Wednesday 17 March 2021

Francis, Gnosticism and the Focolare Movement

In late 2020, while I was preparing to launch a blog marking 25 years since the original publication of The Pope’s Armada, I was astounded to discover that one of the fundamental features of its analysis of new Catholic movements was closely paralleled by one of Pope Francis' key concerns for today's Church, a concern which he mentions repeatedly in his speeches and documents throughout his pontificate. In a long chapter of The Pope's Armada entitled ‘The Mysteries of the Movements’, I investigate the secret lore of the movements, which I define as 'Gnosticism'. Using precisiely the same terms, Pope Francis draws our attention to what he calls 'Contemporary Gnosticism'.

This how I defined the Gnosticism of the movements in The Pope’s Armada: 'Shortly after its birth, Christianity encountered the mystery religions of Greece and Asia.  These promised salvation through secret knowledge and arcane rites...The fusion between Christianity and mystery religions produced Gnosticism, a mystical form of the infant faith which promised its adepts access to secret knowledge which would explain its mysteries.  The attraction of Gnosticism is, of course, that it is ‘mysticism on the cheap’.  Salvation through knowledge is far less of an effort than that which requires sweat and struggle - and faith.  Because all mysteries are explained, faith is no longer necessary.’

In the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exultate, (March, 2018), where Pope Francis explores this problem in considerable depth, he says, ‘gnosticism…[is a heresy] from early Christian times, yet [it]...continue[s] to plague us...Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect.  Thus, perhaps without realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic.  It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality.  For gnosticism "by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery", whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of other lives.’

In his analysis of this ‘Contemporary Gnosticism’, Pope Francis does not specify particular targets.  Indeed, traditionalist Catholics who fetishize aspects of the Catholic past such as the Latin mass, vestments, decor or devotional practices - for the most part accretions which have nothing to do with the essence of the Christian gospel - would also qualify for Pope Francis’ definition of gnostics.  But anyone familiar with, say, the practices of the Focolare Movement and in particular, the ‘intellectual visions’ of Chiara Lubich known as the ‘Paradise of ‘49’, can find in them a compelling resemblance to Pope Francis’ definition of, and concerns about, Contemporary Gnosticsm.

I would recommend a close reading of articles 35-46 of Gaudete et Exultate to all those who are concerned about abuses in the Focolare Movement and other similar groups such as the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation and Opus Dei.  And I would also recommend the same to those who belong to or defend those movements against their critics.  In clear and powerful language, Pope Francis defines the fundamental features which can be found in these movements and explains where the serious problems lie.

Who, inside or outside the Focolare Movement, can claim that the following statement doesn’t ring a bell: ‘When somebody has an answer for every question it is a sign they are not on the right road.’  Francis goes on to give a disturbing explanation: ‘They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories.  God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises.  We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us.  Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.’ Focolare's 'points of the spirituality' with its almost mechanistic practice drilled into members - Will of God (a euphemism for the will of Focolare superiors); seeing Jesus in others; losing your personality; Jesus Forsaken; 'putting' Jesus in the midst - seem dangerously close to the format that Francis is talking about.

'It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord...So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others' lives,' Pope Francis affirms. And yet, as many ex-members of Focolare can witness (and the numbers, which are rapidly growing, have gone far beyond the anecdotal stage), the mind control exercised by the movement - as well as its rigid hold over member's everyday lives - is an extreme form of abuse of authority. As claimed in The Pope's Armada 25 years ago, 'Having destroyed everything that had meaning for us, our very personalities were uprooted. There was nothing left for us but to depend utterly for everything on the movement and live our life vicariously in its struggles and triumphs. These justified our existence; or rather the immense sacrifices we had made - our very selves.'

According to Pope Francis, ‘A dangerous confusion can arise.  We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the ignorant masses.’ Compare this statement with the way Chiara Lubich described the ‘Paradise of ‘49’ to the internal members of the Focolare Movement in 1963, which I quoted in The Pope's Armada: ‘We had the impression that God opened the eyes of the soul to the kingdom of God that was among us and we saw Him who is in our midst, the Paradise that was among us, and in a scenario that was so divine, such an expression of the Trinity, we understood all those years ago [in 1949], what the role of this movement was as a whole and its role in each one of us in the Church.’

In The Pope’s Armada, commenting on this statement, I pointed out that ‘The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has traditionally been reticent on private revelations...The private revelations of Chiara Lubuch, however, possess a supreme authority over the members of the movement.  Belief in them, as in every aspect of the movement, is certainly not optional.’ These 'revelations' also extend to sweeping 'doctrines' on the role of the movement itself in the Church.  In her speech of 1963, Lubich stated plainly what this role was: ‘We understood that this Work was nothing less than a mystical presence of Mary in the Church...Our task in the Church is the task that Mary would have today if she lived in the Church.’

Following Lubich’s death her visions have been promoted ever more strenuously by the Focolare Movement, in a torrent of books, articles and videos, culminating in a recent (February 2021) statement by the newly re-elected co-president Jesus Moran that Chiara Lubich’s revelations are not private:

 'It has to be said that Chiara always thought and passed on to us...that this mystical experience is the essence of the mentality of anyone who wants to be a source of unity today in the Church and in society - and also those who accept the charism of the Movement.  Therefore the experience of Chiara is not private or particular.', Jesus erale/

At the same time - and in spite of Pope Francis' many warnings to lay movements about the dangers of constantly brandishing 'the charism' in the faces of both faithful followers and sceptics - the emphasis on 'charism of unity' and the 'charism of Chiara' is emphasized more robustly than ever by the Movement. Yet, as I said in The Pope's Armada, the term charism 'is used to safeguard the supremacy of the founders as the fount of all doctrine and authority within their organisations, It preserves the 'purity' of the message that can only be passed on in the manner the movement deems correct and by the people it authorizes. It is also evoked to ensure non-interference from outsiders - even Church authorities.'

Proselytising, which is the Focolare Movement's main activity, is carried out , just like the practice of the so-called 'spirituality', according to a prescriptive, structured format. The Focolare year is planned around recruiting activities, culminating in the mass meetings known as the Mariapolis' which conclude the Focolare year in early summer. All members are required to build a group of followers in their secular environments - at their places of work, education etc. - known as their 'grappolo' (ie bunch, as in 'bunch of grapes'). Francis has repeatedly warned against proselytising - he even made this point directly to the General Assembly of Focolare on 6 February 2021. In his analysis of Contemporary Gnosticim, he says, 'We [cannot] claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when a person's life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devasted by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept because it is beyond its control.'

In contrast to this new Gnosticism, Pope Francis inspires us with a new, inclusive way of relating to others in keeping with his urge to 'go out', to go beyond our comfort zone - which he demonstates himself in his approaches to other faiths, as well as in his attempts to reform the Church: 'Doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, “is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, enquiries...the questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously.  Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us”.'

But how can we do any of this if, as prescribed by the Focolare Movement, we have destroyed our personalities , have become a 'void' and all we are expected to do is listen and absob the 'Ideal' or the 'Paradise of '49'?


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