The Spirit At Work In the Lives of Chiara Lubich and Mother Seton - Seton Shrine
Chiara Lubich

The Spirit At Work In the Lives of Chiara Lubich and Mother Seton

The Holy Spirit loves to surprise us. In every age He enters like a lightning bolt and transforms relationships, overturns our ways of thinking, and brings new life, as he did with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Servant of God Chiara Lubich.

At the heart of every saint’s story is a series of events so unexpected that it takes your breath away. Grace always builds on nature, but when grace comes, when God takes hold of a heart that has invited him in, he does so like a lightning bolt in the night. We are always surprised!

Who would have expected that Elizabeth Ann Seton, newly widowed, her heart rent with grief, would discover Christ in a strange country far from home? Who could have predicted that this young Episcopalian woman in a few short years would become a Roman Catholic religious? Who would have anticipated her willingness as a new Catholic to take on all of the apparently insurmountable difficulties founding a new congregation of women religious, the first to blossom on American soil? And who would have guessed it would grow and flourish and spread out in our land like a great fruitful tree? This is the sort of work that only the Holy Spirit can do. And this is the kind of firestorm we can expect in our own lives if we let Him in.

Today we are looking at a similarly extraordinary witness of the work of the Spirit in the life of Servant of God Chiara Lubich, the foundress of the Focolare Movement, an international presence in both the Catholic Church and beyond.

Chiara’s birth name was Silvia, and she was born in 1920 in Trent, Italy, to a fervent Catholic mother and a Socialist father. She knew hardship from childhood when her father’s refusal to join the Fascist party led to unemployment and hunger for his family.

And she knew Christ. From the age of seven Silvia went to a weekly Adoration time for children organized by a nun. Kneeling attentively before the Lord, the little girl begged to be “enlightened” by him. And slowly, in the depths of her heart, he began to send that light. He had a plan for her. At ten, Silvia contracted acute peritonitis. The doctors gave up hope, but her father demanded that they operate. Her mother told the nuns, who stormed heaven with their prayers, and Silvia survived.

She went to teachers’ college and after graduation at the age of eighteen, she began to teach in nearby schools. In 1942, she joined the Franciscan Third Order. Captivated by Saint Francis’ counterpart, the bold and beautiful Clare of Assisi, Silvia changed her name to “Clare,” “Chiara” in Italian. “Chiara” means “bright,” “clear”: it was another moment of light.

But the next year was the lightning bolt. On a cold, snowy day that year, Chiara was on an errand to buy milk for her mother when she heard a voice, “Give yourself completely to me.” She wrote at once to her spiritual director. She wanted to consecrate herself to God, she told him. He gave permission, and on December 7, in the Capuchin chapel, Chiara took Christ as her spouse for the rest of her life.

The next year brought another bolt. It was World War II, and Anglo-American forces began dropping bombs on Trent. Suddenly death and destruction surrounded Chiara. She burrowed deep into her soul for consolation.

What, Chiara wondered, is the only reality that cannot be destroyed? It is God. In the end “only God remains,” she concluded. As she read the Gospels, Chiara began to feel that everything she was reading was possible. She shared this news with her friends, who were captivated. As the bombs fell, the young women fled into the air-raid shelters and gathered around Chiara.

She later wrote,

One day I found myself with my new companions in a dark, candle-lit cellar, a book of the Gospel in hand. I opened it at random and found the prayer of Jesus before he died: ‘Father. . . that they may all be one’ (John 17:11). It was not an easy text for us to start with, but one by one those words seemed to come to life, giving us the conviction that we were born for this page of the Gospel.

What was happening in Chiara and her young girl friends at this time? They were meditating on the word of God, letting themselves be fed by it. And by the power of the Spirit, this word was taking shape within them, moving them, and changing them. It was becoming their lives. Soon after, Chiara’s home was damaged and her family fled the city. But Chiara, emboldened by the little community that was beginning, stayed. They found an apartment where they gathered around the hearth, or “focolare,” to read the Gospel and share it. Then, they began to live it. They went out to care for their hungry and homeless neighbors.

At this time, a Capuchin friar pointed out to Chiara that Christ’s love had brought him to the point where he accepted being forsaken by the Father: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matt 27:46). This simple observation entered Chiara’s heart and became the fundamental intuition for their work. The young women began to go out to seek “Jesus Forsaken.”

“From that moment on,” Chiara later wrote, “we seemed to discover his countenance everywhere.” They saw the forgotten Christ in the wounds of the people they served. And they saw him in each other. And each of them saw him in herself. Indeed, Chiara offered a beautiful teaching that all of us can take hold of. When I feel most alone and abandoned, then I can see Jesus forsaken in me. And then I can love Jesus Forsaken in myself.

It turned out that this way of looking at the world, through the lens of Christ’s greatest suffering, was an unexpected source of joy for the young women. The wounds they saw, Chiara said,

didn’t frighten us. On the contrary, because of our love for him in his abandonment, they attracted us. He had shown us how to face them, how to live them, how to cooperate in overcoming them when, after the abandonment, he placed his spirit in his Father’s hands: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,’ giving to humankind the possibility of being restored to itself and to God, and he showed us the way.

Everything could be faced in this way, by handing everything over to the Father in the Spirit. Through the Cross, the light of the Resurrection shone.

“Jesus Forsaken” became the principle of unity that guided Chiara and her followers in the years to come. By 1948, the little community in Trent had hundreds of followers. They lived as the early Christians, sharing goods in common. In the same year, a men’s “focolare” was founded. And in 1953, Igino Giordani, a married man, began the first focolare for married persons. Giordani is considered a co-founder of the movement, as is the priest Pasquale Foresi. Yet, it must be said that Chiara remained the primary force behind all that was happening.

And this is unexpected. Of the “new movements” that emerged in the Church in the twentieth century, Chiara’s was the first. Are we not to wonder at God’s initiative in choosing her to lead the charge?

Many did wonder. Beginning in 1951, the Holy Office investigated Focolare. People were suspicious of this group which preached “love and unity” and was led by a young woman who carried the Gospel in her pocket and put it into action in her life. As normal as this may sound to us, this caused a firestorm in a time when the word “love” was not at the heart of Catholic catechesis. Consecrated women typically entered convents, and the Gospel was usually studied in the seminary by men preparing for Holy Orders.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII ended a long period of testing by giving official approval to this movement that had arrived in a time of suffering and chaos through the profound prayer of a young woman. Pope John Paul II would later speak of the movement’s feminine or “Marian” profile (in fact, the official name for Focolare is “Mary’s Work.”) It was a firestorm all right: the way the Spirit works.

In the years that followed, Chiara brought her message of unity to people all over the world. When she died in 2008, she left a movement that has taken hold in 183 countries, a force for peace and dialogue that finds its power and strength in the Gospel, but is open to all people of good will. And this is a great testament to the Spirit, for he blows where he will (John 3:8). The cause for Chiara’s beatification and canonization was opened in 2015.

Are we surprised? We should be—this is the way the Spirit works! He loves to surprise us. In every age the Spirit enters like a lightning bolt, a firestorm, or a sudden shaft of light. He transforms relationships, overturns our ways of thinking, and brings new life. He did it in the lives of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Servant of God Chiara Lubich. And he can do it in yours and mine.

LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

Image: Public domain via Wikipedia Foundation.

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