NEW YORK — Just in time for her 22nd birthday, the package arrived at the Chicago address where Phyllis Scaringe was getting her first taste of life in a Focolare women's household.
“A gift from Mom!” she thought hopefully. But the contents — a big black lace veil — communicated quite a different message: “My daughter is dead.”
Her parents later reconciled with her decision to become a consecrated lay woman — it in fact became a source of unity with her — but in those early days, her parents were utterly opposed.
A month before that birthday, Phyllis had sat her parents down in their New York city home and tried to explain the unexplainable. She and her fiancé, whom she dearly loved, had broken off their engagement so that Phyllis could see if God was calling her instead to a lifestyle of consecrated virginity within the Focolare movement.
With their only daughter's wedding three months away — the New York Times announcement published, the church, hall, orchestra and bridal party in readiness — the Scaringes took this bomb-shell hard.
They liked the Focolare members they had met. But why did Phyllis have to change her plans and upset their hopes? “She's been brainwashed and abducted!” her mother decided.
More calmly, her mother would say, “If you had entered the convent, I would at least be able to tell people where you are and what you've done.” The consecrated lay vocation was simply not understood, even by Catholics.
While visiting a Focolare friend and the women she lived with, Phyllis had felt “like Jesus was passing in front of me” and had experienced the reality of his words, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” In a flash, Phyllis understood that although she was a practicing Catholic and loved Jesus, she had been relating to him on her own terms. That evening she turned a corner. “Your way,” she told God.
Phyllis and her fiancé then met families involved in Focolare. She saw Jesus there, too, and caught an exciting vision for marriage and family life. Yet to her surprise, she began to suspect that God was calling her along another path. To find out, she packed her bags and left for Chicago. She never looked back.
Traditionally, even good Catholic parents have often objected when their daughters set marriage plans aside and headed for the convent. Women called to a vocation of consecrated celibacy in Focolare — one of many options of life in the movement — sometimes face similar opposition.
But like foundress Chiara Lubich's own mother, who was inconsolable when Chiara left home in 1944 in response to God's call, many aggrieved parents eventually come to a different view. That's what happened with the Scaringes.
First came two rocky years, when Phyllis's mother attended the annual Focolare conference, or Mariapolis, solely to criticize and disrupt. “She'd come ripping into the place, but my Focolare friends just tried to love her, double time,” Phyllis remembers. “Each year she'd go home a bit more accepting.”
But God was drawing the family closer. Finally, impressed with Focolare despite themselves, the Scaringes experienced a complete turn-around. Now it was Phyllis's turn to be surprised, as she saw her parents pursue God more seriously, become daily communicants, and even join Focolare's New Families movement, where they were active members until their deaths about 10 years ago.
“Meeting Focolare changed my parent's lives,” Phyllis reflects. “It gave them a way of living their faith, improving their marriage, and serving others. It was amazing to watch—really a case of God writing straight with crooked lines!”
Counting the Cost
“Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Jesus said. Required of all Christ's followers, this renouncing takes a particular shape for Focolare women called to consecrated virginity.
They undergo years of training and formation, some of them in Italy; they live with other women in small communities that are centers of Focolare activities; most hold regular jobs; they're willing to live and serve anywhere in the world.
Denise Silva thought long and hard before committing themselves to this way of life. Denise, a “very private and independent person” from a difficult family background, wondered whether she could learn “how to love and live” in community.
She also encountered objections to her proposed way of life. A promising graduate student in Purdue University's art department, she was teaching, showing her work in Chicago, being taken seriously as an artist. Her professors and colleagues couldn't fathom why Denise would risk all this for a “religious group.” Wasn't she being duped? Throwing away a rewarding career?
Denise developed her own doubts and fears. “I wanted you to be a part of my life, not take it over completely!” she argued with God. “And after so much work, don't I deserve at least a few good years?”
Denise finally laid everything on the altar. In a way, they could-n't help it.
Says Denise, “This kind of community was what I had been looking for all my life — something real, where people were trying to live the Gospel.”
Like so many who have sacrificed goods and relationships for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, Denise has seen her friendships and career blessed “a hundredfold.”
Ten years after leaving the professional art scene to pursue her vocation within Focolare, she was led back to it. Today she directs an art center, has a studio, and shows and sells her paintings. The graduate school professors she's kept in touch with are happy about that, she reports.
Denise sees that ten-year break as having been necessary to her spiritual growth. Because of it, she says, “I returned to my art stronger, with more direction.”
There's an obvious change in her style. “Before, I was doing somber, serious pieces — life-size sculptures that were struggling with their world, struggling to emerge from environments that were in some way torn apart. They were saying more than I knew!”
Now Denise does abstract paintings filled with color — acrylics that reflect her experience of life in Focolare. In her most recent work, a bright yellow background emerges through superimposed colors. “It's this idea that, although there are struggles, all of life can be lived in the light of God's love.”
As Denise, Phyllis and many others have seen, coming to know that love makes surrender a joy.
“When I said yes to God, I thought I was sacrificing everything,” says Denise. “But the funny thing is, everything has come back multiplied! God returns so much more than we would have imagined. We can't possibly be more generous than he is!”
Louise Perotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.