If the guide is female
Interview with Maria Voce, President of the Focolare Movement
We were keen that the new insert of “L’Osservatore Romano” dedicated to
women would begin with an interview with you: you are the only woman who heads a
movement of such great importance. Is this unique feature a burden to you in
your contacts with the ecclesiastical
Not only is it not a burden but it is a peculiarity that is increasingly
recognized by the Pope and by cardinals and bishops, in accordance with its
original meaning, as John Paul ii expressed it: to be a sign and a guarantee of
that Marian profile which declares the primacy of supernatural love and of
holiness, coessential to the apostolic and Petrine profile. These dimensions
compete with each other, Wojtyła said, “to make the Mystery of Christ and his
saving work present in the world”. This is not how it was in the first 20 years
of our history: it was such an innovation! Behind the scenes is a long journey
that was not devoid of suffering.
Your succession to Chiara Lubich was also different from the usual
practice: no designation but a democratic vote. Moreover in its decisions too
the Movement seems to follow this method. Did this also happen when Chiara was
The succession took place with an election but it cannot be said that it
followed a democratic process. Had this been the case we should subsequently
have had to accept a compromise in order to settle the polarization which would
have been in contrast with our charism that demands unity. From that moment we
understood better the meaning of Chiara’s legacy: Jesus makes himself present
when “two or three are gathered in my name”. In that crucial period we
experienced the power that transforms and the light that guides. That reciprocal
love which does not measure, indeed which aims for the very measure of Jesus was
asked of us: to give our life. Today we know no other way of taking decisions:
it means listening, sharing burdens, successes, experiences, viewpoints, while
being prepared to lose everything in the other person. It means above all
fidelity to the espousals with the crucified Jesus in order to transform
sorrows, doubts and divisions and to recompose unity. When Christ is present the
gifts of the Spirit are resplendent: peace, fresh strength, light; equality
shines out but in no way diminishes the “gift of authority”.
It seems to me that among the movements you are the most reluctant for
publicity: “humility and reticence, never putting oneself on show”, Chiara used
to say. Therefore people get to know you when they come into contact with one of
you through a personal relationship. This modesty makes you little known to the
outside world. Does it have anything to do with having a woman in charge?
We are disinclined to publicity, not to communication. Significantly Chiara
wanted the great satellite dish for intercontinental communications to be set up
in her garden: she saw it as the “monument to unity”. It is true, there was a
long period of silence while the movement was under examination by the Church.
However, in the following years there was no lack of international
demonstrations broadcast throughout the world by satellite, magazines and
website increased and a press office came into being. What motivates us is not
seeking to be in the limelight but rather the Gospel saying that tells us not to
put the lamp under a bushel but to set it on the table to make the house light.
The Focolare spirit is affected by its female matrix. What other feminine
characteristics can be traced in your charism?
The Focolore Movement has a female matrix because it is a “Work of Mary” –
Mary, the loftiest expression of redeemed humanity, the model of Christians and
of the whole Church, as sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council. It is she who
impressed her tone upon the whole movement: an interiority that leaves room for
God and for the brethren, fortitude, faith, the word lived, the singing of the
Magnificat which announces the most powerful social revolution, the
motherhood that is possible today in generating the mysterious but real presence
everywhere of the Risen One who makes all things new.
The Movement includes exponents of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as
members or friends. How do you solve the confrontation between the authority of
the Movement’s guidance and the authority of the hierarchies they represent?
In our relations with bishops there has never been a conflict of authority
but rather an exchange of gifts: bishops draw from the charism of unity that
spirituality which has been so much encouraged by Popes to give the Church the
face outlined by the Second Vatican Council, the Church-communion. In the
charism proper to the ecclesiastical hierarchies we recognize the evangelical
words: “those who listen to you listen to me”.
In addition to the Foundress’ writings by which you are obviously
inspired, what relationship do you have with the saints and with the texts they
Two examples: Chiara took the name of the saint of Assisi because she was
fascinated by her evangelical radicalism. For years, on the saint’s feast, we
examined in depth parallel aspects of the two spiritualities. Teresa of Avila
provided the enlightenment to interpret, in the new charism given to the Church,
an authentic path of holiness, whose goal is not only to build the “interior
castle” but also the “exterior castle” in whose centre is the presence of Jesus
in the community.
“Our uniform is a smile”, is one of your most inspirational sayings.
Chiara, the model of reference, seems to be achieved better by the women, who
all resemble her not only in the way they dress and in their hairstyle but also
in the affectionate luminosity of their faces. Does this seem more difficult for
It is not a question of difficulty but of diversity: “man and woman he
created them”. They are called to be a gift to each other so that they may
achieve that “fullness of the human being” which is only possible in the
“complementarity between femininity and masculinity”. The Movement itself can be
regarded as a training ground for this unity: if the president is a woman, even
though she has a specific function in the whole of the Work of Mary, she has a
Co-President beside her. Every other level of responsibility is shared with full
equality. It is only in the unity between the two that the charism is expressed
in its authenticity. It is a dimension of unity that is rooted in the crucified
Jesus and requires a measure of love that can contain differences without
blotting them out. And a consequence of this is also the light which shines on
You have fraternal relations with the believers of other religions in
which women are often oppressed and deprived of freedom; have you ever touched
on this subject with them?
The matter is very complicated because it is rooted in 1,000-year-old
cultures. Moreover our Western categories do not always apply. It is life rather
than words that is effective. One episode is significant. At Fontem, in the
heart of the forest of Cameroon, polygamy is still practised. One of the wives
of a village chief had failed to obey an order he had given. His reaction was
violent and public. Immediately afterwards the man took part in a meeting in
which the Gospel approach, “as you did it to one of the least of these my
brethren you did to me”, was being discussed. In contrast with the tradition,
the chief gathered his extended family and in front of everyone he knelt before
the woman to offer her his apology. This stunning event was to have far-reaching
echoes beyond the village and to have an effect in change.
Chiara gave you the most beautiful name, Emmaus. It is the name of a
place, of an encounter. How do you think you put it into practice?
Emmaus is the name of a place and of an encounter which coincides with the
heart of the charism: it is my specific duty to keep it alive. My priority
commitment is to seek first to live myself the demands of love that make it
active. I tangibly feel a grace that exceeds me by far with ever new
In recent years the Church has had to surmount periods of great
difficulty. Do you believe that a different role and presence of women might
have made this any easier?
It is hard to tell. I would say look at today, when a profound crisis is not only passing through the Church but through all humanity. If, as the Pope repeats, there is a crisis of faith at the root of the crisis, women, wherever they may live, have the specific vocation to be heralds of God, of that supernatural love which is the greatest and most effective value for renewing both the Church and society.
From 7 July 2008 Maria Voce has been President of the Focolare Movement whose official name is Work of Mary. Chiara Lubich founded it in 1943, with the aim of achieving the unity among people that Jesus desired. In 1962 John XXIII gave the Movement its first approval and its Statutes were approved by John Paul ii in 1990. In particular, the Work of Mary obtained from the Pope the rare privilege of always being able to be directed by a woman. Having spread on all the continents, today the Movement has more than two million members.
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