Saturday 15 October 2022

AGONY - Focolare's pandemic of pain


‘Oh, the torture they teach!’

(from the song Agony, Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim)

When asked why he had launched the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII replied with touching simplicity: ‘To make the human sojourn on earth less sad.’  

Although Chiara Lubich claimed that the Focolare movement had anticipated Vatican II (and therefore didn't need to adapt to any of its changes), many critics of Focolare wonder whether the Focolare movement - and Lubich - really understood the meaning of the Council at all.  Pope John’s comment gives an intriguing insight into this question.  As a polar opposite to his intentions, Lubich’s ideology, with its obsessive focus on suffering, seems geared to make the human sojourn on earth more sad. 

The concept of ‘Jesus Forsaken’ - representing not so much physical suffering, but rather mental and spiritual suffering - is the main focus of the spiritual lives of internal members of the movement. As Lubich said in her famous manifesto on ‘Jesus Forsaken: ‘I will thirst for suffering, anguish, despair, melancholy, separation, abandonment, torment; for all that is He who is suffering…Let us forget everything in life: office, work, people, responsibility, hunger, thirst, rest, even our own souls…so as to possess only Him.’  This ideology was thrust down the throats of all those who became internal members of the movement.  Suffering became not a sign that something was wrong but something to be ‘embraced’ - even ‘loved’.  A married internal member of Focolare once wrote a letter to Chiara Lubich suggesting that there should be less emphasis on ‘Jesus Forsaken’ in the movement and more emphasis on the Risen Jesus.  At the time he was away from home.  When he returned, his wife had already received a call from Lubich’s HQ demanding that he should see a Focolare psychiatrist.

It is now known that Lubich suffered from extreme depression throughout her life, possibly bipolar disorder and the ‘thirst for suffering’ can hardly have helped.  These problems were so severe that in the early 1990s, she spent more than two years in a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland (an authorised biography with the dreadful anti-feminist title A Woman's Work, Jim Gallagher, Fount, United Kingdom, 1997, actually claims that she was suffering from heart problems - one of Focolare's many attempts to re-write its history). Hushed up during her lifetime her absences were referred to reverently as ‘dark nights of the soul’.  Indeed it is difficult to discern to what extent her mental problems were the fruit or the cause of Lubich’s doctrine of suffering. Given this approach to suffering, it is not  surprising that mental illness, such as depression, often of the severest kind, was widespread among internal members of the movement, to the extent that it set up its own psychiatric clinic in Rome to treat Focolare members.

Shortly after I joined the movement, I became aware, due to frequent reminders via the internal news bulletins known as ‘aggiornamenti and information from the leaders of the movement in the UK, that suffering, sometimes terrible suffering, was seen in the movement as the ‘coin’ or payment to God by which ‘graces’, such as conversions to the movement, were purchased.  An example that springs to mind occurred shortly after I met the movement.  A coach carrying young people to a Focolare meeting in South America fell into a ravine.  Many died or were badly injured in this accident but it was recounted not with horror or sorrow but with jubilation that this sacrifice of lives would result in ‘graces’ at the meeting the young people had been due to attend.  There is a weird paradox between Focolare’s concept of a God who is Love but is also somehow gratified by torture inflicted on human beings.  ‘Grace’ means a free gift, yet according to Lubich’s ideology it must be ‘bought’ by suffering.  Apart from the questionable theology, there is an element of the Pelagian heresy here - the suggestion that human beings ‘earn’ salvation.  

Much of the ‘culture’ of Focolare, as former internal members will attest, was oral, passed on by word of mouth.  The current Co-President Jesus Moran emphasises that the unwritten ‘culture’ and  ‘mentality’ of Focolare members are its most precious asset.  One of the reasons for the emphasis on a ‘mentality’ or ‘culture’ that cannot be accessed by outsiders is that leaders of the movement are aware that many aspects of the Focolare ideology could prove troubling to outsiders. Furthermore, many of Chiara Lubich’s writings and tape or video recordings are only made available to internal members, for similar reasons.  One of these oral traditions, a warning to internal members, was the risk of a state known as ‘Jesus Forsaken-itis’ (‘G.A.-ite’), as in ‘appendicitis’, which referred to an overemphasis on the aspect of ‘Jesus Forsaken’ and suffering.  But in the nine years I spent in the movement, including personal contact with literally hundreds of members, everyone seemed to be suffering from ‘Jesus Forsaken-itis’. And, as talk between members of anything but the movement and its spirit was frowned upon, there were plenty of opportunities to wallow in such experiences.

One of the terms used most frequently in talk of the spiritual life of internal members of Focolare was ‘trials’ (It. prove).  Trials could be temptations, doubts, unhappiness, usually stretching over long periods of time.  These were seen as God-given tests of our worth.  They were ‘Jesus Forsaken’ and to be expected.  If you weren't experiencing trials, something was wrong.  One of the movement’s sayings was that God solves one trial by sending you a worse trial. The Focolare obsession with suffering can be most dangerous when it masks severe symptoms of depression or mental illness.  This has certainly played a part in suicides of internal members of the movement which appeared to come as a total surprise to their Focolare associates.

After I left the movement and adapted once again to real life, I pondered the fact that the internal Focolare members had none of the problems that affect normal people - relationships, children, money worries.  Yet I have read some horrific accounts by internal members, including those at high levels of responsibility, clearly suffering from terrible mental anguish, probably extreme depression exacerbated by the mental and physical demands imposed by the movement.  Maybe this proves that it’s easier to go nuts worrying about whether you are going to hell than whether you can pay your mortgage or water bill.  What is beyond question is that the obsession with suffering which forms an integral part of the Focolare ideology and its probable links with mental illness, calls for urgent evaluation by experts in spirituality, theology and the competent authorities of the Catholic Church.

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