Saturday 17 September 2022

Focolare Movement: the Secret History

Dysfunctional families are founded on secrets.  This also applies to organisations; and it would be hard to deny that this is the case with the Focolare movement.  It is a web of secrets to such an extent that there are two Focolare movements - the internal one (totally secret), and the external one, heavily publicised,  portraying itself as a group without structure, working in the secular field for ecology, and peace and unity between peoples and religions - but this external image, according to former internal members, is merely a front.   The most notable aspects of the movement that are kept hidden from the public are: the hierarchy - rigid and vertical, facilitating abuse of internal members; the gnosis or secret teachings of Chiara Lubich, especially Lubich's visions of the 1940s known as 'the Paradise of '49'; the finances - vast but so far never publicly revealed; and, finally, the real and complete history, including the most significant negative features.  There is only the Official History which is completely hagiographic - all negative aspects removed.

It is ironic that when faced with books that reveal negative aspects and abuses in the movement, such as The Pope's Armada and La setta divina (The Divine Cult), the focolarini and adherents protest that those books say nothing positive about the movement.  But are there any Focolare books that say anything negative about the movement?   Pope Francis has said, 'The Church is not afraid of history.'  But the Focolare movement is very afraid of history.  Terrified.

Comparisons with other monolithic organisations - sects, for example, which I first discussed in The Pope's Armada back in 1995 - can be useful in an analysis of the Focolare movement.   But also totalitarian political regimes.  In fact, 'totalitarian' was a word much loved by Lubich to describe her movement and the mentality she sought to establish in her followers - the so-called 'spirituality'.  It is very illuminating, for example, to compare the movement and Soviet communism.  It is striking that Lubich herself said that in communist Eastern Europe they had all the right ideas - only God was missing.  In this context, I have discovered many illuminating comparisons.  In the preface to the book Testimony -  the memoirs of Shostakovitch by Solomon Volkov, I found this passage very resonant and I think that any former or dissident member of the focolarini would feel the same:

"In the Soviet Union, the rarest and most precious thing is memory.  It had been trampled on for decades; people knew better than to write newspapers or keep letters.  When the 'great terror' began in the 1930s, frightened citizens destroyed their personal archives, and with them their memory.  What was regarded as memory from then on was defined every day by the [official] newspapers.  History had to be rewritten with dizzying speed.

A man without memory is a corpse.  So many of them passed before me, these living corpses, who only remembered events in the officially sanctioned way."

(Testimony - the memoirs of  Shostakovitch, Solomon Volkov, Hamish Hamilton, United Kingdom, 1979)

History is vital - and a great teacher.  But in order to record the past accurately, reliable living or written memory is necessary.  As far as the other secrets of the focolarini  are concerned - the hierarchy, gnosis, finances - it is likely that somewhere the necessary documentation can be found.  But what about history - a reliable, unauthorized record of events?  The necessary independent research should have been done years ago.  What about the negative aspects and events in the movement of the 1940s and 1950s?  The witnesses are dead or have vanished.   Only the official history remains -  the endlessly repeated  'Story of the Ideal'.  Beautiful as it might be, it is as much 'history' as are the Little Flowers of Saint Francis.  

But while collaborating on La Setta divina, I read a very interesting introductory document on various (mostly negative) historical aspects that put the Focolare movement into a clearer perspective.  How is it that the Vatican's Holy Office in the early 50s ordered the destruction of Lubich's papers recounting the 'Paradise of '49', but then they reappeared and are now presented as a new doctrine, principally via a Pontifical university?  What is the truth behind so many internal problems in the movement, with an almost continuous exodus of internal members, often from important positions: the capo zonas (male and female) of Germany in the early 1970s; a request for reform from focolarini and focolarine in Trentino, Veneto and Yugoslavia in 1969 which ended with the expurgation of many members; the so-called 'purge of gnosis'; the 'renewal' (rinnovamento) demanded by the focolarini from Lubich in the 1990s - but rejected by the focolarine;  the exit of the female capo zona of Belgium with more than thirty focolarine in 2008, leaving the Belgian women's HQ empty; a second protest in 2010 by the focolarini who were received in audience by Maria Voce, the then President of the movement, and Co-President Jesus Moran, but without satisfactory results, followed by another walkout. 

The pandemic of mental illness among the focolarini is in urgent need of investigation - with the increasing evidence of suicides of internal members.  Most important of all is the mental illness of Lubich, with repeated episodes over six decades, during which she apparently remained at the apex of the movement still wielding absolute power.  What were the effects of her condition on decisions and teachings?

To build the true history of the Focolare movement, the place to start - though it is only a beginning - is with the recollections of former internal members.  One of the most important reactions of ex-members of the Focolare movement to The Pope's Armada, was the confirmation of memory: many found in it almost the rediscovery of sanity, of not being either mad or wicked, as the movement would have them believe.  This acknowledgement is of great value psychologically and spiritually.  Only insiders know at least a fragment of the truth - often heard in whispers.  Perhaps it will never be possible to know everything.  The mysteries of pagan religions have remained secret because no one has ever dared to break the ban on revealing them.  I believe that at least the broad outlines of Focolare's true history can still be known.  But it this is a major task and time is running out.

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