by PAOLO CONTI
Maria Voce, you lead the Focolare Movement with two million members around the world. By the will of John Paul II, it is one of the few Catholic Church organisations that can only be led by a woman for the Marian profile of the “Work of Mary”. What is the particularity of a female guide in such an important context?
I think that the particularity is not it being a female guide, but the Marian guide. Chiara Lubich was keen to include in the second chapter of the Statute that our work has a special bond with Mary Most Holy, of whom she wanted to be almost a continuation. It was supernatural instinct that led her to ask Pope John Paul II to insert the clause [in the statutes] that the President of Works should always be a consecrated woman of the Focolare Movement. Chiara was convinced that Mary’s plan for the Church had not yet emerged as was deserved. For centuries this figure had almost disappeared.
She says: for centuries she was an underestimated figure.
By the ecclesiastical hierarchies, by the Church in general, even by people in general, except for specific devotions and processions. However, the figure finally outlined by the Second Vatican Council had not yet emerged: Mary Mother of God, already declared so by the Council of Ephesus, but also Mother of the Church, of Christ who lives in the Church, made up of a Pope, of bishops, but also of the faithful, of ordinary people, and the People of God.
How would you define Mary’s project?
To bring the presence of Christ back to the world. What did Mary do that was great? She offered her humanity to God so that Christ could become man, as a man among men, and who knows human suffering because he took it upon himself. Without Mary all this would not have been possible.
You are one of the most eminent female figures in the Catholic world. A leader is required to make decisions, make choices. Even in a sharing context like yours, and this implies an inevitable relationship with power. Is female authority different from male authority?
Female authority cannot be equal to male authority simply because a woman is not equal to a man. There are decisions that I have to take alone without influence. However, Chiara’s spirit has permitted us to experience unity from the beginning, which also means communion. One cannot achieve unity without full communion, without sharing. I have always been helped above all by the Councillors, by the Co-President who is a priest, and who has a particular way of looking at the ecclesial part of the Movement, for example, on morals, and on discipline.
Have male members of the Movement ever felt embarrassed about being led by a woman?
You’ll have to ask them!
But has the problem emerged in any way?
I believe that at the beginning this was not a problem, otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many who had followed Chiara. Afterwards, over time, maybe it has been felt due to some inaccurate interpretations of how to handle things. Not so much by Chiara, but by the others. And not only by the men but by the women who felt it was their duty to defend their feeling of being more expressive because there was finally a Movement being led by a woman. And perhaps men felt they had to get off the pedestal on which history and circumstances had placed them. This discomfort led to a certain separation between the male and female spheres. But, today it seems to me that we have reached a good point of reconciliation, which is not based on equality, but complementarity. An enrichment in diversity, in sharing, in communion. God wants us to respond to His plan, certainly not to our imaginations, even in this difference.
The Movement welcomes Christians adhering to many Churches, the faithful of other religions, and people of non-religious convictions. How do we reconcile this “diversity” in a reality that is in any case incardinated in the Catholic Church?
In today’s Church this is reconciled very well. Just look at Pope Francis! If he has the courage to sign a document on brotherhood with a Muslim leader, if he makes the masses in St. Peter’s Square pray for peace while respecting the creed of each and every one, who are we to be different? At the foundation there is Chiara’s certainty. From the first moment she reminded us that we are all children of God because Jesus said: “They shall be one”. There is only one Father and we are all His children, so we are all brothers and sisters. Upon meeting the head of a different Church or perhaps a group of animists, or whoever, Chiara did not even ask herself the question of who they were. They were brothers and sisters to meet, and she went as a sister.
Can you describe your relationship with the male ecclesiastical hierarchies?
If I go to the Pope I go to him as a child of God, I prepare myself to listen to him, to welcome him with all the love and all the respect that one owes a son of God. I do the same with a bishopess of the Swedish Lutheran Church. She too is a child of God, even though she may have completely different ideas from mine. The Pope always treats me like a sister. He asks me: “How are you? How is your health? Are you still managing?” He takes me under his arm and says: “Come, Maria!”. I also remember the meekness of Benedict XVI. Once I arrived late and he just said to me: “You must be tired!”. There is also a fraternal relationship with Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, Prefect of the Department for the Laity.
This year is the centenary of Chiara’s birth. What does that mean to you?
It is a great opportunity to make Chiara’s charisma better, and more widely known. The gift that she was, the invasion of love that she wanted to bring into the world through people who are capable of experiencing Gospel love to the full, and who are ready to give their lives for one another. We do not celebrate Chiara, nor do we remember her: because Chiara is there, she is here, in the spirituality that she left us, in the family that continues to experience what she went through and witnessed.
What is particular about a person who adheres to your Movement?
To have one common goal: a different world, united according to the Christian vision. A world that does not divide, does not make distinctions, does not put up walls.
There is a debate about certain institutes such as the diaconate or even the female priesthood. There are different approaches and positions, even among women. What do you think?
When you start discussing these things, you lose sight of the essential. We talk about roles: not about being a man and being a woman. They are services, so they are roles. But a woman is not a deacon, or a priest. She is a woman and that is it. A woman does not want the man to become like her and the same goes for a man. I think it is important that a woman’s essence and her femininity emerges, even in her direction of the Church.
In what sense?
In the sense that a woman must be listened to more, with greater recognition for what she is, for the contribution she can give.
We have yet to discover them, for we are at the beginning. I believe that we women ourselves do not know yet what we can give because so far we have not been put to the test.
After 2,000 years.
It has taken time. Let us hope it does not take another 2,000!
From women, what should the Church listen for?
Today, woman ask the Church to listen to love. The Church must love women and a woman must love her presence in the Church. And the Church should welcome, for example, a woman’s capacity for understanding and forgiveness, which we have more than men. A mercy that the Pope himself often speaks of because he experiences it with a maternal sensitivity, I would say, of tenderness, of acceptance, which is in contrast to his other intense moments. This demonstrates his humanity.
In your opinion, in the past, could women have done more to make themselves heard?
In my opinion, yes. On numerous occasions they have not been able to express what they have felt inside, and they have been slow to manifest themselves as women, or sometimes they have done so incorrectly, for example with a feminist perspective, with a demanding stance. Instead, Chiara’s strength was that of having a great ideal, with which she began to preach a transformation of the world that commenced from herself. But she did not claim, she did not say, “You make mistakes, I’ll teach you how to do it”. She said: “This is how I do it”. A proposal. And between proposal and claim there is an abysmal difference; because, only a mother can make a proposal.