A leap into God’s Love

Celebrating Terry Gunn , Focolare co-director for the Eastern United States, who concluded his holy journey November 8, 2010/

When Focolare president Maria Voce learned of Terry Gunn’s passing, she wrote in a letter to the worldwide movement, “Terry lived this last stage of his life in peace, which he transmitted to all those who visited him. At a certain point he said: ‘I’ve lived a full life. I’m ready to go,’ and, ‘Now, every will of God is the love of God for me.’ This is how he lived until the end. I spoke with him October 7, telling him that his being in peace was helping everyone to do the same.”

In late August Terry was diagnosed with cancer, which was soon deemed terminal.

1950s. With his family in New Zealand. Terry is standing at right.1950s. With his family in New Zealand. Terry is standing at right.

Terence Gunn was born in 1947 in Hastings, New Zealand. One of five children, he was raised in a loving Christian family. As a child, he had a real love for nature and enjoyed his friends. He liked visiting the people in his town of 30,000 simply to chat with them, and everyone remembers him with affection.

He was attracted to the notion of love as the most important thing in life and, not finding a suitable group, he decided to form his own Catholic youth group, which quickly grew to 150 people. However, it collapsed after a couple of years. He said that he was faced with failure and simply had no answer for pain and suffering. He became disillusioned with religion and put all his energies into a career.

He was a talented salesman, yet despite material well-being and success, he was not satisfied with life. “I was entertaining a group of clients at a local restaurant, and I eventually struck up a friendship with the owner, who was always happy. I spoke to him from time to time, and one night he told me that God is Love. I said to myself, ‘Oh, yes, I have heard all this before!’ He also told me about the life of Chiara Lubich, which had inspired him.”

Terry saw in his friend Evert what he wanted to be, but realized that he had to make a choice to live it as he did. “He said we choose God by loving, so I threw myself into doing this.” Eventually as he began to experience what it was like to live for others, his doubt that God was truly love gradually disappeared.

Love of Nature: He knew every bird and animal, and he loved to fish and look for mushrooms. Many people treasure stories of his love for these simple things. “You taught me how to fish,” Gevit Ling from Canada wrote, “but also how to live life fully.”Love of NatureHe knew every bird and animal, and he loved to fish and look for mushrooms. Many people treasure stories of his love for these simple things. “You taught me how to fish,” Gevit Ling from Canada wrote, “but also how to live life fully.”

People thought he was a bit strange at first. For instance, Terry was a good seller. With one client, he realized that it was more love to let that client know that he was better off not buying a certain product from him and referred him to a competitor. He had the client’s best interest at heart, even if it meant losing business. That person was so struck by that attitude that he became a very loyal customer.

Back then in 1970, Terry and Evert lived far from any Focolare center; for the first year they had only a book of meditations written by Chiara and her monthly commentary, the Word of Life. They met each evening at the restaurant after the crowds had left. Terry looked forward to these evening meetings, where they would share their experiences of living the Gospel during the day and read something from Chiara’s book. Gradually, others were drawn to join them, and other Word of Life groups began to appear in other places as well. It was the first seed of the Focolare in New Zealand.

“The spirituality of unity changed everything,” he later shared. “It changed my relationship with my father, mother, brothers and sisters, with the people I worked with, with the clients. And in our little group we experienced fullness. We read in Chiara’s book that we should be in unity with the Church, so we made an appointment to see the bishop. We told him what we were doing, and he put on a big smile and said, ‘Don’t stop this; the hand of God is in this, keep going.’ ‘But there are only two of us,’ we told him, and he said, ‘No, no, now there are three of us. I will join the group.’ He came once or twice, and we met together with him and shared experiences, and he organized the first Mariapolis in New Zealand.”

In order to know more about this way of life, Terry decided to go to the closest Focolare center in Melbourne to meet the focolarine who were living there, and he strongly felt a desire to be generous to God with his life.

In 1974 via Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines, he went to Loppiano in Italy to attend the formation school for focolarini. In 1976 he went to London, where he stayed for two years.

“This was when I first met Terry, the beginning of a friendship that has lasted more than 30 years,” says Tim King, a focolarino from Great Britain, presently in Italy. “A young man told me, ‘Terry was one of those normal people who are so impressive … I learned a lot about work and how I should work from him.’”

May 2009. At one of the Encounters in the Spirit of Universal Brotherhood at Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York. Terry was very involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.May 2009. At one of the Encounters in the Spirit of Universal Brotherhood at Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York. Terry was very involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

During this time Terry wrote to Chiara: “I feel a burning passion within me: to live so that ‘all may be one’ (Jn 17:21) … I wanted to sign a blank check made out to Jesus, worth my life and I decided to really write the check on paper and then carry it in my wallet as a constant reminder of my having chosen God.” Terry sent with it a drawing he had done of a blank check, writing it out “To Jesus” and signing it. Chiara countersigned it and returned it to Terry with a note: “Go ahead in the race toward holiness in order to validate that signature on your blank check, which is worth our life for him.”

After a period in Ireland, he spent 13 years in Australia, first in Perth and then in Melbourne. He was like a big brother to everyone he met there, able to understand people’s pain and support them.

In 1995 he switched continents, spending a year in New York, then a further 10 productive years in Canada. While in Toronto, working for interreligious dialogue, he met a group of Muslims. “One of them came to our place for dinner one night,” he recalled, “and he brought a group from the mosque. His daughter had fallen away from the five pillars of Islam. We didn’t know this. We had a meal together, and we spoke a lot, and it was a very beautiful atmosphere of Jesus’ presence among us. All of a sudden she stopped and said: ‘Papa! Why is it that when I am here with these people I want to go back to my faith in God?’ Her father was so moved that he couldn’t speak, because he had been praying for this for so many years. He turned to me and said, ‘You explain; I can’t.’ So there I was explaining the presence of Jesus in our midst to a Muslim woman, but I used the phrase ‘God among us.’ She returned to her faith, and it struck me that when there is Jesus in our midst you never know what’s going to happen.”

2010. At a Focolare gathering with Marigen Lohla, co-director with Terry Gunn of the movement in the Eastern United States2010. At a Focolare gathering with Marigen Lohla, co-director with Terry Gunn of the movement in the Eastern United States

It was during that period that he was asked to be one of those focolarini who serve the movement by becoming priests, and he was ordained in 2005. Many people found him to be the most approachable priest they had met, and he enabled many of them to draw closer to the Church he loved. In 2007 he moved to Mariapolis Luminosa in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he served as Focolare co-director for the Eastern United States.

“I worked with Terry for eight years, in Canada and in New York,” Marigen Lohla recalls. “I caught glimpses of his strong personality, so his simplicity and normality became his virtue as he constantly worked at putting the Gospel-based Art of Loving into practice. Many times he said he had to take risks in setting aside his ideas, which for many of us is the hardest thing to do. He had a picture on his desk. It is a man leaping over a huge pile of muddy water, and you know from the picture he would not make it, yet he ventured to take the leap. This was Terry. But for him it was a leap into God’s love.

“In the last months of his life, I witnessed his courage,” she continues, “his docility and, above all, perseverance to the very end, as he lived his whole life.”

He had spent time in many different countries, with a lifelong passion to bring the spirituality of unity to the world’s various cultures, and particularly to English speakers. His vision of “the bigger picture” was always before him, in the different dialogues the movement was engaged in, with people of other faiths or those with no formal religiosity. He strove to live it out in his daily life by building Gospel-based relationships with each person he met.

Terry and youthTerry and youth

In June 2006, Terry wrote in his journal: “The older I get, the more I understand that I just have to keep starting again and not think too much of myself; God, in his own time, will bring me to him. I need to stop being overly concerned about my own journey to God. In trying to love others and so be out of myself, there is no room for me to look at myself too much. I see what God wants of me: to just be for others, to share their pain and to do everything I can to help them on their Holy Journey. For mine I will let God take care of that. More and more I see how others are ‘part of me.’ Only in this way the journey to God is more beautiful, it’s all love. Holiness lies in being for others.”

While at Mariapolis Luminosa, Terry wrote to Chiara, telling her how struck he was to see how people who came to visit this small city of Mary always went away transformed by the atmosphere they found. And during his relatively short, final illness, he was surrounded by what he had helped create: a community of love who lived those three months with him in an intense way.

In that same previous letter to Chiara, he shared with her how his unity with God had deepened in prayer. He had discovered a new relationship with Mary in the Rosary, which had become his favorite prayer of the day. While one of the focolarini sat at his bedside reciting the rosary, Terry almost imperceptibly closed his eyes on this world and opened them on the next.

With contributions from Tim King in Rome, Marigen Lohla in New York, Yob Doronila and David Krsticevic in Melbourne