Focolare Arose From War’s Ashes

HANOVER, Mass. — With Thanksgiving one day away, Damiana Maloof and Fiorella Butera were busy cooking for their families when the priest called.

Father Christopher Hickey had an unusual request. He needed someone to stay with the body of a young accident victim whose casket would be unattended in the church for several hours before his funeral.

The two friends put aside their chores, sat and prayed by the boy’s casket.

“They’re always ready to help,” said Father Hickey, pastor of St. Mary of the Sacred Heart Parish in Hanover, Mass.

Maloof, a nurse, and Butera, a teacher, practice their faith in quiet, concrete ways. Going to God by loving the person next to you is one main spiritual component of Focolare, an ecclesial movement to which they belong.

Focolare will be one of several new movements in the Church to be represented at a meeting this Pentecost with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. The Register is examining various new movements and how they operate in parishes.

Focolare means “family hearth” in Italian. Founder Chiara Lubich and some friends in 1943 began radically living the Gospel amid the devastation of World War II Italy. As they helped their neighbors, the women were dubbed focolarini (bearers of the fire).

Work of Mary is the movement’s official title.

“We try to be that presence of Mary, to do whatever the Holy Spirit inspires us to do,” Butera said.

But when she and Maloof approached their former pastor three years ago with the idea of starting a monthly Scripture sharing, he was not inspired.

“At first I thought: Do we need another group?” Father Henry Doherty said.

However, he liked Focolare’s ecumenical outreach. So at the women’s suggestion, he approached the Hanover clergy association with the idea of locally observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Jan. 18-25.

“It was successful: a first step for us as a parish,” he said.

Parishioner Joan Hurlburt found that open dialogue helped her Protestant neighbors to better understand Catholicism.

“People are in awe of our faith once they understand its spiritual basis,” she said. “For example, they learned to come closer to Jesus by praying the Way of the Cross.”

“We conquered Father Doherty’s skepticism with love. First we find unity with the pastor,” Butera said.

‘Ordinary People’

That grassroots presence of solidarity and support is a valuable contribution to parish life, according to Hortensia Lopez of the Bronx, N.Y., co-director for Focolare on the East Coast. “Ours is a Marian outlook — service from the bottom,” she said. “We serve not as members of Focolare, but just as regular people really trying to be a bridge of unity among parishioners.”

Both Maloof and Butera were drawn to the movement years ago in Italy when they attended Focolare retreats called Mariapolises (Cities of Mary).

“It’s a gathering of family with Mary as mother,” Maloof explained. “These were not just good people. They were happy, like the first Christians: of one heart, one mind, one family. It was an eye-opener for me. I realized I really had to love like Jesus did.”

“It’s a call from God to live my life in a different way,” Butera said, “a call to God through unity with my neighbor, not just as an individual. Focolare helped me to integrate my spirituality with my everyday life.”

Although Focolare now numbers more than 87,000 members in 182 countries, according to its website, it’s still a small presence in the United States. In the Northeast, about 2,000 people are associated with the movement and 250 people are active in it, New England Director Maria Ferreira of Newton, Mass., said. There are centers in eight U.S. cities.

Father Timothy Murphy of Salem, Mass., came to know Focolare 15 years ago. “These are ordinary people whose spirituality can really change a parish,” he said. “They just live wonderful lives.”

He has attended numerous priests’ retreats at Mariapolis Luminosa, the North American Focolare center in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Their example is what impresses me,” he said. “They don’t water down their Catholicism one iota, but they see Christ in everyone.”

The movement’s goal is Jesus’ wish: “That all may be one.” That means reaching out to non-believers, to other religions — especially Muslims — and to other Christians and fellow Catholics.

“Disunity makes Jesus suffer,” Maloof said of dissent in the Church. “I need a constant conversion of heart to have mercy. We can’t make unity with evil, but I try to really listen, to make myself one with others. Then I can put a word in to say, ‘We are the Church; it’s not just the hierarchy. We each have to do our individual part.’”

For example, Focolare members helped ease the pain of a church closing in Rockport, Mass., she said. They brought an aspect of Focolare spirituality, “living Jesus forsaken,” into discussions with fellow parishioners.

“You stay rooted and go through the suffering, not around it. You go through it with Jesus to the resurrection,” Maloof said.

The six or more Hanover members are active as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and religion teachers. “I could just go to church on Sunday, work and care for my family,” Maloof said, “but living the Gospel challenges me to do more.”

Father Murphy looks forward to Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming gathering of ecclesial movements in Rome. He said, “Sometimes you’re stuck in a little parish and you don’t realize how many extraordinary things are happening in the Church outside. Then you hear of these movements and you say, the Holy Spirit is really working in the world.”

Gail Besse is based in

Hull, Massachusetts.



About This Series

The Register is looking at various new ecclesial movements and how they operate in parishes.

Focolare, the focus of this article, was founded in 1943 and has some 87,000 members in more than 180 countries.

Mission: “That all may be one.”

Apostolates: To spread the spirituality of unity. Members start publications, promote projects to help the poor, and sponsor schools of formation in spirituality.

Founder: Focolare’s “spirituality is drawn straight from the Gospel. For 2,000 years, Jesus has asked his followers to give God the first place in their lives. He desires the fulfillment of his new commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ …If we love one another, then the world will believe.” — Chiara Lubich

Pope John Paul II: “In unison with the Magisterium of the Church…the members of the Focolare Movement have become apostles of dialogue, the privileged way to promote unity: dialogue within the Church, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, dialogue with non-believers.”