By Mar ian Curd Founded by teenagers they alarmed a Bishop and spread to 5 continents
DIDyou ever hear of a bunch of teenagers founding a religious community, and without knowing it? Well, they have. They did it 20 years ago in a damp cavelike air raid shelter and by the
light of a flickering candle.. Outside. the horrors of war
racked the earth and skies.
Death and poverty were near companions.
To be strictly accurate, the "teenagers" were not all under 20. There were five girls, the youngest 15. the eldest only 22. And their foundation was not an Order or a Congregation, but is a movement, a Secular Institute whose Statutes were crowned, only last year, with the seal of approval by the Iloly See.
And it is a movement which has grown from the original five to many thousands of men and women in Europe, in North and South America. in Australia and in India. Archbishop Heenan has blessed meetings in his diocese of Liverpool.
Its title, unusual and attractive. is the Focolari: People of the Hearth: People who spread a little warmth.
But how, and what's it all about?
That air-raid shelter was in the North Italian town of Trent— scene of an earlier Ecumenical Council. The date was the winter of 1943-4. The girls, under constant threat of death, began to prepare for eternity. By the light of the candle they read the words of the Scriptures, Quite simply they chose God as the Ideal of their I lees.
"Through the Gospels the Holy Spirit seems to have led them to a new appreciation of the supremacy of supernatural love and Our Lord's idea of unity," writes a priest commentator on their work.
"They realised that Our Lord's great Commandment 'Love one another as I have loved you' was the very essence of the Gospel. This meant that following His example they had to love one another to the limit of their endurance.
"They were ready therefore to die to their own opinions, moods, tempers. etc. They discovered is great peace and joy and lost all fent of the bombs. They attributed this unexpected result to Our Lord's vital presence among them, since He said. 'Where two or three arc gathered together in My Name, there 1 am in their midst'."
This was no airy-fairy piece of star-gazing born merely of a wartime fear. Men and women of all walks of life took notice of the calm joy and peace of the five girls. The spirit was so catching that by the end of the war 500 people in the town of Trent were living by the ideIltibbed by outsiders as "Ricolarini"—people who give a little warmth—they set about sharing their money, food and clothes. Soon, it is recorded, no victim in Trent remained in dire need.
But the town talked. 'The Bishop became alarmed, "What is your aim?" he asked the Five. They pointed to the Crucifix. "What is your way of life, your Rule?" They produced a copy of the Gospels. Reassured, the Bishop of Trent gave them permission to work on.
And the result was astonishing. After the war, these people spread through Italy. They took the Ideal with them--among doctors. teachers. politicians, industrialists and other workers, especially among lapsed Catholics, I reemasons and Communists.
One of the original Five took a job as secretary to a big industrialist. He was a militant socialist who ran a secret anti-Catholic paper. His violent temper made the girl decide to move on to another job. Then she stopped to think. She realised that here was where she could apply the Ideal of her Movement. She stayed. A year passed. One day her employer met her by chance in the street, and asked her how she managed to stand him for all this time—no previous secretary had lasted more than two months. "You must have some secret," he said.
What followed sounds more like a far-off story from the lives of the saints of yesteryear than something from post-Hitler Europe. The girl explained the Movement. Impressed. the man asked to meet other members.
Ile found, and caught. the spirit of the Focolarini. the same spirit which in our own country has spurred such pioneers as Mary Doohan. Mary Garson and Edith Urch: the spirit which moves Legionaries and the S.V.P.
Within a few weeks the industrialist had given up his business. closed down the paper. and returned to the practice of his Faith. Later he became editor of the Movement's review "New City".
Stories such as this abound in the history of the movement and serve to illustrate the depth of the Ideal of Focolarini which, to use
again the words of the priest commentator, "invol% es constant sympathy, understanding and feeling for the immediate need. spiritual or physical, of the person God has brought into their lives here and now. Above all it means sacrificing their own opinions, desires. moods, tempers, jealousy, etc. It invokes overcoming reluctance. fastidiousness, fear and human respect".
It needs above all, I feel, art outsize ration of infinite patience.
Faced with difficult situations or unfriendly people. the Focolarini are trained to pray and act in union with Christ crucified and abandoned, and to restore in the human being the shattered or degraded image of God.
Today. Focolarini are in five continents. Taking the three vows privately, they live in tiny com
munities of five or six (separate communities for men and women) and remailvessentially lay men and women. They live in an ordinary house or flat. Most members take jobs taking the Ideal to offices, shops and industry: bringing home wages and salaries to he pooled for the needs of the Movement and for helping the poor. They work undef the guidance of a chaplain appointed by the bishop.
The leader of each Focolari or Foyer as each community is called is free for correspondence and travels wherever ins ited by bishop, priest or layman to tell the story of the Movement and to spread the Ideal. Members have visited the Liverpool diocese on a number of occasions. The most recent foundation is in Cameroon. Invitations from the Congo are outstanding— waiting for more members.
Although several hundred men and women have joined the movement as Intern members, many more thousands are Externs. The vast majority of these arc in Catholic Action movements. or are doctors. politicians, teachers, and so on, and remain in their own wbrk and in their own homes. Some complete families are Extent menthe, s.
The Focolari (or to give it its official title Opera di Maira) has its HQ at Cirottaferrata. near Rome. The Ideal can he studied and practised there in its application to politics, medicine, teaching, art, and so on.
Naturally. such unity within has led to moves of unity without. Lutherans and members of the Dutch Reformed Church have come to know and love the Ideal. Groups of up to 80 pastors have travelled to Rome to meet the Holy Father and Cardinal Bea who. as well as his other "unity" comtn'tments is in charge of relationships between the Focolarini and other denominations.
A movement which has made such an impact is a movement to watch. A movement which has converted a leading Communist in a small Italian town; a hardened woman of the streets in Brussels. and a whole village in the Argentine. is a child born in its own age.
Tomorrow (Saturday) clergy, nuns, laity (including families) of many nations will be meeting in Tilburg. Holland, for the annual "Mariapolis" or City of Mary. Their meeting will be a demonstration of the power of unity in the Christian ideal.
They are all members. In the words of the popular adverts. one wonders if anyone can afford nor to be a member: or, taking it a step further, Christian logic will say (as our faces get redder) aren't we all members anyway. more or less?
• Information on the Focolari may be obtained in this country from Miss R. Pearson, 12a Charlwood Place, London, S.W.I. The Movement's magazine has a quarterly edition in Lnglish obtainable from Mr. Joseph Patron, 24/22 24 Street, Long Island City 2, New York, U.S.A. (Subscriptions, payable through any hank, 3s. 6d. per copy, or 14s. per annum.)