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A movement and its RC visionary

20 September 2013

Lavinia Byrne finds a biography veering into hagiography

Chiara Lubich: A biography
Armando Torno
Bill Hartnett, translator
New City Press £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95

WHEN does biography become hagiography? When it admits no flaws in the personality it depicts, in this case Chiara Lubich (below), who founded the Focolare Movement. The balance is hard to achieve, as the book demonstrates. The cool forensic analysis offered by biography is often lost as the same welter of facts are subtly turned both to capture and to reflect the light.

The facts in this case begin from the straightforward: Sylvia Lubich was born in Trent in 1920; she became a teacher, joined the Catholic Action Group, and became involved with the Third Order Franciscans, taking the name Chiara. Italy joined Germany in the Second World War, causing social unrest on a national scale, alongside the ordinary damage of war.

The following events depict something of a miracle. The young Chiara took a vow of chastity; she attracted followers as her spirituality of unity was clarified by visions and messages from God; she discovered she was not to be a nun, but rather to collaborate with others to work for social welfare in the post-war world; and the whole thing took off. Within 25 years, Focolare had spread to every continent. It attracted male followers, clerical and lay, but had the women at its core. It captured the spirit of the moment.

Armando Torno's book is published by Focolare's New York Press. The tale it tells is, indeed, remarkable, but the sub-plot is even more interesting. Whether wittingly or not, it reveals how intricate the relationship between the events of history and the life of an individual soul really are. Focolare is a lay movement: its founders were women untouched by any meaningful brush with feminism; Chiara herself was a skilful advocate of the unity that she sought for both Church and world - she would have found it hard to cross a bishop; so history will have to be the ultimate judge, as it was the inspiration or instigator of her idealistic cause.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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