Sylvia, the baptismal name given to Chiara,Lubich, was born in Trent on 22 January 1920. She was the second of four children, Gino, Liliana and Carla. Her father, Luigi Lubich, a wine-seller, ex-typesetter, anti-fascist and socialist, had once been a close colleague of the once socialist Benito, and later the unyielding political opponent of the fascist Mussolini. Her mother, Luigia, was animated by a strong traditional faith. Following his medical studies, her older brother, Gino, joined the Resistance in the famous Garibaldi Brigade. Then he dedicated himself to journalism, working for the Communist newspaper, L’Unita (Unity).
When she was 18, Sylvia received her teaching certificate with full marks. She would have liked to continue her studies, and she applied to study at the Catholic University. It didn’t turn out: she came in 34th place for the only 33 full scholarships available. Since there was not enough money in the Lubich home to pay for her studies in another city, Sylvia was forced to find work. During the 1940-41 academic year she taught elementary school at the Opera Serafica in Trent.
The decisive beginning of her human-divine experience was revealed to her in 1939 during a trip to the shrine of Loreto: “I was invited to a meeting for Catholic students in Loreto”, Chiara writes, “where, according to tradition, the little house of the Holy Family is kept within the walls of a great fortress-like cathedral. . . . I attended the course at a nearby college with everyone else. But, whenever possible, I would run to the little house. I knelt beside the wall, all blackened by the vigil light of the vigil lamps. Something new and divine was enveloping me, nearly crushing me. I contemplated in my mind the virginal life of the three (…). Every thought weighed upon me, squeezing my heart, my tears were falling uncontrollably. During every break, I ran there. Then the last day arrived. The church was filled with young people. A thought clearly entered my mind, a thought which was never erased: “You will be followed by a host of virgins.”
When Chiara’s students and her parish priest met her after her trip to Loreto, and saw her so radiant and happy, they asked if she had discovered her way. Chiara’s answer was disappointing for the priest, because she would only say which vocations she didn’t feel were hers, the traditional ones: not the convent, not matrimony, not consecration to God in the world. This was all she was able to say.
In the years following her visit to Loreto – from 1939 till 1943 – Sylvia continued to work and study and to be involved in the service of the Church. When she became a Franciscan Tertiary, she took the name Chiara.
In 1943, when Chiara was already twenty-three, as she was on her way to fetch some milk a few kilometers from home, in a neighborhood called White Madonna, standing beneath a railroad overpass, Chiara heard the call from God: “Give yourself totally to me.” She wasted no time and, in a letter, she requested permission from the Cappuchin priest, Father Casimiro Bonetti, to consecrate herself totally to God. Following a deep conversation with the priest, she finally obtained this permission. On 7 December 1943 at six o’clock in the morning, she consecrated her life to God forever. On that day Chiara didn’t have the slightest intention of founding anything: she was simply “marrying God.” And this was everything for her. Only later did this day come to be identified as the symbolic beginning of the Focolare Movement.
Continued on: The Adventure of Unity: The beginnings/2