The proclamation of the “Good News” that began with the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles has continued uninterruptedly throughout the centuries. It has penetrated and transformed various civilisations. But in moments of great historical transitions when even the Word of God seems outdated and ineffective, God has always sent charismatic individuals to the Church. Through their witness they bring the Gospel back into fashion and renew hope for a better future in the world. It seems today that this might be the special contribution of ecclesial movements. The following is the address Chiara Lubich gave at the beginning of the Congress outlining the Focolare Movement’s contribution to today’s New Evangelization.
Your Eminence, your Excellencies, dear reverend priests, First of all my greeting to all of you present here and my best wishes that the days of this meeting be full of gladness, an expression of that springtime of the Church that is already well underway.
The title of the talk I will give you now, in the context of the theme of your Congress on “Ecclesial Movements and a New Evangelization” is: “The “New Evangelization with particular reference to the experience of the Focolare Movement.”
It comprises three parts. First of all I will review John Paul II's thoughts on the New Evangelization. Then I will try to see whether the Focolare Movement, as I imagine also the other movements and ecclesial communities, can truly claim to be a real gift of God for the New Evangelization, as the Holy Father himself has affirmed. In a third step I will present a concrete example of the New Evangelization.
The Holy Father uses the expression “New Evangelization” for the first time in 1983 in announcing an evangelization that is “new in ardour, in methods and in modes of expression.” In 1988 he explains these features and says that evangelization will be new in ardour if it gradually increases union with God in those who promote it. It will be new in methods if it is carried out by the entire people of God. It will be new in modes of expression if it is in conformity with the promptings of the Spirit.
According to the Holy Father the first thing this evangelization should announce is this: “Humanity is loved by God! Each Christian's words and life must make this proclamation resound: God loves you, Christ came for you.” Because, he continues, “evangelization is the effort on behalf of the Church to proclaim to all that humanity is loved by God, that he offered his life for us in Christ Jesus and that he invites us to a life of eternal happiness.”
“This New Evangelization is directed not only to individual persons but also to entire portions of populations -- its purpose, according to the Pope, is the formation of mature ecclesial communities.” The laity, he adds, have their part to fulfil in the formation of these ecclesial communities, not only through a testimony that only they can give (the “consecratio mundi” through the various fields of human endeavour) but also through a missionary zeal and activity toward the many people who still do not believe and who no longer live the faith received at baptism.”
These are all indications which the Holy Father gives for an evangelization that is truly new. So too the following passage, which is very significant. He says: “We cannot evangelize if we do not first evangelize ourselves, if we are not personally an object of evangelization.”
And he explains: “To nourish ourselves with the Word in order to be 'servants' of the Word in the work of evangelization: This is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium,” because “only someone who has been transformed by Christ's law of love (as seen from the Gospel) can bring about a true “metanoia” (conversion) in the hearts and minds of others, in the different fields of endeavour, in nations, in the world.”
He continues: “(Human) transformation thus becomes a source of the witness which the world is waiting for. It can be summed up, first of all in love of neighbour, in the works of mercy.”
So the Holy Father concentrates personal re-evangelization in the practice of love, which contains all the law and the prophets. Love, which he considers as being lived out by each person, but also by more than one person, thereby becoming mutual love.
In fact, we know that several months ago in Novo millennio ineunte he spoke of the need for every Christian to be formed in the life of the Gospel, summing it up in the new commandment of Jesus. And he invited the entire people of God (from those at the apex of the institutional Church down to the last faithful), that people he had called since 1983 to bring about a New Evangelization, to live its necessary consequence: a “spirituality of communion.” It is a spirituality of communion which the Holy Father sees possible if everyone has before their eyes a model and a “key” to communion: the suffering countenance of Jesus crucified and forsaken.
And we could add that it was precisely mutual love which the early Christians regarded as a means to revealing Christ to the world, and therefore to evangelization. “By this they will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (cf. John 13:35). Moreover, mutual love, this “spirituality of communion” lived out, will offer the possibility of sanctity, which the Holy Father regards as necessary to evangelization.
“Just as it does in proclaiming the truths of faith he affirms the ‘New Evangelization’ will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but also of the word lived In particular, the life of holiness.”
So, announcing the Word. The Holy Father feels that the “New Evangelization, like that of all times, will be effective if it proclaims from the rooftops what it has first lived in intimacy with the Lord.” “We must rekindle in ourselves,” he says, “the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost.”
And he comments on the current situation: “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a Christian society which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone. Today we must courageously face a situation which is becoming increasingly diversified and demanding, in the context of globalization and of the consequent new and uncertain mingling of peoples and cultures. We must (therefore) revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”(1 Corinthians 9:16).
Lastly, he says he is convinced this is a concept we have already touched on — that the ecclesial movements “represent a true gift of God both for New Evangelization and for missionary activity properly so-called.”
All this so far has been in reference to the Pope.
So we have come to the second step. If the Holy Father says that our movements and new ecclesial communities are a gift to the Church for a New Evangelization, we must believe him. He knows us well.
Now I shall try to verify this by analyzing what I myself have seen come to life and develop: the Focolare Movement. And I do so very willingly because many of you belong to this movement and others want to get to know it.
The New Evangelization, the Pope says, must be new in ardour; that is, carrying it out gradually increases union with God. It seems to me that this is truly what takes place in the hearts of the Focolarini, both priests and laity, who evangelize.
Prompted by their charism, they put love of neighbour at the basis of all they do, and we know that this is the root of love for God, the source of a growing union with him. St. Catherine says it and we repeat it, with the example of the plant: Love of neighbour and love of God are the root and foliage of one another.
Does the Pope want all the members of the Church, the entire People of God, to work for the New Evangelization? In giving life to our movement, God did not choose special persons such as priests or religious. He chose lay people, indeed he chose laywomen, a few young girls. And even now, although this ecclesial reality of ours spread in 182 nations of the world and comprises every state of life, from little children to bishops, the majority are lay people. So it is above all our lay people that God uses as his instruments for a New Evangelization.
Another point. The New Evangelization should begin with the great proclamation that “God loves everyone”. The fact that the Pope indicated this as the first thing to announce, struck me very deeply, because from the very first days of our new life, the Holy Spirit enlightened us precisely on this. And I know this is true for other movements too. In fact, the first words that we movingly and with enthusiasm learned to repeat to ourselves and to others were: “God loves me. God loves you. God loves us immensely.”
We had come to understand this under the bombs of the Second World War. We were young and open to the future, and we were dismayed to see everything falling apart. We were searching for an Ideal that could not be destroyed and we found this Ideal in God. God who had revealed himself if we can use this word -- for what he truly is: love.
And so, if until then we had known only the earthly affection of our relatives and friends, now we discovered a heavenly Father who watches over us with immense love, in all the circumstances of our life, happy, sad or indifferent. Moreover everything that happened was an expression of his love, a love which enveloped us, everyone.
We believed in the love of God; and we continued to announce it to whoever we met, in these 58 years of the movement's existence.
Another point: The New Evangelization destined, as the Pope desires, to form mature Christian communities.
Isn't this in itself the goal which the movements and ecclesial communities can reach, including the Focolare Movement? In fact, our aim is not only to evangelize once in a while, when we go on a mission or we carry out some other activity; or to evangelize a first generation of members. Our formation is continuous, for people of every age, and so we can hope to see the formation of mature Christian communities.
But, as we heard, in order to bring about a “New Evangelization” we must first evangelize ourselves. One of our first concerns has always been to re-evangelize above all our own selves, changing our way of thinking, desiring, and loving to those of Christ, as the Gospel describes. Those who are familiar with our history know that this is true.
And to bring about this personal evangelization the Holy Spirit prompted us from the very start to live one sentence of the Gospel at a time. We would write a simple commentary on it, according to the interpretation of the Church, so that whoever reads it could put it into practice. This little page today is printed in 3 million copies. It is translated into 95 languages and regional dialects and sent to every corner of the world.
It is usually taken from the liturgy of the period in question. It is put into practice and the experiences made in doing so are then shared in our large and small communities, for the mutual edification of its members. We give utmost attention to all the Words of the Gospel that are suitable to be put into practice.
And the Gospel, as you know, contains very many of these. However for our typical “charism of unity” there is one which is of particular interest to us, and which sums up all the rest: It is love. And it is there that we aim. In fact, in speaking of the New Evangelization the Holy Father said that we should not only believe in God's love for us but also evangelize our own selves with love. And this is what we do.
In our movement (I mention this as an aside), in contact with the Gospel, we have experienced and become convinced that the love the Gospel speaks of has particular requirements. In our circle we speak of the art of loving. It is the art the Gospel teaches of loving everyone, including enemies, as our heavenly Father who sends rain and sun on the good and the evil.
It is a love that is always first to take the initiative, first in loving as our Father, who sent his Son to die for us when we were still sinners and therefore not loving him.
It is a love which consists not just in words, but by which we “make ourselves one” with others, to use the words of St. Paul. Therefore it is concrete.
It is a love by which we love Jesus in our brothers and sisters, reminded of his words: “You did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
It is a love which by nature tends toward becoming reciprocal.
And this brings us to another requirement of the New Evangelization: that of living the new commandment of Jesus, by which we live the spirituality of unity or the spirituality of communion, as it is called in the Pope's letter, Novo millennio ineunte, which I already mentioned.
The early Christians lived this way and people said of them: “See how they love one another and are ready to give their lives for one another.” Jesus crucified and forsaken lived in this way: He who is the key of the spirituality of communion, and has been a model of unity for us since the beginning of our movement. And now the Holy Father is presenting the spirituality of communion to the entire Catholic world so that it may make the Church, through him, a home and a school of communion.
This too is something we have done in the Focolare Movement from the start. The Word rings out in every corner: in personal relations, in our meetings and congresses, in some 170 Mariapolises (cities of Mary) which are formed every summer in various nations, and in the 20 permanent little towns in every continent of the world.
There is a direct personal communication and we use the most modern communication media: press, radio, TV, theatre, telephone conference calls, musical groups, etc. For example we use written words to speak of the Gospel through 37 editions of our magazines and 26 New City publishing houses throughout the world.
As John Paul II has said, there no longer exists a Christian society. What exists is globalization with its typical interwoven mixture of peoples and cultures. And here we want to single out the “new modes of expression” which, as I said earlier, the Holy Father spoke of in 1983 as characterizing the New Evangelization, together with new ardor and new methods. They are new modes of expression brought about by the Holy Spirit for new situations. I am referring to the modern forms of evangelization consisting in the dialogues already pointed out by the Second Vatican Council: the first, within the Church itself; the second, the ecumenical dialogue; the third, interreligious dialogue; the fourth, with persons of other convictions but of good will.
In the past 40 years the Focolare Movement has opened all four of these dialogues. It does so first of all in the Church, among individual Catholics, among ecclesial movements and new communities, as well as with other associations and also among the new and ancient charismatic realities.
For the remaining three dialogues it has opened a kind of dialogue which is also an interfacing between the truths which both sides live and profess.
In the first stage of this dialogue we try to understand our dialogue-partner, emptying ourselves of our own ideas so as to be able to make ourselves one with our neighbour. This way of acting has two effects: It helps us to become inculturated in the world of our neighbour and it builds up, in our neighbour, a willingness to listen.
The next step is what the Pope defined a “respectful announcing.” In this step, to be loyal to God and sincere toward our neighbour, we speak about what we think and believe, without forcing our opinion or wanting to gain others over to our own ideas, but letting the Holy Spirit work.
In this we give our contribution toward ecumenism. And here we have a very vast range of experience. We have many things in common with our fellow Christians (baptism, Scripture, the Creed, the councils, etc.), as well as our own spirituality, which they live as far as they can, and which is considered by the heads of the churches to be an ecumenical spirituality. Thus with these members of 350 different Churches we feel we are almost like one Christian people awaiting full unity. This is the dialogue of the people.
With the faithful of other religions the first step is to live together the so-called golden rule, which is one of the “seeds of the Word” present in almost every faith (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” see Luke 6:31). Also in this dialogue we have had a vast range of profound contacts for years: with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, etc. But, we would need time apart to be able to tell you something about it. Suffice it to say for now that their openness toward us is so great that they call us to speak about our Christian experience in Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, Jewish centres.
Lastly, the people of good will who are members of our movement, number nearly 100,000. Although they have no religious points of reference, they realize that mutual love is not only for Christians, but is something inscribed in the DNA of every human being. And so it is possible to work also with them for universal brotherhood and to safeguard the human values that are our mutual concern.
In this way little by little a dialogue is born also with these people, with a “respectful announcing” of Christian truths. And when expressed with love, they cannot help but interest and fascinate every human being, who in himself or herself is “naturally Christian.” And this is evangelization.
The necessary conclusion, I feel, with immense gratitude toward the Holy Spirit, is that the Focolare Movement is indeed suited for the New Evangelization. We could even say that it seems to be the answer. And we could say the same, I think, of other movements and ecclesial communities.
And now we have reached the third step. I would like to present to you an example of the “New Evangelization” of the Focolare Movement, which many of you may have already heard, but which I hope you will like.
What I am going to tell you is a short story, which seems almost like a fairy tale. It’s about a tribe, the Bangwa people, in West Cameroon.
In 1966 we Focolarini were invited to take care of this people that lived in the heart of the forest, in primitive, very poor conditions, affected by many illnesses, with a 90% infant mortality rate. Feeling desperate because their own assiduous prayers to the god of their traditional religion had not obtained any results, they brought an offering to the closest Catholic mission and entrusted themselves to their prayers.
Upon their request, the Focolarini soon opened something like an outpatient clinic in a very squalid shed, where even snakes occasionally passed by.
During one of my visits there in the '60s, while groups of Bangwa who shared the ideas and views of their wise and prudent king, Fon Defang of Fontem, took turns in performing various dances in a large clearing in the forest, I had a strong impression. It seemed to me that God, like a sun, was enveloping all of us together; and a city we would build together would rise up in the middle of that tropical forest.
In later years the Focolarini built a modest hospital, with the help of funds collected by the youth of the movement in various nations; they opened schools; they channeled a spring of water flowing down the mountain in order to generate a bit of electricity; they made mud bricks and built a few houses.
But first and foremost, with a constant thrust to live the Gospel, they put into practice the Word of Life. They loved concretely all those brothers and sisters who were in dire need, sick and illiterate, seeing Christ in them. And, following our fundamental norm, they loved one another.
The Bangwa, who had learned about the unhappy fact of colonialism even if they were in the forest, observed them for months: They wanted to see if those white people were perhaps motivated by personal interests.
Convinced of the sincerity and transparency of these new guests, they collaborated, as much as they could. They listened willingly to fundamental ideas about our faith. And soon, they asked to be baptized. Thus during the first few years thousands of them converted to the Catholic Church. They were about 10,000.
Years passed and everything grew: The hospital was enlarged; the infant mortality rate was reduced to 2%; the plague of sleeping sickness was eradicated; a college was built with all the lower and higher classes; 12 roads were opened to connect the various villages; the Focolarini, with their help, built 60 houses; the Bangwa, with our help, built many others. A parish church was built by the ecclesial authority.
Now, more than 30 years later, I returned to Fontem and the beautiful large town is there for everyone to see. I saw what the Gospel can do when it is proclaimed alongside witness. And also what brotherhood can build when it is lived between people of two continents and two races who have become one.
In the meantime the government provided for the most urgent social needs, and in 1992 the district that included Fontem and other locations became a prefecture.
And now, although the Bangwa continue to profess the traditional religion, and although the main structure is still supported by an ancestral system based on thousands of ancient norms, brotherhood prevails and works miracles. The new king, Dr. Lucas Njifua Fontem, son of the previous king, saw and understood.
He openly declares that there, in Fontem, the inhabitants who follow the movement never present any problems. They resolve everything among themselves with love; they don’t fight over land boundaries but rather define them in harmony and peace. They do not rob; they do not injure and much less kill; they do not seem to have any need for the police; they live in peace.
It has also been observed that illiteracy is diminishing; there is a great solidarity in the families; they defend life, which has always been greatly appreciated by the African culture, at all ages, and they have a profound esteem for the elderly; they respect authority; they are incredibly generous.
This is why during my recent stay there, the Fon of Fontem publicly invited his people, with determination and ardor, to make their own the Christian spirit of our movement.
Naturally, all this must continue and go forward. Toward this end, a project has begun, carried out by the Focolarini present there and by suitably prepared members of the Bangwa, aimed at an evangelization of the whole region. Periodic meetings are held in which an explanation of the words of the Gospel are underlined by experiences, interspersed by songs, dances, mimes, music, slides or brief documentaries, with an ever-growing participation of the people.
Now four other Fons, with their peoples, are beginning to participate in this initiative and have asked us to come to their territories.
There have been numerous fruits everywhere: forgiveness and reconciliation between relatives and between neighbour s; the loving acceptance of sufferings and even of mortal illnesses as the will of God; believing in God's providence which arrives exactly when needed; helping people to be faithful to Christian morality; a return to the sacraments, especially to matrimony; an experience of inner peace. The church, with our two priests, is always full and the liturgical functions are always carried out in a very beautiful, supernatural atmosphere.
Ecclesiastical and civic authorities encourage us by saying: “What you have done in Fontem, you must do all over Africa and in Madagascar.” In the meantime, four other dioceses have begun to take action. They have set up parochial commissions to look after the preparation and following up of this New Evangelization.
In observing what has happened, people have said it’s a kind of miracle. A revolution of love is being carried out similar to what was seen in the times of the Roman Empire. Thoroughly corrupt though it was, the early Christians, “born yesterday” as Tertullian said, had invaded the whole world known at that time.
Your Eminence, your Excellencies, reverend priests, this is an example we can offer you with regard to the New Evangelization. Certainly, it is not the only one. May God help us to evangelize the world in a new way, where we can and must work. All for the glory of God!