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Saving love everywhere

The urgent need for “a profound theology of women” that has not – so far – been sufficiently developed is re-emerging. Pope Francis has spoken of it on several occasions: the Church “is female. It is impossible”, he said, “to understand a Church without women, active women in the Church”. It is not perhaps inappropriate that women be called upon in the elaboration of this theology as active subjects who express their own specific identity in the Church and in the world. In this context we may give the floor to Chiara Lubich. Benedict XVI described her as a “woman of intrepid faith, a gentle messenger of hope and of peace, Foundress of a vast spiritual family”, the Focolare Movement, “that embraces many fields of evangelization”. 

She was thus an outstanding figure whose authoritativeness is universally acknowledged. Speaking of the theology of women in Chiara would require a very broad and structured treatment. We can offer here only a few brief indications and an explanation: Chiara never felt any opposition between men and women but – through her charism itself, the ut omnes [spirituality of unity] – she felt a continuous incentive to go beyond every barrier to build everywhere fertile dialogue oriented to the achievement of universal brotherhood. She was thus a spokeswoman of representatives of various religions and of political and cultural exponents, of young people and adults, of consecrated and lay people, of bishops and priests, and of families and communities. When she and her first companions started out on their adventure twenty years before the Second Vatican Council Chiara was not concerned with either the problem of lay people in the Church or, even less, with that of women: “we have felt especially powerfully the call to live the Gospel. We did not feel so much like being lay women as, rather, being Christians. Jesus’ prayer Ut omnes unum sint, his promise to be among two or three gathered in his name, his invitation to take up one’s cross and follow him, as well as all his other words, fully concerned us even though we were neither sisters nor priests; they made us feel we were fully Church”. The Gospel is the first point of reference in Chiara’s experience. And it is also the last, if we think of her recommendation: “All I bequeath to you is the Gospel. The discovery of God as love and the need to proclaim him to one and all. The first factor that emerges in Chiara’s life and thought is her reference to the Gospel that makes us experience the reality of being, all of us, men and women, children of one Father and brothers and sisters of one another. This is the truest reality. Sacred Scripture itself justifies it. We read in the Book of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (1:27). 

Commenting on this text Chiara shed light on the fact that the woman, like the man, is that person whom God created in his image, “whom he called, that is, to participate in his intimate life and to live in reciprocal communion with the man, in love, after the model of God who is Love, who is Trinity” – hence in reciprocal communion. In today’s society too the role of women should be interpreted from within this plan of God for humanity. It is on this that their dignity is based, a dignity moreover which is also more than confirmed by Jesus’ behaviour to women. Indeed, he had great love not only for his disciples but also for every woman he met here on earth. And John Paul II clearly emphasized this with his Mulieris dignitatem, a document that met with a profound echo in Chiara’s soul; “In all of Jesus' teaching… one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day. On the contrary, his words and works always express the respect and honour due to women” (cf. n. 13). An obvious example of this is his meeting with the Samaritan woman. Yet it is urgent likewise to recover in our epoch the man-woman relationship, to rediscover once again reciprocal communion. In the face of this urgency Chiara never tired of telling us women too that we can find the fullness of our being only through looking at Christ who re-established order by redeeming together, after sin, both women and men. He, the Son of God love, came down to earth to live and die for love. And he called all, men and women, to live the new commandment: “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Moreover loving means serving one’s brothers and sisters, putting into practice his words: “whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all” (Mk 10:44). It is a fact, however, that women, also complementary to men, have a totally different vocation. They are called, moreover, especially today, to achieve their vocation in the Church and in the world with ways of their own. In Mulieris dignitatem women are recognized as having two faculties which are specific to them: women are better able to love and better able to suffer. And suffering is a condition for being able to love, because love comes at a cost. For this reason a woman is like a chalice that receives more easily the gift of gifts, which, as Paul says, exceeds all other gifts: never-ending love. Nor can men, it is clear, be exonerated from this task, (loving). Only think of St Vincent and St Paul; but women have a specific vocation for this: motherhood, with its infinite nuances, including spiritual motherhood, demonstrates it. And love, charity, exceeds all graces, all gifts and all charisms. “When can we women”, Chiara asked herself, “with our ability to love, our ability to suffer, dispose ourselves to receive this immense gift that exceeds the others; what more do we want? I would like”, she confessed, “women today all to be of this stature, so that they may all be able to accept this gift within them in order to be other Marys in our time. For we need the figure of Mary to re-emerge in the Church too. And it can... it can reappear especially, not only exclusively, through women who can receive within them the charism of love”. Therefore women must not ape men in all that men have or can be. Women have qualities of their own, their own specific features. They find their place in the Church by developing that charism which characterizes them. “Therefore, continued Chiara, “I do not need to become a priest; it is enough for me to be myself and to accomplish in the Church the mission God has given me”. In this way we contribute to building the Church. And we have a model in Mary. I would like here to refer to one of Chiara’s writings, Regina degli Apostoli, which seems very explanatory: it examines Mary’s role in the Upper Room. “Our Mother is so beautiful in the ceaseless recollection in which the Gospel shows her to us: conservabat omnia verba haec confenes in corde suo (Lk 2:19). That complete silence has a fascination for the soul that loves. How will I be able to live out Mary in her mystical silence when my vocation is speaking in order to evangelize, ever jeopardizing myself, in all places, rich and poor, from the cellars to Montecitorio, from the streets to the convents of friars and sisters? Our Mother also spoke. She said Jesus. She gave Jesus. There has never been a greater apostle in the world. No one ever spoke words like her, the One who gave and spoke the Word. Our Mother is truly, and deserves to be, Queen of Apostles. And she is silent. She is silent because two people cannot talk at the same time. The word must always rely on silence, as a painting on its background. She is silent because she is a creature. Because nothingness does not speak. Yet on that nothingness Jesus spoke and he said: himself. God, Creator and All, spoke of the nothingness of the creature. How then is it possible for me to live Mary, how can I scent my life with the fragrance of her fascination? By silencing the creature within me and letting the Spirit of the Lord speak in this silence. This is how Mary lived and how Jesus lived. Jesus lived on Mary. I live Mary in living Jesus. I live Jesus in living Mary”. What more beautiful image than this, in which women may be reflected? Chiara has shown clearly several times that Our Lady is “Seat of Wisdom”, not because she spoke, not because she was a Doctor of the Church, not because she held a chair, not because she founded universities. She is Seat of Wisdom because she gave to the world Christ, Wisdom incarnate. Our Lady is Queen of Apostles not because she preached, because she went to Africa or because of anything else. She is Queen of Apostles simply because she was present when the Apostles were gathered together, when the Holy Spirit came down and the Church was born “She did a deed”: she was present. And I think that this presence may also be a response to Pope Francis’ recent observation: “a Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary”. We women will succeed in changing the world and in being an incisive presence in the Church first and foremost by our being in her, fully in her. Therefore, facts first of all. And this re-evaluation of women will happen by the very fact that we are in her. How? Truly, if one looks at the history of the Church, women have always made their incisive contribution, down the centuries, through the numerous institutions that also blossomed from their charisms. However today more than ever, at the beginning of the third millennium, we are convinced with Chiara that women are called to develop in the Church and in the world: the greatest of the charisms: love. After the example, precisely, of Mary, “the first lay woman”. “I see women above all looking at Mary. Women”, Chiara affirms, “are the ones who point out the eternal to men, and what counts, what will count, what will always count. Everything else that is beautiful, that is necessary…, is necessary while we are on this earth; but afterwards it is love that will endure. Therefore, if Mary is the model of every Christian, every woman likewise must be a model for the Christian, highlighting what is most worthwhile and will last for ever, and this is love”. In her the Church sees the maximum expression of the feminine genius and women still find in her today – while they work in the family and in society, in the most varied environments (schools, parliaments, theatres, hospitals, Church bodies) – a “source of ceaseless inspiration”. She can thus set hearts on fire with God’s love, eliminate diaphragms and bring peace to people of different races, to different peoples, to rich and poor alike. She can enliven innumerable and variegated situations in the Church. She can bring unity and collaboration to all the Church’s members. The vocation of women is essentially this: to save love everywhere. This is the deepest meaning of an effective presence of women in the Church and in the world. An incisive presence in the Church which, in the case of the Focolare Movement, also becomes a presidency. Chiara had always hoped for a female presidency and spoke of it directly to John Paul II. The Pope’s answer was unequivocal: “If only that could be!”. This female presidency, determined by the Statutes, is very significant: it indicates a distinction between the power of governance and the importance of the charism. It clarifies that to govern a work it is essential to possess a charism. Such a presidency thus offers the universal Church innovative indications. It emphasizes the priority of love. The female presidency of the Focolare Movement is therefore not a matter of power. The true power lies in the reciprocal relationship of love that Jesus’ presence generates among us and that Chiara wanted to be the premise of every other rule in the General Statutes of the Movement that is also called “Work of Mary”. Mary’s human and spiritual role is to give Jesus to the world, thus we men and women too may restore him to the world, spiritually, every time we are faithful to the evangelical ideal that guides us and to the spirituality that enlivens us. The figure of Mary as Theotókos, Mother of God, explains the extraordinary dignity to which God raises the woman in her. By looking at Mary women can live their vocation to the full, they can bring into the limelight the “Marian dimension of the life of Christ’s disciples” and can contribute to expressing themselves and to keeping the Church’s so-called “Marian profile” alive.

Maria Voce (1937) has been President of the Focolare Movement, whose official title is Work of Mary, since 2008. Voce was elected by the General Assembly after the death of Chiara Lubich who founded the Movement in 1943. In 1962 John XXIII gave it its first approval, while the Statutes were approved by John Paul II in 1990. In particular the Work of Mary obtained from the Pope the rare privilege of being able always to be governed by a woman. Widespread on all the continents, today the Movement has more than two million members.

Maria Voce

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