Already back in 2000, there was panic internally because it was becoming evident that, given the number of celibate focolarini who were leaving the movement and the drop in replacement focolarini, Focolare was facing a major crisis. Internal figures (from official Focolare documents) show that between 2000 and 2014, 444 celibate focolarini resigned from the movement.
Nothing illustrates more clearly the implosion taking place in Focolare than letters of resignation from women and men focolarini. These are truly admirable people - devoted and generous who believed in the movement and its foundress, Chiara Lubich, people who gave years or decades of their lives but who ended up empty, anguished, their lives in ruins. For the most part they have been abandoned by Focolare to their own devices as far as lodgings, money and pension provisions are concerned, despite the fact that they have freely given years of often exhausting service and in most cases donated their entire salaries to the movement over many years - sometimes even properties and inheritances. As in the case of all those who leave cults, these are 'people who have put their friendship networks, jobs, financial security and all their interests in one basket and lost the lot.' (Dr Elizabeth Tylden, quoted in The Times, Wednesday, 21 April 1993) Clearly there is a systemic problem here that must be addressed. The testimonies of these letters of resignation, following years of dedicated service to the movement, from focolarini to the leaders of the movement speak from the heart. Only the heartless could remain unmoved.
The first letter is from a former focolarino who contacted me recently. He spent many years in Focolare, truly believing its message and prepared to devote his life to God. The last few years of his experience in the movement were difficult and tough. He had to distance himself to preserve his health. When I asked him to describe this experience he sent me his letter of resignation from the movement. Written ten years ago, it gives a startling view of life in Focolare in recent times and in spite of many attempts - especially by the male focolarini - to make changes. What is the response of the church as 'Mother', protector of her children - especially the most vulnerable and exposed. To date, zero.
At the end of the month I will be moving to another flat where I have rented a room. I will then be able to distance myself from Focolare. I will be withdrawing for a while to try to figure out how and whether to continue. Last year, at the annual focolarini retreat, I did not feel I wanted to renew my temporary vows. I felt a sense of discouragement , an overwhelming emptiness. Now I’m glad I made that choice. Although it was a painful one, I think you could say it was 'inspired'.
Now I am not sure whether this first step that distances me from Focolare is a step towards the 'exit' or will be limited to a period of reflection. I will try to explain what led me to make this decision.
I could put forward a whole series of reasons (subjective reasons, linked to the experience of these last seven years, in this zone [geographical area of the movement] and in this focolare) that would legitimize this step of mine: the way the Work [movement] is today, the dryness of life in Focolare, the absence of prospects, the lack of a deep experience of spiritual paternity both personally and as a community within the movement, the bourgeois life the movement has settled into, the fact that being in the movement or not seems to make no difference, the poverty - and sometimes the lack - of friendship and fraternal love among us focolarini, etc...
In reality, however, these are all secondary reasons, which have some weight but are not the central reason. The truth is that I have lost my faith. Why and how I have lost it is another matter entirely. For this, and this alone, this horizon without God is unbearable to me.
"What one seeks most deeply in life, the thing that in one way or another has been at the centre of all existence, is the search for the father. Not just the father of one's flesh, not just the lost father of one's youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom to which faith and the strength of one's existence can be united." (Thomas Wolfe)
There, I could not have expressed my 'need' better. I feel rejected by this 'father' in a certain sense, and despite all my efforts I cannot and have not been able to find him. In this, Focolare life has not helped me, and I will explain why. The greatest shortcoming of Focolare life, as I have experienced it over the last 10 years, is the absence of the breath of the Holy Spirit. This was a reality we experienced as long as Chiara was alive, and it allowed us to shine with reflected light. But we focolarini have not learned to be Light ourselves. That is why our retreats, our focolare evenings, are an agony, a torture! We lack the Spirit, we lack the Light, the Life. [Patriarch] Athenagoras wisely warned:
"Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away, Christ remains in the past; the Gospel is a dead letter; the Church is a mere organisation; authority is domination, mission, propaganda; worship is going through the motions; and human action the morality of slaves. But in the Holy Spirit: the cosmos is lifted up and groans in giving birth to the Kingdom, the risen Christ is present, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church means Trinitarian communion, authority is a liberating service, mission is a Pentecost, liturgy is both a memorial and an anticipation, human action is divinised."
What is lacking is the ability to be able to put oneself before God and try to understand what He asks of us, what road to take, what decisions to make, what crazy tasks we can take on, when we must say ‘no’ etc... The mystical element is totally missing. At one time, it filled me completely, I think; at least in my past experiences that I could draw on like a reservoir for as long as possible. Then slowly I began to burn out like a candle.
The Focolare life of the past few years has just drained me faster and faster, without giving me or putting me in a position to guard this source and keep it flowing. Often after a retreat or a focolare evening, I felt 'destroyed', to the point where I could no longer participate. I don't want to blame anyone, but I want to be realistic and looking back it is simply a fact. It is a fact that over the past seven years I have become so 'sick' that I have begun to desire death more than life. I have tried to remedy this with all my strength, and perhaps for this reason, too, with all my strength, I will no longer allow anything or anyone to push me back into that anteroom of death.
I can only see that on this road I am no longer capable of giving the best of myself, and worse still, to help others to give the best of themselves - because ultimately that is what Christianity is all about. So what do I do?
I do not recognise myself, I no longer find myself in our focolarine 'tropes', in our typical phenomenology that expresses itself in particular formulas that have become meaningless to me - empty and a real torture. The point is that from the moment I extract myself from our characteristic focolare phenomenology, I exclude myself from this world and this same world, more or less consciously, tends to expel me as an extraneous element. In exactly the same way that an organism tries with its antibodies to eradicate an infection.
Is it possible today to place one's happiness or aspiration to it in the Focolare life? Not for me. If not, on what can you base your happiness and fulfillment? On God? And if God is no longer there, then what? God, if I have understood one thing, is a matter of 'we', not 'I'. Our Father is in the plural! That is why if it does not work in the Focolare, because there is no reciprocity, we are too exposed, too vulnerable, defenseless - easy prey to our 'demons', personal and collective, which, unrestrained, play havoc with us.
In this regard, from this current perspective, without faith, the movement really does look like a cult to me. And it frightens me. It terrifies me that we organize meetings with children, teenagers, that is, people who are not able to discern. The lack of vocations, I think, is ultimately a blessing. To this day I would forcefully discourage anyone who wants to take the focolare route. I would not want to have that responsibility. Above all, I would not admit people who have not had a real experience of love, even sexual love. You cannot give up something you do not have. It is simply absurd.
I can't wait to have my own five square metres, people around me that I have chosen and not imposed on me, especially not people who are odd, out-of-it, half-crazy and inappropriate. Being able to decide what to do, what to buy, where to go on holiday, without always having to make that ridiculous effort to 'convince'. No more having to open up, justify myself, explain myself.... Enough is enough, I can't take it anymore, they've worn me out. Chiara once wrote in her diary:
"There are intimate problems that sooner or later erupt in all their rawness and can put the soul in great agitation, concern, reduced to a wreck (...) Souls have sometimes made immense efforts to keep themselves in the midst of the world, like angels, but not of the world. But that effort, if it has saved the soul, has sometimes damaged the body (or psyche Ed.) with the danger that the person cannot continue in the state to which he was called." (1 April 1970)
You can’t get clearer than that! In a nutshell, taking my distance is a question of survival. I am still left with a glimmer of faith. An old African saying goes: 'God is the happiness you feel when you love someone'. My faith is encapsulated in these few words. I do not know and do not want to know more than this. I will try to live like this, but outside of structures, organizations, gatherings or the like. They no longer appeal to me. Furthermore, for me at this time, they are no longer healthy.