I think you would like me to present to you my experience of faith and of life which goes hand in hand with the birth and development of the Focolare Movement on account of which I am here today. But all this requires a premise.
In 1968 I was right in the middle of the forest in a remote region of the Cameroon among the Bangwa tribe, which was dying out because of the high infant mortality rate. Three of my friends had gone there before me in order to bring some help to the tribe who had nothing. I had the opportunity of talking to the Fon, the chief of the tribe, a wise man, who, although knowing very little about the world, had been informed however about the Focolare Movement.
He was impressed by the fact that it had spread to all five continents, and he asked me a question in the following terms: ‘You are a woman and therefore are worth nothing. Tell me, how did all this happen? You are a woman, and therefore are worth nothing.’ Faced with this phrase, I assure you I felt perfectly at ease, knowing that all I was going to tell him was certainly not the work of a woman, but the work of God.
The Focolare Movement — as Pope Paul VI said some years ago — is a tree which is now rich and very fruitful. A tree. Certainly. And as we all know, even the most majestic trees are born from a seed.
Let’s go back thirty-four years to 1943, to the quiet little city of Trent in Northern Italy. I was a teacher and I was giving private lessons to help my family which was passing through a period of extreme poverty. I was twenty-three years old. One day, while helping someone out of love, I felt an unexpected call: ‘Give yourself to God.’ A few days later, I offered my life for ever to the Lord. My happiness was boundless. No one knew about it. No plan for my life came into my head. I belonged to God: this was enough for me. Outwardly it was a day like any other. But my soul was invaded by a particular grace, a flame had been lit. And if the flame is lit, it cannot but burn, it must communicate itself. A few days later some other girls followed me.
The 13th May 1944. Trent was not spared by the war which raged in the whole of Italy. That night when the air raid siren sounded I fled with my family to a nearby wood and we could hear the noise of the planes and the bombs bursting. From a piece of high ground I could see the houses around mine collapsing. I understood that it was the moment to leave Trent. But I could not leave. Who would have kept in contact with my young friends, who were bound to me by such a strong bond? How could I abandon them and stay in the city. I remembered a phrase. It applied in my case too: ‘Love conquers all.’ All. Yes, I will be able to leave my family, even in these terrible circumstances, in order to follow a way which I as yet do not know. At dawn, with courage, we returned to our ruined house. I told my father my secret; I belong to God and there are others who follow me. I cannot abandon them. He understood me and blessed me. While my family moved off towards the mountains I moved off towards the centre of the stricken city. Ruins. Silence. I searched. All my friends were alive. They ranged in age from fifteen to twenty-five.
The war continued. Many things were destroyed. Many ideals collapsed which had occupied our young minds. One of us loved her home — and it was destroyed. Another loved her fiancé — and the boy never returned from the front. I was studying at a university in another city — I could not continue. Whoever had taken art as their ideal saw valuable works shattered in an instant. We used to meet together every day, even eleven times a day, in the air-raid shelter which, however, was not safe. We could have died from one moment to the next. A question pressed strongly on us. But surely there must be an ideal which does not die, which is ‘worth being followed and which no bomb can destroy. The answer came immediately: Yes — God. Let’s make God the ideal of our life then. But time is limited: how many days or hours will we still have for living according to this new ideal? I took the Gospel with me into the air raid shelter. I opened it. Those words which we had often heard seemed to light up one by one and gave us a very new understanding of things. They were truly words of life suited to everyone. One day we felt a strong desire: is there a word of Christ which particularly pleased Him? If we were to present ourselves shortly before Jesus, we would like to have lived what He had most at heart. We recalled His last farewell, when He gave His apostles a command which He calls ‘my’ and ‘new’: ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to give his life for his own friends.’ (John 15: 12–13). We felt these holy words in us like fire. We looked at one another and declared to each other: ‘I am ready to die for you, I for you, I for you: All for each of us.’ Since we were ready therefore to die, it was not difficult there and then to each day share our sufferings and our joys, our new spiritual experiences, and our poor possessions. Mutual love was placed as the foundation for everything. And, because of this, among those few girls, God was present, He who said ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18: 20). But when God is present and you allow God to act, things do not remain as they were before. The terrible situations which surrounded us were like a training field which brought love into action not only among us, but among all those who passed next to us. The Gospel continued to direct our behaviour and we realised that with it, a revolution was born. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19: 19). As yourself — this is something new. ‘Love your enemies’ (Matthew 5: 44). Who had considered this? ‘May they all be one’ (John 17: 21). All.
People became aware of this new style of life: above all of a joy which shone from the faces of those girls and which was not in contrast with a full participation in the general suffering. People asked for an explanation, were convinced, and united with us. After a few months there were 500 of us living for the same ideal: God. In our hearts the terror of the war faded. The light of God shone out more strongly.
One day a phrase in the Gospel struck us: ‘Anyone who listens to you listens to me’ (Luke 10: 16). Jesus addressed this phrase to the Apostles. Yes, everything was born so spontaneously. But the bishop, the apostle today, he who represents God, does he know about it? Will he be happy? We presented ourselves to him, ready to destroy all that had been done directly he requested it. The bishop concluded: ‘Here there is the finger of God.’
The war ended. We could travel again. But who could take away from our heart what God had marked on it? The circumstances of life, study, work, the family, took one or other of us to different cities in Italy. Wherever one of us arrived, a phenomenon similar to the one in Trento occurred. Groups were born silently, of people who wanted to live the Gospel.
The promises it offers are fascinating and extraordinary but it does not deceive. It is possible to follow Jesus — what greater adventure can there be — on condition that we renounce ourselves and take up our own cross (cf. Luke 9: 23). This is an experience we make every day. We will have eternal life and the hundredfold already in this life, in terms of brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, houses, and work, but in the midst of persecutions, but we must be detached at least spiritually from everything (cf. Mark 10: 29–30). The Movement is a living witness that the promises of Jesus actually come true. It has lived and will always live the Gospel in its aspects of suffering and marvellous joy.
The Focolare Movement went ahead irresistibly. At its heart there are little communities of a new style called focolari, made up of men or women, who are joined so far as is possible, by married people who strongly desire holiness. (At present there are 217 focolari in 33 countries, and a total of 2,400 focolarini). God, step by step, inspired an ordering of the movement. This was logical. Those involved with it by now are not just young women and men, but people from every sort of social background, and also priests, religious, and nuns. Among the most committed lay people, after the focolarini, come the volunteers. They live in their own homes, and live the same spirit, with set commitments.
The movement crossed frontiers: first it spread to all the countries of Europe, then from 1958 onwards it spread in an extraordinary way to more than 100 countries and hundreds of thousands of people.
The Church in Rome, with its centuries old wisdom, studied the new movement. In 1962 Pope John XXIII gave the first approval, and Pope Paul VI gave further approvals because there were new developments in the movement. A period began of profound joy and of gratitude to God who guides all things. Before the approvals were granted it may be said that both the movement as a whole and each individual member of it had lived the phrase: ‘Unless the grain of wheat which has fallen to the ground dies, it remains alone’ (John 12: 24). But the members of the movement tried to be ready to die to themselves in order to love others. And then, after the various approvals, came the result of the second part of the phrase: ‘if however the grain dies it produces much fruit’ (John 12: 24).
In those years many branches were born from the one tree. In 1967 around the married focolarini thousands and thousands of families found new vigour, new relationships between partners, unity between parents and children, adoptions . . . the New Families were born. Around the volunteers, who want to animate the world of education, medicine, art and science and every expression of human life with the spirit of Christ (like the yeast in the dough) — the New Humanity Movement was born. Around the priests who have taken this spirit as their own — the Priests’ Movement has grown, and many new vocations flourish. Those who are parish priests animate the life of their parishes so as to make this cell of the Church an ecclesial family in accordance with the living example of the early community in Jerusalem. All these parishes together form the New Parishes Movement. The past few years have seen our spirit deeply penetrating many religious congregations and orders of men and women. The fruits are: renewal of the community, rediscovery of the founder’s charism, revaluation of the rules, and new members.
In these same years, the second generation of the Focolare Movement began taking shape — the Gen (New Generation). About 12,000 young boys and girls and young men and women who commit themselves in a total way make up the Gen units, and communicate their life to tens of thousands of other young people. Charged with the impetus of the Gospel, they go against the current in a world disturbed by protest, drugs, sex and juvenile crime. They promote the unity of all peoples and unity between generations. By the witness of their experience of living the Gospel, and through songs, mime and dance, they launch the message of the Gospel among young people in every continent, with exceptional results.
They work together all over the world in order to help the Focolarini to build a little town for the Bangwa tribe in the Cameroon, which I mentioned at the beginning. A hospital, schools, small industries, an electric generator have been built. They succeed: there at Fontem, 8,000 animists have requested baptism because they have seen the mutual love between whites and blacks. People from surrounding countries go there to see what the world would be like if everyone lived the Gospel. Like at Fontem, five other little towns have started. They resemble each other because all their inhabitants try to live the Gospel, and at the same time are different because they are suited to the needs of the various peoples. They are at O’Higgins, Argentina; at San Paolo and Recife in Brazil; at Loppiano, Italy, and Ottmaring, Federal Germany.
Movement Crossed Church Barriers
But the Movement not only crossed the political boundaries of more than one hundred countries, it has also gone beyond the barriers erected for centuries between the various Christian churches. This is how it happened. As usual we had no plan. Three German Lutheran pastors were present at a small speech I gave in a convent of the Marienschwestern, and their reaction was ‘what? — are Catholics living the Gospel?’ And they arranged at once with my friends to introduce this life to their brother-hoods, groups, and Lutheran parishes in Germany. Centuries old prejudices collapsed on both sides. The Lutherans understood many things. We admired in them their love of Scripture and their spirit of prayer. They wanted to deepen the new life which they wished to share with us at least in part. And they came to Rome almost every year for an ecumenical meeting. At a certain point, meetings were not enough, and we decided to start a centre for common life for members of the two denominations at Ottmaring, near Augsburg, precisely where in 1530 the division between Lutherans and Catholics was affirmed. The permission of the Catholic bishop was encouraging as was that of the Lutheran bishop. Around this centre the little town is developing which was already mentioned. And also other groups of Lutherans, Baptists, and members of the Free Church from the North and the South of Germany meet there together, who have adopted the spirit of the Focolare Movement, while remaining faithful to their churches.
Some Anglican clergy and laity were enthusiastic about this experience and they wished to bring it to the Church of England. In 1966, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Ramsey, received me in an audience. He concluded by saying that he saw God’s hand in this Movement and he invited me to bring this spirit to Anglican groups. Today the Focolare Movement is living and growing among Anglicans all over the United Kingdom.
In Switzerland the Movement is alive among many members of the Swiss Reformed Church. The words of Jesus which they too emphasize, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ (Matthew 18: 20), make them feel an affinity with us. We have also got to know the Prior of Taizé and established a friendship with him, and also with some of the various personalities of the World Council of Churches. In North America where the Movement has been since 1960, there are many Christians of different denominations who share our spirit. On June 13th, 1967, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, was expecting me. He had heard something about us, but wanted to know more. It is impossible to describe how attached he was to the Movement. He emphasized love and life above all. I made several journeys in the next five years to Istanbul. My visits had the aim of keeping him informed, but above all of healing the deep wound of the incomplete unity with Rome. The circumstances were not yet ripe. Athenagoras was one of the greatest men of our age. Yet he wanted to be, as he put it, ‘a simple member of this Movement’. Like a prophet he foretold: ‘The day will come, the sun will rise high, the angels will sing and dance, and all of us, Bishops and Patriarchs, will be around the Pope celebrating with the one chalice.’ It is through him that the Focolare Movement was born and is spreading among the Orthodox, especially in the Near East.
But in the world there are various religions. The wide expansion of the Movement brings us face to face with persons of other faiths. With the faithful of the noble and tortured Jewish people dialogue is easy. We share with them part of Revelation. We are grateful to them for having given us a Jewish Jesus, Jewish Apostles. And Mary too was Jewish.
In the Moslems we admire their tenacious love for religion. They are an example to us. The mystic of the Islamic tradition, AI-Hallaj, wrote: ‘In His Essence (In the essence of God), Love is the essence of essences.’
In Asia we met Buddhists. It is good for our soul to remember the words of Buddah: ‘Like a mother who even at risk to her own life watches and protects her only son, so with a great soul we must . . . love the whole world. . . .’
The words of the Indian mystic Ramakrishna strike us: ‘Only love matters. Have love for everyone: nobody is any different from you. God lives in everyone and nothing exists without him.’
We are in contact with Hindus and also with Shintoists. The dialogue which the members of the Movement established with these brothers of other religions is not made up of words. We love them as they are, concerning ourselves about everything to do with them and therefore also about their religious life. Our love is returned and meetings are held which are often large, in which the concern of everyone is to seek together the truths which most unite us in order to live them together and to tell each other about the experiences which show our concern for God and our brothers, and this concern has spread more and more widely. The faithful of the great religions, when they come into contact with the Movement, sense that a new current of love runs through the world, and they like to call themselves, according to what they feel deep inside themselves: Moslem Gen, or Buddhist Volunteers or Gen, and so on.
But the mass of people who pain our heart are the atheists of east and west: they are the poorest people. The witness of our Christian unity over the years has struck many of them who have come back to God.
This is everything. Pope Paul VI, after having seen 25,000 of our young people gathered together in St. Peter’s during Holy Year, said: ‘A new world is born.’ Yes, this is my experience: through our Movement and other movements of God, the world of love is coming to life without fuss. The future will be rich in surprises.
But I cannot conclude this talk without offering my deeply felt thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Templeton, who perhaps cannot imagine the marvellous results of their initiative. I also thank all those who have taken part in making this award. May God reward them.
The Use of the Money
I shall use the prize money to enlarge the maternity wing of the hospital in the little town of Fontem in the Cameroon; to build two houses for those who are living in the shanty town, the mocambos in Recife (Brazil), and to build the last stage of a religious and social training centre for Asians, at Tagaytay in the Philippines. I will keep a part of the prize for the ‘Town of Charity’ which the diocese of Rome is setting up for handicapped people.
As a memory of this day I would like to leave with you the words of the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross: ‘Where you do not find love, put love and you will find love.’