I wrote this piece immediately after watching the live internet broadcast of the funeral of Chiara Lubich, Founder of the Focolare Movement.
According to an article that appeared in a special edition of the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire (19 March 2008) to mark the death of Chiara Lubich, ‘They [the focolarini] decided, “No tears in Rome [at Chiara’s funeral] because she is not dead. She lives for ever in all of us.” ' Rather than giving a witness to the millions who followed the live broadcast on Italian television or the internet feed - which was presumably what the Focolare old guard intended - this stoical approach lent an eerie atmosphere of uncertainty to the proceedings. A friend of mine who has had no contact with focolare but is familiar with its ethos, had the impression that the members were so used to being told what to feel and how to react that in these unprecedented circumstances they simply didn’t know what the appropriate response should be. In reality, they had been instructed exactly how to behave and it was this very fact that gave to the event its strange, unengaged quality.
As an ex-member who still feels affection for members of the movement and certainly for Chiara, despite my many criticisms of the organisation, I was moved to tears by the funeral and found it odd that those who profess themselves to be her most devoted followers remained dry-eyed. Only Oreste Basso, one of the first focoalrini and the ’Co-president’ of Focolare, broke down when he approached the altar to thank the distinguished guests on behalf of the movement, but then old men are notoriously prone to tears and he struggled successfully to regain his composure. Chiara’s first companions Eli Folonari and Graziella de Luca, on the other hand, had a jolly chat outside the basilica at the end of the funeral as though they had just concluded a successful Day Meeting.
Chiara Lubich’s funeral shone a very public spotlight on one of the Focolare Movement’s most serious shortcomings: the detachment members are expected to have from their feelings. In this case, it was so strong that the spontaneous reaction most human beings would experience in such circumstances was absent. Sister Madeleine, founder of the Little Sisters of Jesus, once said that in order to be Christian, it is necessary to be human first; but that is rather difficult in the Focolare Movement in which ‘human’ is a negative term.
Psychologists would say that the detachment from ones emotions that this Movement promotes is pathological and dangerous. Indeed, it could well be the principal reason for the prevalence of depression and mental illness to be found in Focolare from the top down. Now that the Founder is dead, current and former members of the movement would benefit greatly from a probing and truthful investigation into this aspect.
The genuine gospel message is certainly not a recipe for mental illness. If it is truly God’s Word, it should be just the opposite. I remember attending the funeral of a child at Loppiano, the daughter of married focolarini, who had died after suffering terribly from a painful congenital illness. The atmosphere was one of manic rejoicing and not even the parents or siblings let slip any indications of sadness or mourning.
I wondered then, and I have wondered down the years, why no one pointed out that this is the Focolare approach and certainly not that of the gospel. Jesus was very much in touch with his emotions and did not shrink from showing them in public. In particular, he wept over Lazarus’ death, even though he must have known he had the power to raise him up.
This is surely the good, human reaction to the loss of a loved one. And here is the nub of the problem. What exactly is the nature of the love that Focolare preaches if it is so disembodied, so disincarnate, that it feels no reaction to the loss of someone one claims to have loved to the point of being ready to lay down ones life for them? In life, as in death, the reaction to the loss of close friends is remarkably cold - as in the case of members who leave the movement for example. Can real love be compatible with such a lack of feeling?
It always bothered me that the gospel virtue of compassion was never mentioned in Focolare teachings. Yet we read that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and that he wept over the fate of Jerusalem. He even compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks: a more tender and emotion-filled image would be hard to find. Yet how can the focolarini be expected to ‘feel’ or ‘suffer’ with others if they mistrust feelings so much. I remember how, shortly after leaving Focolare, I was moved by a television programme or a film which made me weep for the first time in nearly ten years. My emotions had been released from their prison. How can we obey Jesus’ command to ‘Weep with those who weep’ if we are unable to weep? Rather than follow the stoical line of the movement, I prefer to follow the path that Jesus indicated: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.'