Chiara Lubich, Who Founded Catholic Lay Group, Dies at 88
by Ian Fisher
Her death was announced by the group. She had long been in frail health and died shortly after being discharged Thursday, at her request, after a long stay in Gemelli Hospital in Rome.
Ms. Lubich began Focolare as a small group of religious laywomen in northern Italy during World War II. Some of the group’s early meetings took place in air raid shelters under American bombardment.
She later wrote: “Is there an ideal that does not die, that no bombs can destroy, an ideal we can give our whole selves to? Yes, there is. It is God.”
But rather than joining a convent, she focused her devotion on the idea that lay people could also lead full religious lives. In recent years lay movements like hers gained increasing influence in the church and among popes. At her death, Focolare, whose name means “hearth,” counted 140,000 core members and more than two million followers in 182 countries.
As a measure of her stature, Pope Benedict XVI sent the movement a telegram of condolence on Friday, praising her “constant commitment for communion in the church, for ecumenical dialogue and for brotherhood among people.” Her funeral Mass, scheduled for Tuesday in Rome, will be celebrated by the Vatican’s second in command, its secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
She was born Silvia Lubich on Jan. 22, 1920, in Trent, in northern Italy. She later changed her first name to Chiara, which is Clare in English, out of admiration for St. Clare of Assisi. At 19, she experienced a religious awakening in the shrine city of Loreto, Italy, in which she said later she intuited that lay people could play a deeper, more organized role in the church. Similar groups like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and the Community of Sant’Egidio — all outside the church hierarchy — have a prominent voice in Catholic life.
In 1943, while working as an elementary school teacher, Ms. Lubich began meeting with other women, vowing to devote their lives to the poor. The group expanded to include men and formed communities with several levels of adherence. The most devoted single members take a vow of chastity and turn their belongings over to the movement.
Focolare initially focused its work in war-ravaged Western Europe, then expanded into the Soviet bloc. Over time, the group moved into developing nations and, taking the word “unity” as a refrain, began focusing on interreligious dialogue. In 1997, Ms. Lubich met with 800 Buddhist monks in Thailand, the same year she preached at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem. She received the Templeton Prize for progress in religion in 1977 and was awarded the Unesco Prize for Peace Education in 1996.
In a church where men play the dominant role, Ms. Lubich said in a 2003 interview with John L. Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter that she had once asked Pope John Paul II if he was uncomfortable with a woman holding such a high-profile job.
“Magari!” she said the pope replied, roughly meaning, “Are you kidding?” or “If only.”Photo credit:Getty Images