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The Catholic New World

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.


Focolare members seek God's unity in Chicago

The international Focolare Move-ment has had a presence in Chicago for decades, with members working to make God's love manifest in the world. The movement-which embraces other Christians, members of other religions and people of good will with no particular religious conviction-recently celebrated the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, at the same time welcoming the Midwest regional director for women, Paloma Cabetas. A native of Spain, Cabetas worked in Washington D.C. for 18 years as an assistant to the papal nuncio at the Vatican Embassy. The men's Midwest regional director, Marco Desalvo, is an Italian who has spent most of the last two decades in Chicago, including a stint teaching at Josephinum Academy. The movement maintains two women's residences and a men's residence in the archdiocese. Claiming about 2 million adherents in 182 countries, The Focolare generally hosts about 100 people at monthly open houses in Chicago and 500 at an annual summer event. Its name means "hearth" in Italian, the place where people gather. Its official name is "Work of Mary."

Cabetas and Desalvo sat down with Michelle Martin at the women's residence in Hyde Park.

TCNW: What is Focolare? Where did it come from?
Paloma Cabetas: The Focolare Movement is one of the movements in the Catholic Church, one of the charisms of the Catholic Church. It started in the 1940s during the war in Trent, in the northern part of Italy, with young people, young women, including our founder, Chiara Lubich. They saw a lot of their ideas were collapsing: one wanted to start a house, and it was destroyed by the bombs. Chiara wanted to study philosophy, and she couldn't go the university because they were all closed. Another had planned her whole life around getting married and her fiancÚ died in the war. So seeing this destruction, they said, "Is there an ideal that doesn't pass, that no bomb can take away?" and they said, "Yes, it is God." They decided to make God the first love of their lives, the first idea.

They ran like everybody else to the air raid shelters, and they would bring the Gospel with them and read it together. They realized that those words they had always heard in church, they had never thought of making them a guide for life. They seemed new to them: Love your neighbor as yourself. Not just a little varnish of love or a touch here and there, but really as yourself. For example, when they were running to the air raid shelters, if they saw an elderly person who couldn't run, they would stop and risk their own lives to accompany her.

One of the phrases that particularly struck them was "Father, may they be one as you and I are one." When they read that together, they felt they were called to build unity. It was just a small group of young people. They didn't know what it meant for their future. . Through the development of our movement through the years, we have seen that unity is really our goal, first of all within the Catholic Church, but also with the faithful of other churches, members of other religions and even with people of no religious convictions.
Marco Desalvo: One characteristic of the Focolare and other ecclesial movements is having a communitarian spirituality or way of life. In the first centuries (of the church), individual spirituality seems more of the focus: Individual sanctity, a person going to God by the effort of reaching perfection, reaching sanctity. What the Holy Spirit made Chiara understand is that we have to carry the spirit of Jesus among us by our mutual love and so we go to God, but together. It is not just I and God, but I, my brother and sister and God. It is through my brothers and sisters.

TCNW: How do you find unity with people of other faiths or no particular faith?
PC: That came from life. In the beginning, we were all Catholic. It so happened that in the '60s, maybe early '60s, some Lutherans came said, "Oh, Catholics live the Gospel!" They were actually amazed to see it. This was in the days before the Second Vatican Council. In contact with them, we saw that they became better Lutherans. The same happened with a group of Anglicans. We just realized that there were so many things in common, we didn't seek out the differences and talk about what divided us-we can do that when the theological dialogue starts. But in the dialogue of life, we find we all live from the same principles. We all live from what the Gospel teaches us and we can all put it into practice. And then, in the '70s, we discovered that the same thing happened with other religions who do not even believe in Jesus, but who believe in the presence of God, in the love of God, in a Father who unites everybody, believing in creating a better society.
MD: Also here in Chicago, we have had ecumenical contact with other Christians and with people of other religions. It has been one of the most fruitful and beautiful experiences with the followers of Imam W.D. Mohammed. We are celebrating 10 years of this dialogue with him. We get to know each other, we attend each other's events and we strengthen each other. We want them to be better Muslims, they want us to be better Christians. Knowing each other, that's what happens. We become a family.

TCNW: How do people express the Focolare spirituality?
PC: We all try to be enriched by the Gospel, by reading and meditating on the Gospel and on the writings of our founder, but then we try to put it into practice in our daily life. It is a spirituality to be brought to the home, to the school, to the offices, to try to transfer it to where we live and where we work. What we do to help one another is to share. In our meetings we share experiences of how we have tried to put it into practice. More than praying together it is living together.

Daily Mass if possible is also part of our spirituality, because the Mass is the moment that is the most important part of the day.
MD: We know it is totally useless to go and pray if we know, for example, there is some misunderstanding in the house. The presence of Jesus must be there before going to church, before going to pray.

TCNW: What gifts do you bring the church?
MD: We contribute to bringing the Gospel, to bringing the word of Jesus, to Chicago. If there is a word for us-like for the Franciscans it is poverty-for us it is unity. We try to bring unity among Catholics, among other churches, other religions, even those who don't believe.
PC: We find the presence of Jesus among us.

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