The Centenary of Chiara Lubich's birth, the foundress of the Focolare Movement, was celebrated with nearly four hundred people on 18th January 2020 in the Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham. Like the other similar events being held worldwide during this centenary year, the focus was not on remembering someone who died in 2008, but on someone who still lives on in the Charism of Unity and in the lives of all those who find their inspiration in Chiara Lubich.
Throughout the day keynote speakers representing Christianity, Islam and Sikhism reflected on what Chiara Lubich and the spirituality of unity meant to them. This was interspersed with artistic moments of music and drama. The day began with a dramatic rendition of how Focolare originated in war torn Trent in Northern Italy - how a young woman consecrated herself to God, and how this act of generosity spiralled into a worldwide movement.
The music group was made up of young people from the Focolare and pupils from two local secondary schools - one Roman Catholic and other Sikh. It was obvious from their faces that they enjoyed an ongoing, shared experience of building relationships together through inter-school music workshops and other activities.
A combination of gentleness and passion
Archbishop Bernard Longley opened the day, welcoming everyone to Birmingham. Here are some extracts from his address:
"Chiara Lubich was a woman of deep faith who had the confidence to declare and witness to her Christian faith in the terrible aftermath of the Second World War. However, she also had the vision to see that the pathway to peace involved a commitment to dialogue. She was a woman ahead of her times with a prophetic intuition that respectful and loving dialogue was an essential ingredient of her faithfulness to Jesus Christ, mirroring the pattern of his own life."
"…When I met Chiara… I was very struck by the strength of her presence and by her very attractive combination of gentleness and passion. There was a charisma - a giftedness - that clearly came from God and it touched and influenced those who met her. Our meeting lasted for just two or three minutes yet it was an unforgettable experience."
"Jesus said: 'Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.' Chiara is surely numbered among the blessed. Let us pray today for God's blessing on all the members and friends of the Focolare Movement - and let us also re-commit ourselves to loving friendship and mutual support - in gratitude for each other's faithful witness and for the inspiration and friendship of Chiara Lubich as we celebrate her hundredth birthday."
Chiara as a saint
Bhai Sahib Ji Bhai Mohinder Singh, Spiritual Leader of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha had known and respected Chiara for many years. He explained why Birmingham was such an appropriate city on which to hold this centenary celebration. In his address he declared: "I have been really privileged to have met a few saints in my life and I felt the same vibrations when I met Chiara. I felt very close to her and felt that she was a blessed soul."
Unity is more than dialogue
Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ali Somali, Director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies, has known and lived the spirituality of the Focolare for more than twenty years.
In the introduction to his talk he said: "I am delighted to be here and grateful to God …celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chiara Lubich - Chiara who was born to an Italian family in Trent but now belongs to all of humanity. This is what we are going to celebrate. And I think, without exaggeration, I can say that when someone devotes themselves to God, there is no death for them. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of someone who is ever living with us.
"Unity is more than dialogue. 'Dialogue' is no longer a good term when you reach unity. We are no longer in a state of dialogue with the Focolare. We are united. And through our unity we want to bring God first between us but also to the whole world."
Chiara as a prophet
Professor Gerald J Pillay, Vice-Chancellor & Rector of Liverpool Hope University, gave the final talk of the day: "Chiara calls us to go beyond tolerance, which is the least one can expect in a democracy, and to look seriously at other people as children of one Father; to view each other through the Father's eye; in other words, to transcend our own group affiliation and our own allegiances and to place ourselves in the place of the 'other'. Only then is the other one of us and we become one of them. She, therefore, urges us to go beyond multiculturalism and to become inter-cultural. Multi-culturalism is where all groups aspire to live peaceably alongside each other, making room for each other and even showing great respect and civility to each other. Chiara's call is to go even beyond civility because 'inter-cultural' means being open to each other as part of one family.
"I suspect that is the difference between priests and prophets. Priests administer with much care the will of the institution and safeguard the cultural integrity of the institution, but prophets who are very much part of a community have the ability to call the institution to question and to expose its limitation. In that sense, Chiara is a prophet to us."
How she would have rejoiced
Bishop Robin Smith, also present (Anglican Diocese of St Albans, Bishop Emeritus) sent this impression a few days after the event.
"It was a truly memorable occasion and a prophetic one. For we were both looking back through her life during so many formative moments in the development of the Movement, and also living out her prophecy "that all might be one". The dramatic and spoken contributions, all pointing to her legacy…and the speakers themselves… all bore powerful testimony to the depth of unity they had experienced through their association and growing friendship with Focolare. Every one of us is committed to working for that unity across the barriers of difference, a work we believe, with Chiara, will transform the world by love."
Impressions of the day
"It was a wonderful tribute to Chiara, and a real witness to how the light of the charism has inspired so many different fields of activity and contributed to dialogue among Christians and people of different faiths."
"I witnessed something massive in that hall."
"It was an absolute privilege to be part of this celebration and witness of unity: a very moving, beautiful programme. Thank you for all the planning and all the love that went into such an historic, powerful and hopeful celebration. Joy to heaven and joy to earth. My heart is full, so very thankful to God for Chiara."
"Chiara's charism was present everywhere and emanated from the speakers. It was clear this was a day full of graces from heaven. I felt a collective peace, joy and hope - all signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit!"
"Saturday was amazing. It was inspiring, humbling and challenging. It showed how powerfully God can work through individuals who 'just' try to love."
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