When I accepted, with a proper sense of the honour done to me, your invitation to preside at the giving of the Templeton prize to Chiara Lubich, I naturally thought of the distinguished people who had both presented and received the prize in earlier years. I was immediately struck by a remark made by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh when he presented the prize to that other great Catholic woman of our time, Mother Teresa.
In his usual stimulating and forthright way His Royal Highness observed that ‘At first sight the idea that a prize might be able to do something for religion seems faintly absurd.’ The remark is thought-provoking. It might not perhaps arouse many scruples among those hard-pressed pastors who anxiously watch your English weather on the days of their garden-parties, but even apart from our Lord’s exhortation that we should lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, the notion of giving a prize of this kind might suggest a claim to interior spiritual knowledge that only the Lord Himself could make.
But these are reserves which, as His Royal Highness said, we entertain only at first sight. There is a deeper view of the matter. Many public prizes are nowadays offered in many fields, for achievements which are publicly manifest and of benefit to humanity. These are a healthy counter-balance to the extravagant financial rewards which con-temporary fashion dictates should go to very frivolous accomplishments, and which not even the tax-man can keep within reasonable boundaries. A public prize — like the Templeton — is more than a gain to the recipient — it is a public confession of a scale of values, a public witness that, as St. Paul says, ‘none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself’ (Rom. XIV, 7), and that all men fulfill themselves most surely in putting others before themselves — an order of priorities for which Christianity offers the profoundest basis. It is on the particular way in which the choice of Chiara Lubich for this year’s award reflects this scale of values and this witness that I want to dwell for a short time.
The Fireside Movement
My starting point must be the very name of the movement which she founded — the Focolare, the Fireside movement. Here we might see another apparent paradox: the fireside is not the first place we associate with movement. It is that immemorial point of light and warmth round which the family gathers in unity, understanding and love. It is an admirable symbol of the deep biological and spiritual instinct that makes men see all human unity, so that we use words like ‘family of nations’, ‘world confessional family’ and finally the ‘human family’ to express ideals which broaden out from the fireside, from the home. Indeed the very notion of the human family would be an unmanageable abstraction, a rhetorical tool for globe-trotting publicists, if it were not rooted in the experience of people living together, sharing in love.
I need not tell you what part this idea of the family has played in Christianity. The central truths of our faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation are bound up with it. God, the Father of us all, sent His divine Son to take on our nature, and thirty years of his life were spent in the family of Nazareth, the hidden life centred on a focolare preparing for the mere three years which fill the New Testament. Yet nothing does more than a contemplation of the Gospel story to dissolve the apparent paradox of a fireside movement. The family as an institution is permanent, instructive, but each family in a sense comes into being only that it may disperse. The family creates bonds which are seldom wholly broken, but it is also a school of living and growing, and one does not stay in school for ever. The strength of the family is a strength on which we draw to face many challenges — perhaps to found another literal family — a task which today brings enough of its own problems — perhaps to find new sources of strength in other associations far from our ‘hearth’. As one of your modern poets has put it, ‘Home is where one starts from.’
The apostolic brotherhood itself, gathered always round the master, had much of the character of a family, expressed most of all in the Lord’s supper, the model for the central act of the liturgy. Liturgical reform has thrown once more into relief how the communion of the local Church, gathered around its president for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, presents in itself the fullness of the universal Church. It was from this heart of strength that the apostles and disciples had dispersed to preach the Gospel and to establish new communities of love.
It is not surprising then that in Christian history (though not only there) the concept of family has powerfully influenced those wider associations which have at many points in history sprung up to meet the crisis of an age. The most distinguished of Methodist historians, Gordon Rupp, speaking of St. Benedict, has reminded us that
‘at the heart of the Christian religion is the beloved community, the koinonia, the Christian group or cell; and the secret of true community is not in the casual brushing shoulders of the streets of the secular city, or of dwellers in flats or seaside hotels. The Benedictine rule is for a common life, because Christianity is a team game, because its virtues cannot be exercised in a vacuum or grown in isolation, but need a Christian family small enough for its members to know one another very well indeed, to watch over one another, to bear with one another’s weaknesses and rejoice in one another’s victories.’ (G. Rupp, Just Men, p. 5)
It is surely no accident that one of Francis of Assisi’s humanising strokes of genius was to popularise the image of Bethlehem, the Christmas crib. His intuition of the brotherhood of men, and of nature too, in Christ was of endless fertility and has appealed to men of every age and sort, but it was even more strongly rooted in simplicity, in the belief that ‘small is beautiful’, so that he feared the very consequences of its success — enlargement, stability, institutionalisation.
These are only two eminent examples of the tradition of Christian renewal, of response to new needs. In both of them, as in many others, we see how an outward and forward thrust, a renewal of evangelical energy has drawn strength from being embodied in a family, and hence embodying what is a fundamental human as well as Christian value. The power of God, of the Spirit, has no bounds, geographical or other, but when it works through men and women it is bound to the realities of human living, which are as intimate and particular as love. We see that to say ‘Home is where one starts from’ is theologically profound. The same poet has told us that when we live in what he calls ‘a place of disaffection’ (whatever it is that has destroyed our communion) then there is
‘. . . Only a flicker
over the strained, time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction . . .
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind.’
If we look at the Focolare movement with these thoughts in mind, what do we see?
One of Chiara Lubich’s most moving utterances was made near Rome less than a year ago, when she spoke to an ecumenical assembly on the theme ‘Jesus in Our Midst’, with clear reference to the text of Matthew xviii, 20: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in their midst.’ Now she has told us elsewhere how she and her early companions saw their common aim as that of ‘taking the Gospel seriously’ — a revolutionary programme they called it, and which of us will question the description? Chiara tells us, speaking of the text of Matthew, ‘when the movement first came to life in 1943, in Catholic environments there wasn’t much talk about the presence of Jesus in our midst.’ In the lecture I speak of, she sets out to see what the text meant to the Fathers of the Church, what their meditation on it can contribute to its fruitfulness for our time. But impressive though this study is, it is nothing beside what she and her helpers have created in our society in so many places, in living response to Christ’s assurance and Christ’s appeal. The focolare movement is an example, visible to all, stirring many, comforting many more, of a world-wide growth which is realistic because it is from small beginnings, rooted in reality, the reality of two or three gathered seriously in Christ’s name. The response to the call to take the Gospel seriously is not to be made with mere words — this truth is part of the Gospel itself. For too many of us the words of the Gospel that are most often appropriate on our lips are those put into the mouth of the timid disciples: ‘This is a hard saying — who shall listen to it?’ (John vi, 60). But common, unifying resolve, issuing in a way of life, may make the ‘revolutionary programme’ a reality, small at first, but with vast potentiality for growth. A commentator on the focolare has written that ‘in all the expressions of the movement one aim can be found: the union of a few to bring about the unity of many.’ Most revolutions sooner or later divide and destroy, but the revolution of a return to the Gospel unites and builds up, so that we find the New Testament itself constantly speaking of the building up of the Church and of oneness in Christ. An invitation to take the Gospel seriously is an invitation first to go home, to go to our family roots in Christ, but to draw strength to set out again on the true way. Indeed, this revolution of taking the Gospel seriously is often expressed in an even more radical image in the New Testament: for the Christian the drama of death is not primarily that of bodily death, that launching into the shades, into the unknown which so frightened the ancients and which we all bend so much ingenuity to postpone. For the Christian, the true dying, the true entering into new life is baptism into Christ.
Prize for Progress
The Templeton prize is given for ‘progress in religion’. Can we judge, can we observe ‘progress in religion’? If there is any meaning on earth to Christ’s words, ‘By their fruits you shall know them’, the answer must be yes. To invite men and women to take the Gospel seriously, to die in order to rise to its life, and then to provide a family setting in which they may do so with joy — this is progress, this is the increase which God gives. Christian history has not been exempt from stagnation, from hardening of the arteries, from the petrification of institutions which began under the impulse of love and of zeal, but the eternal source of the Gospel is manifest in the continual capacity for renewal, for generating new life. The New Testament is full of the language of renewal, rebirth. The Christian religion is not a static one: if there is no progress to note and praise — in thought, in spiritual life, in worship, in art, above all in the communal realisation of the Gospel, the outlook is grim. It was the realisation of this that made men far beyond the bounds of the Church of Rome welcome and thank God for the Second Vatican Council. Christian progress is always a return to the sources; this is not historical revivalism or antiquarianism, because the sources are eternal, and so eternally relevant, eternally capable of revitalising society in any situation. In the course of history, it has often seemed necessary, and always attractive, to create a new community, a new family on the model of the Gospel. This has always required courage. To do it in the forest and hills after the fall of the Roman Empire, or in the first century after the discovery of America, called for backbreaking work and willingness to face danger, discouragement, destruction. But who shall say that it requires less courage and not more, to create a family, or a family of families, in the light of a great vision like the Gospel here in the heart of the technological society, in the midst of a civilisation which to many seems itself to be suffering from loss of nerve. Chiara Lubich herself has said, significantly, that the focolarini of Fontem in the Cameroun ‘seem to under-stand the real meaning of our movement better than the Christians of Europe and America.’
But whenever Christian courage is found, it is not a self-regarding and solemn posture. It is modelled on Christ, and so its driving-force is love, self-giving, and its sign is serenity. The mere list of Focolare foundations in a span of thirty years speaks of courage and tenacity, but the Christian stamp of that courage, which is serenity and love, can only be seen in the life of those foundations. I need not apologise for the example I choose to illustrate this: The Focolare movement realised its ecumenical potential through an encounter with Lutherans in 1960, the same year in which the Roman Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity was founded. The Anglican meeting with and participation in the movement was even more strikingly a result of a chance encounter in Rome. When the Anglo/Roman Catholic International Commission, tackling a difficult phase of its work, looked for a meeting-place in 1974, it was not surprising that it should turn to the beautiful Mariapolis near Grottaferrata. Many members of the commission have said that this meeting had a unique atmosphere, the happiest they had experienced, and that it seemed something communicated to them by the focolarini, not only in their devoted hospitality and help, their interest and prayers, but simply in the spectacle of Christian serenity which they presented at every moment. A small example, but an important one. Much earlier Michael Ramsey, after a talk with Chiara Lubich at Lambeth, had put his finger with his usual precision on the same point. He said:
‘There are many ways and means by which you can work together with Anglicans and have spiritual communion with them in this country, so that their hearts may be warmed by the fire of this spirit.’
Heart-warming: a good word for focolarini, and a description of a need that is always indispensable to ecumenism. Unless our common baptism, our common commitment to Christ warms our hearts so that the warmth communicates itself across the barriers we have grown up with, theological dialogue will never draw us to that ‘focus’ which will make us fully one family in Christ.
‘So,’ as St. Paul says, ‘if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’ (Phil. ii, 1–2).