Focolare celebrates 50 years in England - at Liverpool Hope
On Saturday, 26 October, Liverpool Hope University welcomed a 400-strong gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the Focolare Movement’s arrival in Britain in November 1963. Liverpool was the Focolare’s first centre and from there spread to other parts of the country. It was a very different ecumenical context that welcomed the first group to a city which had known its share of sectarian differences. Three local Anglican clergy were instrumental in the Focolare’s arrival alongside Canon Bernard Pawley, the Anglican Observer at the Second Vatican Council.
It was Canon Pawley who suggested to the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool that he invite Focolare founder, Chiara Lubich, to speak in the Cathedral to a group of Anglican Clergy. At the same time he also mentioned the idea to Pope Paul VI in a private audience and gained papal approval for this event which took place in November 1965.
Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe, recent Moderator of the United Reformed Church, reminded those present, ‘It is easy for us, 50 years later and living in such a different climate for inter-church relations, to underestimate just how radically unusual this event was. For a woman to address a gathering of men was relatively rare in those days, wherever it happened ... and in early 1960s, clergy were not known to sit and listen to a lay person as a main speaker ...’.
In her diary for that day, 17 November, Chiara Lubich remarked on the poignancy of the name, Hope Street, which connects the Anglican Cathedral to the Catholic Cathedral (still under construction at that time) and expressed a heartfelt prayer that, with faith, the ‘mountains’ of lack of understanding between the churches might be moved (cf Mt 17:20).
Today too, the word ‘hope’ continues to link Focolare very much to Liverpool.
In his keynote address to Saturday’s gathering, Professor Gerard Pillay, Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, reminded those present that the last honorary doctorate Chiara Lubich received, just two months before she died in March 2008, was from Liverpool Hope in recognition for her work of dialogue in ecumenism, in interfaith and with contemporary culture.
Professor Pillay paid tribute to her work describing Focolare as ‘not institutionally focused, not empire building but part of the spreading out goodness all over the world ... Chiara Lubich, from the very beginning was outward looking.’ He recalled the words of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who said on her death, ‘there are some people whose life touches lives so universally that upon their passing away they remain an indelible inspiration of grace. One such life, a life worth living and well worth remembering is that of Chiara Lubich’.
Professor Pillay went on to outline the strong bonds between the University and Focolare’s charism saying, ‘We at this university are drawn to a charism of seeking unity because of our ecumenical commitment. Liverpool Hope University is the only ecumenical Foundation in Europe which has brought together Christians from both divides, not achieved since the sixteen century. It is a peculiar Liverpool achievement for which we are all grateful ... Ecumenism is not just the bringing of different peoples together ... Ecumenism is seeking the common Christian purpose, the common ecclesial mind. And in seeking this unity we transcend the values we represent. True ecumenism is not equal space for everybody. True ecumenism is where the unity is greater than the sum of all the individual denominational parts. That’s the lesson we have to constantly learn.
Chiara Lubich believed that dialogue (which for the university is rational discourse and living in peace) is the privileged way to promote the unity of the Church among religions and non religious people, without syncretism. It is not just a muddling together of everything for something palatable. It is the openness to all people while being faithful to one’s own identity. That is the deep wisdom of Chiara Lubich’s vision.’