Monday 7 February 2022

Marisa Bau: on its 10th anniversay, her tragic death takes on an important new significance


It is the 10th anniversary of the tragic death by suicide of Marisa Bau, a 48 year-old Italian focolarina, whose body was discovered in a barn in Switzerland in late January 2012, although her death probably occured around Christmas of 2011.

Marisa, who had been a focolarina for over 20 years, had been based at the Focolare ‘town’ of Montet, Broye, Switzerland, for 15 years holding positions of pastoral responsibility as well as running one of the site's small industrial activities.  At the time, the shocking event seemed an isolated and therefore mysterious incident.  Her family refused to accept the verdict of suicide, because of her Christian beliefs.  Officially at least, the Focolare Movement, acknowledged the possibility of suicide but those closest to Marisa - her companions at Montet - claimed that they were unaware of any problems that might have led to her tragic decision.  Of course, given Focolare’s notorious secrecy and the impregnable phalanx its members present to the outside world, it is possible that explanations were known internally at the time or have emerged since and have been kept hidden.   On the other hand it might be that we will never know the precise causes of Marisa’s death.

Now, however, the suicide of an internal member of Focolare appears much less mysterious.  The new book La Setta Divina (PIEMME 2021) by leading Italian investigative journalist Ferruccio Pinotti, for example, reveals that there had been other suicides of internal members of Focolare but the movement had hushed them up publicly - and possibly kept them hidden from civil authorities.  But the book also contains many testimonies of former internal members who have experienced infringements within the movement of many human and civil rights: subjection to forms of modern slavery such as Domestic Servitude; arranged marriages (with partners assigned by Focolare leaders); enforced breakups of couples not ‘approved of’ by Focolare leaders; ‘treatments’ for homosexuality such as conversion therapy, chemical castration, experimental ‘sleep therapy’ and, in this case too, arranged (heterosexual) marriages; methods of proselytising perilously close to kidnappings; imposition of what could be termed ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. 

In addition, for at least eighty years, the Focolare practised a form of pastoral care which is forbidden by the Catholic Church - confusion between the inner forum and the outer forum, i.e. when the spiritual director and the leader of the organisation are one and the same.  As Pope Francis pointed out in a speech upbraiding Focolare top brass in February 2021 (, this confusion leads to the abuse of power - also demonstrated in the many examples listed above.  It is not hard to see how this kind of abuse, particularly when imposed on those in situations of isolation such as Montet or the other Focolare ‘towns’ or centres, could in extreme cases lead to suicide.

In the light of this information,  Marisa Bau’s death now takes on a very different meaning: for the first time it revealed to the public that behind the Focolare self-portrait of ‘an immaculate, radiant image of an everlasting rainbow’ (in the sceptical words of distinguished Italian Vaticanologist Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine)  - in many cases lies the terrible desperation and suffering of individuals.  In his February 2021 speech to Focolare leaders, pope Francis had specifically singled out ‘defending the institution to the detriment of individuals…which can also lead to justifying or covering up forms of abuse".

Tragic as it was, Marisa’s death can now be seen as a turning point which provoked many victims of Focolare abuse into speaking out, and the moment when many of the movement’s myths began to

Here is a slightly edited and updated version of an article I wrote for my blog immediately after the discovery of Marisa’s body:

The Death of Marisa Bau [2012]


At the end of January [2012], the shocking and tragic news broke in the Swiss and Italian press that the body of Italian focolarina Marisa Bau, aged 48, who had been missing since before Christmas, had been found in a barn near the Focolare centre at Montet, Swtizerland, where she had been based for the past 15 years.   It was not until the farmer who owns the barn moved a bale of hay that her body was revealed hanging from a metal beam.  By 2 Febraury, an autopsy and the findings of the police pointed to suicide.

Prior to the discovery of the body,  a high profile appeal for information on the missing woman, spear-headed by the Focolare's official website, seemed to suggest that the movement's leadership was convinced that, whether Bau had left voluntarily or not, she would be found alive.  At first the appeals insisted that she had been in good spirits at the time of her disappearance, but gradually there were hints that maybe she had been troubled in some way.   She had just returned from a journey to Brazil and was jet-lagged and complaining of a severe headache.  While hardly an explanation for suicide in themselves, as the Focolare's official website seem to suggest, short-term disorientation could have aggravated an existing state of mind. Circumstances, however, would suggest a firm intention, rather than a cry for help so one can only guess at the depth of despair and isolation she felt.  Yet there seems to be no indication that those closest to her were aware of what would have been a profoundly disturbed mental state.

Ironically, Focolare seemed to be more concerned about references in the secular press suggesting that Marisa was a nun (internal celibate members of Focolare claim to be lay persons rather than nuns and monks in mufti) rather than reports of Marisa’s suicide.

From my own experience of leaving the movement, after a number of years as a celibate focolarino with vows, I can understand that, despite the lack of external motivation or communication, Marisa’s situation could have led to suicide.

Like other similar 'New Movements' in the Catholic Church, Focolare encourages an 'angelistic' approach.  Whatever extremes of personal anguish they may be feeling,  members are encouraged to maintain an impression of smiling serenity, the hallmark of  the focolarini, which strikes some observers as attractive and others as zombie-like.  Thus even their immediate colleagues might remain unaware of personal problems.

Although my exit from Focolare was carried out in agreement with the movements' superiors and through the official channels,  right up to the day I left I was still expected to lead meetings.  I remember translating recordings of Chiara Lubich's talks and feeling my mind almost literally split in two.  The only way I could describe this schizoid state was that it was as though there were a sheet of glass dividing my brain - on one side was my Focolare self, on the other was the self waiting with bated breath to escape. The mental strain was immense.

I know how alone it is possible to feel when you reach a point where to stay in the movement would destroy you, yet outside there appears to be no hope or even damnation, a concept that is ceaselessly drummed into members.  To leave the movement would mean betraying and losing all your friends (anyone who has been in the movement for many years has long since forfeited or deliberately cut off any friendships outside its confines) but you also feel that you would be betraying your family by being a bad example and putting the movement in a bad light and you are therefore reluctant to seek their support.   For this reason it is highly unlikely that family members would have the least inkling of any problems.  Hearing of the long and tragic experiences of others who have left the movement, I consider myself lucky; I had only been 'inside' for 9 years and  was only 26 at the time of my exit and therefore still flexible enough to adapt to a new way of life and a new way of looking at the world.  Although I never had suicidal feelings, I can remember moments of personal crisis during my time in the movement when I felt on the brink of madness and my behaviour was bizarre and out of character. 

This feeling was at its worst during the two years when I was living at Loppiano, the first of Focolare’s ‘towns’, and the model for Montet and the other Focolare ‘towns’ now spread throughout the world. Silvana Veronesi, one of Chiara Lubich's first companions, described Loppinao as ‘a fairytale town, a drop of paradise that slipped through the clouds onto the earth.’ My experience was entirely different.  Loppiano or Montet is a ‘total immersion’ experience, typical of cults - Jonestown is probably the classic example.  In such a situation you have no external contacts which could help you to see your personal situation in perspective. 

The emphasis on being ‘perfect’ - or rather being ‘perfect’ from the movement’s point of view, i.e. blindly obedient and subject to the rules which govern every aspect of your life, censoring every aspect of your being, even down to your most intimate feelings - can have the effect of making a person feel totally worthless.  Practices such as the ‘Moment of Truth’, when the companions you are living with, under the strict supervision of the group leader, are obliged  to point out your defects, can be savage and crushing.  Even Chiara Lubich once acknowledged in a speech that Loppiano could be ‘a terrible prison’.  I can understand that for someone like Bau who had been in the movement for 25 years, failure to measure up to expectations could appear to be unutterable desolation.

Extremes of depression and desperate actions could be possible in such unbalanced moments. Marisa Bau had been based at the Focolare town of Montet for the past fifteen years.  The atmosphere at these centres is even more intense than in the small Focolare houses based in towns and cities where you at least have contact with the outside world.   In these self-sufficient villages or 'towns' of the Movement, members are required to be 'up', in the jargon of the movement, at all times.  When I was at Loppiano, the movement's 'town' in Tuscany, I would sometimes wonder if the illusion was not sustained by the suppressed anguish of  all the inhabitants.  

Bizarrely, the Focolare authorities sometimes used these centres - whose main purpose was a 'novitiate' for full-time members - as a kind of prison for members with 'problems'.  The fact that generally these centres were in physically isolated locations, made them ideal for this purpose.  I remember one focolarino at Loppiano at the same time as me - although some years older - who, we were told, was suffering from depression and was tormented with suicidal thoughts.  What no one seemed to realise was that Loppiano was probably the last place he should be, with its pressure-cooker atmosphere, likely to aggravate his mental state and any feelings of despair or worthlessness.

When the Vatican were having problems with the African Archbishop Milengo a few years ago, they appointed the focolarini as his 'gaolers' - and very good they were at it too, according to Vaticanologist Sandro Magister of the Italian news weekly L'Espresso.  One of the places they took the Archbishop was O'Higgins, the Argentinian equivalent of Loppiano, probably the remotest of all the Focolare centres, in the midst of the pampas, miles away from anywhere.  It is easy to see how the intensity and isolation of such an atmosphere could trigger serious depression.

It was also my experience that the shock of leaving this rarified atmosphere even for a short period such as a holiday or visiting family - and Bau had just been on a trip to Brazil on Focolare business - could trigger a sudden crisis, or the flaring up of repressed problems.  One was highly susceptible to the 'temptations' of the outside world.  Manifestations of sexuality in posters, on television or in films,  for instance, which the general population are so used to that they hardly notice them, could have an overwhelming impact on such 'innocents abroad'.  Despite the fact that focolarini are exhorted to practise 'custody of the eyes', in today's world you would have to walk around blindfolded to do this effectively.  Thoughts and feelings which most people would consider normal, could be deeply disturbing and unbalancing for those used to a very sheltered environment.

At least the Focolare Movement has not tried to hush up the facts of Bau's death - which would have been difficult in view of the publicity.  Even though they are forbidden to watch TV or buy newspapers, the news would inevitably filter down to internal members.  But the response of Maria Voce, the successor to Chiara Lubich as President of Focolare, while sympathetic, is ambiguous and could be understood to deflect blame from the movement.  She says that with Bau's death 'we see the Movement more than ever identified with the dramas of humanity today'.  The implication could be that somehow Bau was contaminated by 'the world', rather than acknowledging that somehow the demands of the movement could have pushed her over the edge.  When I first told the male Focolare leader in the UK that I was gay, his main concern was that I shouldn't blame the movement, an idea that had never entered my mind.  There was a knee-jerk reaction to safeguard the institution first and foremost.

If indeed this was a tragic suicide, those closest to Bau, and the leadership of the movement, must surely feel compelled to examine ways in which they may have failed to meet her needs in this crucial moment of personal crisis.  Many people both inside and outside the movement, including Bau's family, the civil authorities and - one would hope - the Catholic hierarchy will be asking far-reaching questions.  On this occasion, smokescreens of fine spiritual words will not suffice.   The one positive thing that could emerge would be an extensive enquiry into the circumstances leading up to Bau's death, including questioning structures and internal procedures as amongst possible causes, and that the results of this enquiry should be made public. If the Focolare Movement does not do this, then hopefully the civil or religious authorities will.  In facing up to Marisa Bau's demons, perhaps the Focolare Movement might face up to its own.

Ten years later, it seems that the hopes expressed in the final paragraph of the above article were in vain.  In other ways, however, predominantly through the efforts of ex-members of the movement, progress has been made, and these efforts will continue with increasing results.

No comments:

Post a Comment