By Jerry Hearne
For every new enterprise, there are always pioneers who blaze a trail for others to follow, whether it be for space travel, a medical breakthrough, or, in the case at hand, the birth of an ecclesial movement in a nation.
The beginnings of the Focolare community in the U.S needed those who believed in its purpose, and Howard Belcher was one of them. Having come to know of the spirituality of unity back in 1957 in Chicago, he soon felt the call to be a married focolarino, a committed member of the small communities spread out now in more than 100 countries.
When the little city Mariapolis Luminosa was founded in 1986, the Belchers were the first family to move there and be part of this new experience, building the community and literally most of the houses there.
Howard J. Belcher was born February 1, 1935 in Chicago; he grew up with three sisters and two brothers. While in military service when he was 20, he was sent to Korea. His assignment was to take radio messages.
“I felt alone for the first time in my life,” he wrote around that time. “I started to think, think, think and think, like I never did before. What is this world all about? Why am I here? I started to think about God and how he looks at us. These thoughts grabbed me so strongly that I became afraid. Nothing seemed solid to me anymore.”
After he returned home he attended lessons given by their pastor, Fr. Joe Scopa. He was attracted to Fr. Joe’s wisdom, and their relationship grew. One day Fr. Joe took a trip to Italy, and while there happened to spend two weeks at one of the Focolare’s first summer gatherings, with founder Chiara Lubich, and he brought his experience of a new spirituality back to his parish in Chicago.
Remembering that moment, Howard wrote: “Now I know why I am here. Now I know what this world is all about. I am here to make a choice of God, in every thought and action, throughout my whole life. God has given me this free choice, and he has a plan for my life. He has a specific plan for little me.
“How to carry it out? Love those around me to the degree that whatever I do to them, I do it to him. You can’t imagine how happy I was.”
In those meetings with Fr. Scopa, Howard met Rose. He wrote that he had fallen in love with her soul. They married in 1960 and raised five boys and a foster son. Howard and Rose continued living the spirituality of unity, and both followed their calling to be married focolarini.
When he learned that he could mirror all his sufferings, trials and failures in those of Jesus Forsaken on the cross, Howard said: “My whole life has been one of passing from darkness to light. To think, every time I said ‘yes’ and recognized these sufferings were him, I would embrace the suffering and say, ‘Thank you for coming to visit me.’ Then I would go back doing the work I should be doing, loving the person next to me, and I was able to experience their needs and their difficulties…”
Howard and Rose had been married 20 years when their lives were challenged in a new and unexpected way. Rose was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“When I first heard the word MS, I thought of all the people I had known with it and the crippling effects it had on them,” Howard wrote. “I felt sick at the thought that this could happen to Rose, but I knew I could not let her feel my fear. While together in the hospital, we talked about these changes in our life. We held firmly to the conviction that God loved us as a Father, and this was in some way a gift for our family.”
On family life, Howard wrote: “I feel that marriage is a way of sanctity. With all the beauty of being a family, God allows many different sufferings and sacrifices so that in the family, each one will grow in virtue, sanctity and understanding.
“When we fail, love makes us start again, and again, and again. I’ve understood that God is happy when we start again, because we make his redemption worthwhile … I’m sure that when we get to Heaven there will be many married saints.”
When the family was maturing and their three older sons were already pursuing college or careers in Chicago, in 1986 Howard and Rose headed East with their two youngest sons. Abandoning prospects of greater financial security, they followed a new mission: to help build Mariapolis Luminosa, concretely and spiritually. Howard supervised the construction of building after building. He treated every inch of Luminosa as though it were his own; every home as though it were his own. One of his mottos was always, “Things that are difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer.”
Howard always wore shirts that had two front pockets. In one, he forever carried a small notebook and a tiny pencil. He took notes about every angle that he noticed needed repair, a useful renovation. He took notes about plays that needed stage props, gatherings that needed items for games, which he often ran himself.
The youth in Luminosa knew all too well, that cutting corners in their woodwork would never pass Howard’s kindly intended, but firmly delivered corrections. And when with a gleam in his eye he delightedly said, “You did good,” or even, “Superb!” it was something they wanted to hear again.
As one of them said: “He was one of my best teachers, he not only taught me many things at work, but also to love with detail and fortitude.”
A letter of his to Chiara gives a hint of what was behind such dedication.
“You gave us a thought that had a lasting effect on me; that is, ‘take the time to do things well in the present moment.’ At that time, I didn’t feel I had the time to make that extra effort, and I felt guilty if I took too long at something …
“When I started to take the time to do things well in the present moment, I found it had a positive effect on everything I did … I found I could do more than I ever did when I was rushing.”
Living rooted in the present moment was daily life for both Howard and Rose, and it was on March 14, 2010, that they got the Luminosa Award for Unity for their incredible contribution to Mariapolis Luminosa.
Howard carried that little notebook and pencil for 32 years at Luminosa, all the way until last year, bearing every pain in his body in order to continue to do so. No pain was stronger than his desire to serve the Luminosa community.
Yet the day had to arrive. He could no longer go about repairing, adjusting, remodeling.
During this final stage of life, he learned a new way to serve all. He learned to offer his pain, and to offer all that he could no longer do, asking God to make use of his pain itself, for the sake of someone else.
And this was his offering all the way to the night of February 18, the moment God could wait no longer to come and take him back with him.
His faithful prayer at Mass will continue to echo in our hearts: “That we may fulfill God’s design for each one of us.”
Howard truly did.
Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – April 2018.