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  • Chiara Lubich:A Life for Unity
  • Amelia J. Uelmen (bio)


When someone has a set of good ideas that seem to work well, it is not rare for the first reaction to be, "how can we bottle this?" In a culture that highly values the language of scientific and technical formulas, we tend to focus fairly quickly on how patterns may be, in a certain sense, "harnessed" and applied more broadly.1

This biographical sketch gives a brief overview of the life and work of Chiara Lubich, the founder of the international Focolare Movement. Much indicates that she has proposed a set of good ideas that seem to work well. Within a relatively short time span, the Focolare Movement has spread to over 180 countries, and its influence reaches far beyond the boundaries of its Roman Catholic origins. Throughout the globe, the Focolare Movement is known especially for its work in interreligious dialogue and, more generally, as an effective instrument to build unity between people of different cultures, races, and social backgrounds.2

Yet as I attempted this sketch, everything about Lubich's life seemed to elude an effort to "harness" its patterns and "bottle" the [End Page 52] formula. The running theme in Lubich's life seems to be less about her own individual heroic effort or creative initiative and planning, and more a story of radical openness and response to God's own initiative and plans. As Lubich herself reflected, "The pen does not know what it will write, the artist's brush does not know what it will paint . . . when God takes someone in hand to bring a new work into being, that person does not know what she will achieve; she is simply an instrument."3

This brief sketch is in no way comprehensive.4 It is meant only as an introduction and an invitation to delve more deeply into how Lubich's life spent in the service of unity is a unique and important gift for our times.

Stars and Tears

Chiara Lubich5 was born in 1920 in Trent, northern Italy, the second of four children. Her childhood was simple—looking back, she reflects that both her parents had a strong impact. From her mother, a traditional devout Roman Catholic, she absorbed a deep religious sensitivity. She was particularly close to her father, a Socialist, whom she describes as "large of heart" and broad of mind.6 As Fascism gained ground in the late 1920s, her father lost his job, and the family lived through years of extreme poverty. Chiara helped to support the family, working her way through school, and eventually she took a job as an elementary school teacher.7

Because of its strategic location as a passage through the Dolomite Mountains, Trent was heavily bombed during World War II. On May 13, 1944, from a wooded hillside where she had taken refuge with her family, Chiara watched as bombings ravaged her neighborhood and destroyed her family home. As she lay awake through the night, looking up into the darkness and watching the stars move across the sky, she had the sense that something new was coming to life in her city and felt that she could not abandon the [End Page 53] group of friends who were counting on her. Yet she struggled, knowing that her family would leave the next morning to look for safer shelter in the mountains.8

Then, she recounts, "almost as if someone suggested it to me. ... I remembered a phrase in Latin, Omnia vincit amor, love conquers all." About four in the morning she dried her tears. She remembers, "From the moment I said that 'yes' I sensed a new strength."9

Early the next morning, in what she describes as the most painful moment, she placed her heavy backpack on her mother's curved shoulders. Her family made their way toward the mountains, and she turned toward the city. Many years later, the scene is still vivid: "the destruction was total: trees had been uprooted, houses were in ruins, roads were covered with debris. Tears came to my eyes . . . and I let them flow." Then, suddenly a woman appeared at the corner of...


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