Focolare founder Chiara Lubich dies

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}ROME  - Chiara Lubich, the 88-year-old founder and perpetually smiling symbol of the Focolare movement, died early March 14 in her room near the Focolare headquarters in Rocca di Papa, south of Rome.

Ms. Lubich had been extremely frail since November 2006 when she was treated at Rome’s Gemelli hospital for a lung infection. She was readmitted to the hospital in February after experiencing difficulty breathing, but decided to go home March 13 even though her condition had not improved.

Thousands of people from dozens of nations, a variety of Christian denominations and several other religious traditions packed into Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to pay their final respects on March 18. In a message read at her funeral, Pope Benedict XVI told the mourners, "Many are the reasons for giving thanks to the Lord for the gift He gave the church in this woman of fearless faith."

The congregation's thanks was expressed with loud, sustained applause that accompanied the measured pace of the six men carrying her coffin on their shoulders from the basilica's entrance to a carpet at the foot of the altar.

While still in the hospital, Pope Benedict XVI had sent her a personal letter, promising to remember her in his prayers and asking the Lord to grant her “physical relief, spiritual comfort” and to help her “experience the redeeming value of suffering lived in profound communion with Him.”

In early March, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople went to visit her in the hospital while he was in Rome to meet the Pope and speak at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. In a statement, the patriarch said, “with her life she has and continues to give much to the whole church.”

Toronto’s Archbishop Thomas Collins said Lubich faithfully followed the call of Jesus, and that through her and the Focolare movement “many people throughout the world have been richly blessed.”

While the Focolare movement, formally known as the Work of Mary, began in the 1940s with Ms. Lubich and a small group of female friends, it opened an ecumenical chapter in 1961 and began forging ties with Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and others in the 1970s. The movement now counts more than two million adherents in 182 countries.

Ms. Lubich was born in Trent, Italy, Jan. 22, 1920, and was christened Silvia. Her admiration of St. Clare of Assisi led her to adopt the name Chiara, the Italian form of Clare. She had said that her first awareness that God was calling her to something unusual came during a 1939 gathering of Catholic young people in Loreto, Italy, site of the house that a pious tradition holds is the house in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth.

The Focolare biography of Ms. Lubich said, “While visiting the shrine, Chiara experienced an intuition of what her vocation would be: a reproduction of the family of Nazareth, a new vocation in the church, and she sensed that many others would follow her way.”

In 1943, after consulting a priest, she privately took vows consecrating herself to God and gradually began forming a circle of friends who read the Gospels together. A year later, as the Second World War raged around them, they began asking themselves, “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,” she wrote.

“We tried to put into practice the sentences of the Gospel, one at a time,” Ms. Lubich said.

Gradually, the women decided to form a community and share everything they had with each other and with the poor. They sought a sense of family gathered around a hearth — “focolare” in Italian.

Many of the early Gospel readings and discussions were held in bomb shelters. More and more, the group began to focus on Christ’s commandment to love one’s neighbour and His prayer that all would be one. The community grew, men became involved, other houses were formed and families started joining, too.

The bishop of Trent granted diocesan approval to the group in 1947; it became recognized internationally by the Vatican in 1962.

Just two years later, in 1964, Ms. Lubich had her first papal audience, meeting Pope Paul VI. In addition to regular meetings and occasional public appearances with Pope John Paul II, she also was a frequent lunch guest.

Ms. Lubich was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1977 and the UNESCO Peace Education Prize in 1996. Pope John Paul appointed her to serve as an observer at four synods of bishops in the 1980s and 1990s, and she served as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

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