Movement has become a growing fellowship of dialogue and deep personal love. I have experienced this love over meals with Focolare members in their area home in Berwyn, IL. This growing fellowship has enriched me in ways that I can’t even fully explain at this moment. I am sure that God has brought us together and I humbly await his leading in terms of what this might mean for me personally in the days ahead.

The Focolare Movement considers the following issues to be part of its mandate: to cooperate in the consolidation of unity in the Roman Catholic world, with individuals and groups, movements and associations; to contribute to full communion with Christians of different churches; to move towards universal brotherhood with followers of various religions and people of other persuasions, including atheists (italics are mine). The whole movement is divided into 25 branches. Gradually, several projects have sprung up within the movement: the school ‘Abba’, the ‘Economy of Communion’ (which has linked more than 800 companies), evangelism within small cities, social work, and publishing magazines. The Focolare Movement is recognized by the Pope and is thus not a renegade Catholic movement as some have suggested in posts about it being a cult.

Focolare engages contemporary American culture with questions and values about happiness, freedom, community and commitment to the common good in public life. The people that I have met in Focolare are inviting and gracious. They listen and they ask great questions. They love because they believe that Jesus loves and calls them to love as he loves them. Perhaps the most impressive part of this experience, at least for me, has been the opportunity to see what relational ecumenism really looks like among people with very different backgrounds from my own. I have so much to learn about missional-ecumenism, which is rooted in love and relationship unity. I believe these brothers and sisters will continue to teach me so much that God has to show me. I am deeply grateful to be at Mariapolis today.