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#WCC70: Chiara Lubich and the World Council of Churches

#WCC70: Chiara Lubich and the World Council of Churches

Geneva, 1967: Chiara Lubich with Philip Potter and Lukas Vischer

16 April 2018

In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.

This story was written by Joan Patricia Back.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the World Council of Churches.

The relationship between the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Chiara Lubich dates back to the time of the Second Vatican Council. There, Lukas Vischer, Swiss Reformed theologian, was a WCC observer and met Chiara. He was instrumental in the first invitation to Chiara Lubich to visit the WCC on 9 November 1967 where she met with 11 staff members including the first general secretary Willem Visser’t Hooft, then just recently retired, along with Vitaly Borovoy, Philip Potter, Lukas Vischer, Madeleine Barot, Bengt Molander and Gaio Grassi.

On 5 October 1982 Chiara is invited by general secretary Philip Potter to speak to 120 directors and collaborators. It was on this occasion that Potter coined the phrase which since has often been used to describe Focolare’s ecumenical commitment “you have an ecumenical lifestyle”. Also, Chiara Lubich had a private meeting with Visser’t Hooft.

Chiara’s third visit took the form of an “ecumenical week” in October 2002 where she was jointly invited by the WCC and the Protestant Church of Geneva. This week saw Chiara talk in the Bossey Ecumenical Institute Bossey where the director Ioan Sauca underlined the motive for their joy in having Chiara explain Focolare’s spirituality of unity “because that is what we would like to build here: to discover our unity […] living together in a community of formation”. In the Protestant Cathedral of St Pierre she spoke about “the reform of all reforms”, that is to recompose unity. At the WCC in his vote of thanks after Chiara’s talk on “Unity and Jesus Forsaken,” general secretary Konrad Raiser said “it reminds me, and I believe many others, of one of the key insights at the very beginning of the ecumenical movement [….] the closer we come to the cross of Christ, the closer we come to one another”. Together with Chiara he issued a joint declaration at the conclusion of that visit.

The week ended at Morges at the opening day of the Ecumenical Meeting of Bishops-Friends of Focolare where Lukas Vischer, together with other WCC friends were present. Chiara spontaneously concluded, saying: “I have in my heart just one thought: something has begun here. And this thing will not terminate here. We must bring ahead that which is born, something that is in God’s plan, that not even I know, but what we must bring ahead together”.

The whole week is documented in a book entitled “Living Dialogue” published in Italian, English, German and Spanish.

The Focolare headquarters at Rocca di Papa has seen visits by official delegations of the WCC. The first, in June 2005, was led by general secretary Samuel Kobia who on a successive visit on 26 January 2008 together with Yorgo Lemopoulos, Martin Robra and Luzia Wehrle to meet with Chiara in her house just two months before she died. They wanted to convey their deepest thanks for her contribution, especially with Focolare spirituality, to the ecumenical movement.

(That same afternoon, members of the Joint Working Group between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church visited Focolare’s headquarters.)

On her death, Samuel Kobia paid tribute, saying: “Our love for Chiara and immense gratitude for the gift of God she has been to the ecumenical movement, will continue to motivate and inspire us in our work for the visible unity of the church”.

After Chiara Lubich’s death the new president-elect, Maria Voce, continued in the same tradition of cooperation with the WCC. In March 2009, together with collaborators, she spent a day in Geneva meeting with Kobia and several directors. The visit was reciprocated on 5 December 2010 when general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit together with a delegation met with Voce and the general council of the Focolare Movement at Rocca di Papa.

Over the years collaboration between the WCC and Focolare intensified in Switzerland and elsewhere. After the initial request by Lukas Vischer for a focolarina at WCC, Luzia Wehrle worked there for 40 years followed by Lut Van Kersavond and currently Lurdes Guimaraes Teixeira. Other Focolare members in Geneva collaborate with the WCC.

The WCC has actively participated in Focolare events such as a Congress on the Economy of Communion and Ecumenical Schools. A recent example, for the Ecumenical Week at Castelgandolfo in May 2017, Tveit sent a video message and Martin Robra gave one of the keynote addresses.

Christians of different churches belonging to Focolare have been part of delegations of their respective churches and in other capacities at WCC assemblies. At the Porto Alegre assembly, besides being in delegations and in local organization, they contributed in a plenary session and in workshops. At the Busan assembly, a Focolare delegation was specifically invited by the WCC.

Collaboration with various departments of the WCC have included a Roman Catholic consultation on Worship and Spirituality, and participation in consultations such as “A spirituality for our times” and dialogue on the laity. Focolare members were invited as observers to a Faith and Order assembly. Recently Focolare gave their official response to the document “The Church: Towards a Common Vision”.

Since 2006 students of the Focolare Centre at Montet (Switzerland) visit the WCC as part of their ecumenical course while graduate students from the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, when in Rome, in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, always includes meeting with Focolare.

Focolare members have participated in Bossey courses and Montet students now annually visit the Institute.

Focolare’s international performing musical groups Gen Verde and Gen Rosso respectively took part in the celebrations of the Faith and Order’s 50th anniversary celebrations at Lausanne and at the 2011 "International Ecumenical Peace Convocation" in Jamaica.

In the light of these contacts, Martin Robra, in a recent interview, talked of “50 years of friendship as a sign of unity” whereas Yorgo Lemopoulos in his “Remembering Chiara al WCC” states that Lubich “was recalled by many as someone who was a companion of a journey in a way that was trustworthy, determined, full of creativity and fascination” and talked of her life, her charisma and her spirituality as being “a source of inspiration and encouragement to those travelling along the path of ecumenism”. This collaboration has also given much to Focolare; through it we have gained much insight into the ecumenical movement and met so many people dedicated to Christian unity. Lemopoulos talks of this ongoing relationship between the WCC and the Focolare Movement “with gratitude knowing that Chiara, through her precious heritage and her exhortations, continues to guide their steps, to encourage them and to support them in their common goals”.

More information about the WCC 70th anniversary: www.oikoumene.org/wcc70

Video of 18 April event: WCC, Chiara Lubich and the Focolari

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