On January 22, 1920, exactly one hundred years ago, Chiara Lubich was born in Trent, Italy On that day no one could have imagined that her life would transform that of thousands and thousands of other people throughout the world. Bennie Callebaut, a professor at the Sophia University Institute, is the author of the book “The Birth of the Focolare Movement”, the result of a long sociological and historical study. In this article, he helps us to discover the context in which Chiara lived and which would be the cradle of her charism.

I met Chiara through Gen Rosso in 1968. I still had some vague memories of the atmosphere of the Second World War and the early postwar years. I had lived, even though a child, as an altar boy, during the Pre-Conciliar Church. Later, however, I realized that telling the story of Chiara to the generations born in the ‘70s, ‘80s and later, was no longer the same thing. What could be understood, for example, of the explosive force of the word “love”, as Chiara used it, in a time when this concept was almost never evoked except within the walls of a convent when one spoke of mysticism?

This was one of the reasons that led me to carry out this research work: to give to the new generations the context in which the charism emerged. I began in 1985, with the encouragement of my professor and Chiara herself, and I concluded it twenty years later.

At first, however, I had a very strong experience. Entering into the atmosphere of Trent in those early years of Chiara’s life, up until the 1940s, and then becoming familiar with Italy of the 1950s, spontaneously I turned to God, perhaps in a particular way to the Holy Spirit and, really scandalized, I thought: “But how could you have given such a strong charism to this young woman before the Second Vatican Council? Didn’t you realize that this meant putting her in the worst possible conditions, because, given that cultural context, it could not have been understood?” It was a bit of a cry from deep within because I realized that there had been so many difficulties that Chiara had often carried, indeed endured, alone or almost alone.

With time I understood always more clearly that she was particularly prepared to withstand the storm, thanks to her personality and the spirituality that arose in her heart. On the other hand, many authoritative voices instead glimpsed the birth, through her, of something important, even beyond Trent and Italy.

In short, the Good Lord had prepared the Council, not only by working on bishops and theologians but also by forming, at the base of the Church, people who would welcome the newness of this reality and would discover Chiara (and not only her of course). In a certain, sense she anticipated many points of the Council. In short, I would say that although Trent and Italy in those years were the cradle of the Focolare Movement, they did not much influence Chiara’s charism, just as a cradle does not have much influence on the child it contains. The charism of unity had a surprising resonance throughout the world in the fifties and especially in the sixties. before 1969 it had also taken root on the last continent that it reached, Australia.

Now one hundred years have passed since Chiara was born. It may seem many, but in reality, we could say that only a hundred years have passed. I think that we have just begun to see something of the charism’s impact. I believe that the realization of the ‘program’ of unity, of the united world, of the links of fraternity, lay above all ahead of us. During Chiara’s life, the Movement followed her with great confidence and she was at least able to sow the many seeds that this charism contains, but it was difficult to follow everything with the same intensity because she continued to found….The words of Pope Francis come to mind: Chiara began a process, she did not want to occupy space, but to begin a process. Now, over time, it is a matter of taking everything up again and developing things that often she had only sketched forth. Today, for example, we strongly feel the contribution that the charism can give to culture; we are in a world full of potential but one which needs light and strong ideas that can fill a void of meaning which is so deeply felt.

To see today new generations of people who have not known Chiara while she was living, but who discover her and receive from her the drive to roll up their sleeves and begin to work in our times, in our society, moved by the same charism, I must say that it makes a huge impression on me.

Bennie Callebaut

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