Focolare members united by desire to love God, neighbors

| Susan Klemond for The Catholic Spirit | February 11, 2015 | 0 Comments

As a young college graduate considering the priesthood in the 1970s, Emery Koenig saw an ad from the international Catholic movement Focolare offering a concerete way to live out the Gospel.

He didn’t enter the seminary, but found in Focolare a tangible way to love God and his neighbor while uniting with others sharing the same goal. More than 35 years later, Koenig and his wife still find encouragement in the teachings and members of the movement, whose founder is now being considered for sainthood.

“It’s just become such a core part of our family, how we tried to live, how we tried to love each other and all the ups and downs of everyday life,” said Koenig, who attends St. Joseph in Waconia.

The Koenigs are part of the Twin Cities’ branch of Focolare, an international movement started in 1943 by Italian laywoman Chiara Lubich. Its members decide as individuals to love God and neighbor at all times with a communitarian spirit, said Jo-Ellen Karstens, a Focolare leader based in Chicago.

Ecumenical brotherhood

Focolare’s 2 million members and associates in 182 countries are mostly Catholic, but include Protestants and non-Christians seeking to promote unity among Christians and universal brotherhood with all others.

The movement is called Focolare — Italian for “hearth”— because it aims to warm hearts with the fire of love. Members point to Mary as the movement’s inspiration, as they wish to bring Jesus to the world as she did. They are involved in schools, business, social work, publishing and art, Karstens said.

One of the oldest 20th century lay movements, Focolare has been recognized in the Church for its “charism of unity,” she said.

Colleen Biver, a member of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, grew up in Focolare and embraced it as an adult. After college, she worked for the movement in the Philippines with her husband, Michael, before settling in St. Paul.

The couple continues to practice the spirituality as they raise their two children, she said.

“It’s something that becomes a reality as I try to live that out on a day-to-day basis with my children, my husband and other moms I come in contact with,” she said. “Just simple ways of [answering] ‘How do we live this faith every day? . . . How do I help this mom that might need help with her toddler?’”

Biver said the movement helped her understand the Catholic faith on simpler terms.
Koenig said Focolare has given him a deeper understanding of who God is. “There are many experiences we’ve had of trying to love our neighbor, trying to love God, and [asking] how do we begin to understand the will of God for our lives in each present moment?”

Members join — without a formal application — to give their life meaning, increase their relationship with God and put that into practice, Karstens said, adding that they do go through a formation process. Members aren’t encouraged to actively evangelize Focolare members of other faiths, but to “be an island of unity and peace” in their particular faith, she said.

Focolare members have created 33 permanent environments called “Mariopolises,” or “Cities of Mary,” where they live the movement’s teachings on love together. One in Hyde Park, N.Y., has 60 residents.

Annual conferences, such as one in April that drew 500 people to  Valparaiso, Ind., are also considered Mariopolis models.

Up to 25 people — some from St. Cloud and Eau Claire, Wis., — gather at the Koenigs’ home seasonally to build community and share how they’re loving God and neighbor. Many are Catholic, but Muslims also have attended, Koenig said. The group encourages new members by word of mouth, but it isn’t actively building a large community, he said.

Simplifying laity’s quest

Ecclesial movements in the Church — it’s unclear how many exist — are attempting to invent a new way of being Catholic in the Church and in the world beyond traditional boundaries of clergy and lay person, said Massimo Faggioli, an assistant theology professor and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at the University of St. Thomas.

They’re helping simplify the laity’s quest for a more active role in the Church, he said.

Focolare’s global reach and female-only leadership (stemming from its emulation of Mary) are unique, he said. According to the movement’s general statutes, its president must always be a woman.
A lay leader who died in 2008, Lubich started Focolare during World War II with friends who read the Gospels together in an air raid shelter.

The opening of her canonization cause, which was formalized Jan. 27 at a Mass in Frascati, Italy, is a confirmation for the movement’s life, spirit and charism, Biver said.

Karstens agreed. “It’s a tribute to her [Lubich’s] effort through the years to share this spirit.”

For more information about Focolare, visit http://www.focolare.org or email midwest@focolare.us.


Sainthood cause begins

Chiara Lubich

Chiara Lubich

Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, “lit a new light in the Church’s journey toward unity,” Pope Francis said.

In a message to hundreds of people gathered in the cathedral of Frascati, Italy, Jan. 27 for the formal opening of Lubich’s sainthood cause, Pope Francis expressed his hope that “the shining example” of her life and activity wo

uld strengthen Focolare members’ faith and commitment to building up the unity of the Church and friendly relations with members of other religions.

Lubich, who was born in Trent, Italy, in 1920, founded the Focolare Movement with a few friends during World War II, inspired by Jesus’ words “that they all would be one.” Gradually, the women decided to form a community and share everything they had with each other and with the poor.

The movement now has more than 2 million members and associates in 192 countries and a strong focus on building positive relations with people of other faiths.

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