This is a sensitive moment economically and politically. The ‘Semaines Sociales de France’, describe themselves as ‘an institute, with the mission to examine community life and to issue proposals regarding … social policy’. In this moment of history, they have risen to meet the challenge. One of the oldest research organizations in the France, they were set up in 1904 by two lay people living in two towns (Lyons and Lille) which had suffered greatly from the effects of unrestrained capitalism. They wished to publicize Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, where for the first time the Roman Catholic Church made a statement about social questions and began developing its modern social teaching
This year the title of the event was Men and women: the new deal. It was attended by about 3000 people.
The persistent lack of equality between men and women in roles of leadership and with regard to financial treatment was looked at under many headings: philosophical, sociological, economic, political and religious. The young minister for equal opportunities and spokesperson for the French government wished to be present from the beginning because, even though she held different views on several points, she thought it important to encourage the assembly and looked forward to its conclusions. Naturally there was a debate about the government’s policy of ‘equal marriage’, that is, for homosexual couples and the accompanying implicit acceptance of same sex adoptions and assisted reproductive technology. This led to a proposal that was clear (contrary to the notion of ‘equal marriage’) but, at the same, open and welcoming of all persons.
The Roman Catholic Church, with its predominantly male hierarchy, is often a point of discussion by a number of its members. With regard to this the speech by Maria Voce, presenting the experience of the Focolare Movement, was unusual. She had already spoken of her own experience as Focolare President at the press conference preceding her intervention. It was attended by journalists, the leaders of the ‘Semaines Sociales de France’ as well as various Movements and indeed by the diocesan bishop.
There was a launch of her book, originally published in Italian as La scommessa di Emmaus (The Challenge of Emmaus) and in French called Le pari de la confiance (The Challenge of Trust). Here it became plain that Maria Voce has a particular concern to nurture those interpersonal relations, based in mutual trust, necessary for building unity. ‘You feel in her the force of a powerful charism,’ commented one person who was present.
The Focolare Movement in France has long been active in the ‘Semaines Sociales’ and in particular in the year of their centenary, celebrated in Lille in 2004 with the title of Inventing a European society. This year the members of the Movement ran eleven workshops looking at a variety of topics: the family, shared decision-making by men and women and the experience of a woman in charge of an African parish community in France.
Other members of the Movement, who were present in large numbers, were spread among the 300 workshops of between ten and twelve people. For each of them it was a powerful moment of dialogue and listening to an everyday world were persons with no religious convictions were able to express themselves freely and in mutual respect: ‘This is the great attraction of modern times: to penetrate to the highest contemplation while mingling with everyone, one person alongside others,’ wrote Chiara Lubich (Essential Writings, New City Press, New York, and New City, London, 2007, p.169).
Jean Michel Merlin