Wednesday 13 January 2021

The Cult of Chiara

On Sunday 3 January the Italian national TV station RAI Uno, screened Chiara Lubich - L'amore vince Tutto (Chiara Lubich - Love Conquers All), a new feature-length drama based on the early years of Chiara Lubich, founder of the vast international Focolare Movement and who was once described by her good friend and admirer Pope John Paul II as 'a Great Catholic'.

Starring prominent film and TV actress Cristiana Capotondi in the role of Lubich, directed by Giacomo Campiotti, director of the 2002 TV series Doctor Zhivago starring Keira Knightley, and filmed on the original glorious locations in Trento, the Dolomite mountains and Rome,  shooting on Chiara Lubich - Love Conquers All was completed in mid-2020, amdist the strictures of the pandemic. This production followed in the wake of feature films reverently depicting the saintly lives of other 20th century Catholic colossi such as Mother Teresa and John Paul himself, both already canonised remarkably fast, while Chiara Lubich's cause for sanctification has passed through the diocesan stage and is currently careening through the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints at warp speed.

In an article by Ferruccio Pinotti in the Italian major daily, Corriera della Sera, which appeared the day after the screening of Chiara Lubich - Love Conquers All, former members of the Movement protested strongly against the white-washed image of Lubich and the Focolare Movement presented in the film.  Many ex-members have recently brought charges of abuse of authority and mind control against the organisation, they pointed out, not to mention a major investigation currently underway in France against an internal member of the Movement for sex crimes against minors and a cover-up by its leaders over many years.  At this point in time, they suggest, Focolare should be taking a much humbler attitude, rather than continuing to blow its own trumpet in the triumphalistic fashion which has always been its hallmark. 

Of, course, Lubich herself, represented in an idealised manner in the new film, cannot be held directly responsible for recent examples of sexual abuse by members of the Movement.  There are core aspects of its culture, however, such as extreme secrecy, manipulative use of authority and the priority of protecting the Movement's image and status at all costs - which were developed under Lubich's sixty years of leadership - that can directly facilitate this kind of abuse.

My book The Pope's Armada, published 25 years ago, was the first international investigation into the Focolare Movement and other similar 'new movements' in the Catholic Church. It was also the first to point out its similarities to organisations generally termed cults (see previous post: The Pope's Armada: 25 years on). But at the centre of it all is the personality cult around Lubich herself - the Cult of Chiara.

Looking back, I can now see clearly, from my own experience as an internal member of the Focolare Movement for nine years, the almost invisible induction process I was put through from the moment I first encountered it at the age of seventeen in 1967.  There was a great deal of talk about 'understanding' aspects of the movement - as though this were a kind of private revelation, like evangelicals and charismatics talk of baptism in the Spirit, or apparently random individuals are the 'elect' in doctrines of predestination.  Leaders of the Movement - none from the UK at that time as I was the first English Catholic man to become a full time member - would declare who had 'understood' Chiara (the word used was 'capito', in Italian, the Movement's official language); who had 'understood' her 'spirituality', (known as 'the Ideal'); who had 'understood' its essential points such as 'unity', 'Jesus in the midst', 'Jesus Forsaken'. Although the latter appear to be ideas drawn from the New Testament, they had to be 'understood' in a very particular way, the way Chiara repeatedly re-defined them in speeches and pamphlets.  At the beginning, end and centre of it all, however, was 'understanding' Chiara.

When I was based at the men’s Focolare community in London, the leader of the male section of the Movement in the UK, a priest, would frequently issue decrees during our evening meals on who had and who had not 'understood' Chiara, 'unity' etc.  Pope Paul VI, for example, had been a loyal supporter of Lubich and the Focolare Movement from the early fifties, having defended it from enemies in the Vatican long before he became Pope and later, as Pope, met frequently with Lubich, offering warm encouragement.  But, he, according to our leader 'had not understood Chiara'.  Furthermore, one of the Movement's greatest proselytisers in the UK, a saintly Benedictine priest who had introduced hordes of new followers to the Movement,  we were instructed, had also 'not understood Chiara or the Ideal'.  Pope John Paul, on the other hand, who, among other favours, donated the audience hall at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo to Focolare as its expanded international conference centre, had understood Chiara and was referred to by the term 'popo', a word from the Trento dialect meaning 'child', which in the Focolare lingo signified someone who had definitively 'understood'.  On one occasion, Chiara Lubich showed remarkable cheek at a formal dinner when she suggested to John Paul that he was also a member of the Movement. 

As a very young man, I found these imperious decrees alarming;  had I truly 'understood'?  Apparently I had, as, gradually, more secrets were revealed to me through ancient reel-to-reel tape-recordings of Lubich or privately circulated documents - flimsy sheets of pale and fuzzy carbon copies.  I learned for example, that we internal members of the movement were one soul and that Chiara was at its centre: the source of all understanding.  In her own words: 'There is no unity except where personality no longer exists' (Nuova Umanita* (2007/6) 174, pp 605-611) or ‘Every soul of the Focolare must be an expression of me and nothing else.’ (unpublished manuscript, Rome 23/11/50)  Particularly alluring were tit-bits we were fed of Lubich's summer of visions in 1949, known as 'the Paradise of 1949'. 

There was strong encouragement for the internal members to recognise Lubich as our true Mother.  The first time I saw her in person at a week-long meeting held at the Movement's centre at Rocca di Papa, near Rome, the leader of the male members of the Movement in London stood behind me during one of her speeches whispering in my ear, 'Don't you feel she is your Mother?'  In meetings restricted to internal members, we sang what were virtually hymns to Lubich, addressing her as 'Mamma'. On the other hand, our real mothers were somewhat reduced in status by the nickname 'mammine' (little mothers). 

We were also encouraged to write personal letters to Lubich about our spiritual progress in the Movement.   And also to ask her for ‘new names’ (after all, doesn't the mother name the child?)   One of the male leaders in the Movement was known as 'Maras' (Maria Assunta), an acquaintance of mine was dubbed 'Alleluia'.  Some of these names seemed like a joke - such as 'Ignis', a make of white goods, or Sprint, which was bestowed on a young Swiss girl.  On request, Lubich would also give out a personal 'Word of Life', usually a brief quote from the New Testament.  We genuinely believed that these choices were inspired and destined for us alone, even though Lubich knew few of us personally.

I wrote to 'Chiara' dozens of times (these letters were screened twice - firstly by our local leaders and again by her personal multilingual 'secretariat' - to ensure that she would only receive letters that 'would give her joy' and presumably show we had 'understood').  The only time I ever received a reply was via her personal secretary Guilia Folonari (new name: Eli), when I was living in the Movement's new centre for men in Liverpool of which I was a founder member. I had written that I now realised she was my true mother.  'Chiara was VERY happy with your letter,' Eli assured me. 

One practice I found difficult to accept was stampeding after Chiara and trying to get as close to her as possible whenever she appeared in public.  But it was compulsory - otherwise you hadn't 'understood'.   In the early seventies, when I was serving my two year 'novitiate' at the Focolare 'town' of Loppiano in Tuscany, a young man from England turned up out of the blue, having seen a programme about Loppiano made by the BBC.  I had been appointed his 'guardian angel' and, following a visit by Chiara Lubich at which he had witnessed the frantic expectancy, the cheering, wild applause, standing on chairs and near-hysteria at her appearance, and the way the crowds clustered around her until she managed to squeeze through the front door of her house, I asked him what his first impression of Chiara had been.  'A bit like the Queen,' he solemnly replied.

In her later years, the focus on promoting the figure of Chiara Lubich increased markedly.  Tremendous efforts were focused on securing secular awards for her, including numerous honorary degrees in subjects as varied as Psychology, Business and Economics, Social Sciences and Art, and promoting her as a heroine of global significance, like Mother Teresa (see Chiara Lubich Wikipedia entry). It was rumoured in the period 1995-2004 that she would only visit centres of the Movement in various parts of the world if you had secured an award for her.  Her major secular awards included the UNESCO 1996 Prize for Peace Education, the Council of Europe 1998 Human Rights Prize and the Grand Merit Cross from The Federal Republic of Germany.  

If anything, the Cult of Chiara, far from diminishing, has vastly increased since her death in 2008.  The cause for her beatification and canonisation was launched in Frascati on the outskirts of Rome in January 2015.  To bolster this, many books have been written about her as well as the publication of many volumes of her own writings (enter Chiara Lubich in - odd, considering that she advised everyone else to 'put their books in the attic'. Now the message of the Movement seems to be more than ever simply: Chiara.  An extraordinary short film made by Focolare and available on Vimeo ( shows a trip to Trento and the Dolomites by a group of Hindus from India, including distinguished academics, to learn on the spot the miniscule details of Chiara's foundation of the Focolare Movement.  A new kind of interfaith dialogue indeed!

In a year-end one-hour programme made by Focolare in December 2020, also available on Vimeo ( - 43 mins 30 secs), Maria Voce, Chiara's successor as President of the Movement, mentions the three highlights of her twelve year presidency, now drawing to a close: 1) the funeral of Chiara (see previous post Jesus Wept) at which a visiting stranger discovered the Movement, thus proving that Chiara lives on; 2) seeing Chiara alive in all the members of the Movement doing good to others all over the world over the past twelve years; 3) the sight of Pope Francis signing the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which, according to Voce signified 'the ultimate Chiara could desire: that a Pope should promulgate to the whole world her [Chiara's] dream.'  Apparently Focolare is now more Chiaracentric than ever. 

Pope Francis has recently spoken out against 'self-referentiality' - especially in reference to new Catholic movements.  Here is a perfect example of what he is talking about: in the eyes of the Focolare Movement and its President, everything boils down Chiara Lubich.  25 years ago, in The Pope's Armada, I included a long chapter called 'The Mysteries of the Movements' in which I defined the secret teachings of the movements as a new form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticsm (see forthcoming post on Gnosticism in the new Catholic Movements), that is, 'the fusion between Christianty and [ancient] mystery religions...a mystical [and heretical] form of the infant faith which promised its adepts access to secret knowledge which would explain its mysteries...Salvation through knowledge is far less of an effort than that which requires sweat and struggle - and faith.'  The Cult of Chiara is a key aspect of  this Gnostic strand - ie the vital element is to 'understand' Chiara .  Readers twenty-five years ago may have felt that I was pushing a point too far in stressing the concept of neo-Gnosticism in my analysis of the new Catholic Movements.  Fascinatingly, however, Pope Francis himself has insisted in numerous recent documents on the dangers of 'Catholic Gnosticism' (Gaudete et Esultate, Apostolic Exhortation, 2018; Placuit Dei, 2018; Incontro del Santo Padre Francesco con la Diocesi di Roma, 2018 and many others).  Although he does not give specific examples, he has certainly brought this concept firmly into contemporary Catholic mainstream thought and it can no longer be dismissed as exaggerated or a 'conspiracy theory' as some critics of The Pope's Armada have maintained.

In recent years, many saints have been canonised too fast, with ensuing embarassment for the Vatican - for example, Jose Maria Escriva, the controversial founder of Opus Dei prior to whose canonisation, the Vatican’s PR office had to enforce a two-week news blackout; Mother Teresa - whose canonisation miracles have been challenged - and Pope John Paul II whose cavalier dismissal of a number of high-profile sex abuse cases is now being questioned.  In the latter case, it was the Focolare Movement who pushed his candidacy with the slogan 'Santo Subito'! (Saint Right Now!) - with an eye on the future, perhaps?  Yet it took the Catholic Church 500 years to canonise Saint Joan of Arc, now universally regarded as one of the outstanding figures in recorded history.  At the end of his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw, gives his sublime heroine the poignant prayer, 'O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints?  How long, O Lord, how long?'  Given the doubts expressed about Chiara Lubich following RAI's new feature film, perhaps our plea to the Almighty should be, Hold on, O lord, hold on!'

* Italian academic quarterly  of the Focolare Movement.