Silvia, the baptismal name given to Chiara, was born in Trent on January 22, 1920. She was the second of four children: Gino, Liliana and Carla. Her father, Luigi Lubich, had worked as a wine-seller and typesetter. He was an anti-fascist and socialist who had once been a colleague of Benito Mussolini, but later became an unyielding opponent of the fascist dictator. Her mother, Luigi, possessed a strong traditional faith. After studying medicine her older brother, Gino, joined the Resistance in the famous Garibaldi Brigade. Later, he dedicated himself to journalism at the Communist newspaper, L’Unità.
At the age of 18 Silvia received her teaching certificate with full marks. She wished to continue her studies and applied for admission to a Catholic University but came in last in scholarship lottery. Since there was not enough money in the Lubich family to pay for her education iin another city, Silvia was forced to find a job. During the 1940-1941 school year she taught elementary school at the Opera Seraphica in Trent.
The definitive start of her spiritual adventure was her experience at the Marian Shrine of Loreto, Italy, in 1939: “I had been invited to a meeting for Catholic Action students in Loreto,” Chiara recounts, “where, according to tradition, the little house of the Holy Family is preserved within the walls of a great fortress-like cathedral. I attended the course with everyone else at the nearby college, but whenever possible I ran to the little house. As I knelt beside a wall blackened by vigil lamps, something new, something divine was enveloping me and nearly crushing me. I contemplated in my mind the virginal live life of the three. Each thought pressed down on me and squeezed my heart. I shed uncontrollable tears. During every break in the conference I felt driven to rush to the little house. Then the last day arrived. The church was filled with young people. A thought came clearly to mind, a thought that was never erased: “I will make you be followed by a host of virgins.”
When she returned home from Loreto Chiara went to her students and the parish priest who had been following her so closely. When they saw how radiant and happy she appeared they asked if she had discovered her vocation. Chiara’s answer disappointed the priest, because she only told him about the vocations she didn’t feel called to: the convent, matrimony and consecration to God in the midst of the world. It was all that she could discern at that moment.
In the years after Loreto – 1939 to 1943 – Silvia continued to work, study and be involved in serving the local Church. When she became a Third Order member she took the name Chiara (Clare).
In 1943, while on her way to fetch some milk at the White Madonna farm, Chiara suddenly felt God’s call as she stood frozen in her tracks beneath a railroad overpass: “Give yourself totally to me.” She didn’t waste any time and immediately asked permission from Capuchin Father Casimiro Bonetti to consecrate herself to God forever. After a long and deep conversation with the priest she finally obtained permission. On December 7, 1943, at six o’clock in the morning she consecrated her to God. Chiara didn’t have the slightest intention of founding anything; she was simply “marrying” God and that was everything for her. Only later did this day come to be identified as the symbolic beginning of the Focolare Movement.
During the next few months many young people were drawn to Chiara and a number of them watned to follow in her footsteps: Natalia Dallapiccola was the first, then Doriana Zamboni and Giosi Guella, Graziella De Luca and the sisters, Gisella and Ginetta Calliari; another pair of sisters were the Ronchettis, Valeria and Angelella, Bruna Tomasi, Marilen Holzhauser and Aletta Salizzoni. This was all taking place while the little house, the focolare (hearth) was still totally undefined – except for Chiara’s “radical manner of living the Gospel.”
In those months there was war in Trent, bringing misery and death. Chiara and her new companions had the custom of meeting in the same air-raid shelter during air attacks. They wished to be together in living the Gospel after their overwhelming discovery that had led them to place God-Love at the centre of their life. “Every event touched us very deeply,” Chiara would later recount. “The lessons that God was giving to us through the circumstances of war were so clear: Everything passes away. But God seemed to place a question in our hearts: ‘Is there an ideal we could live for that no bomb could destroy, which we could wholeheartedly commit ourselves to?’ Yes, God, and He is Love. We decided to make God-Love our ideal in life.”
One day, taking shelter from the bombs in a darkened cellar beneath the home of Natalia Dallapiccola, they were reading the Gospel. They opened it at random to the prayer of Jesus to the Father on the night before he died: “That all may be one, Father” (Jn 17:21). It is a fascinating text that has been studied by scholars and theologians from through the Christian world. But in those days it was neglected because of its mysterious language. There was that word “unity” which belonged to the Communist vocabulary and had been completely monopolized by them. “But to us those words seemed to illumine, one by one,’ Chiara writes, “and they planted a certainty in our heats that we had been somehow born for that specific page of the Gospel.”
A few months earlier, on January 24th, a priest had asked Chiara: ‘When do you think Jesus suffered the most?’ Chiara answered: ‘When he sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemene.’ But the priest corrected her: ‘No, Jesus suffered most when he cried out from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”(Mt 27:46)”. As soon as the priest left and she was alone with her friend, Doriana, she said: “We only have one life, let’s choose and follow Jesus in this moment of his abandonment.’ From then on Jesus Forsaken would be Chiara’s spouse in life.
Meanwhile, the unrest caused by the war was not letting up. Most of the young women’s families fled to the mountain valleys. But their daughters decided to stay in Trent – some because of work or school, and some like Chiara to stay with the people who had gathered around them whom they did not want to abandon. Chiara stayed with an acquaintance until the following September when she found a flat at 2 Piazza Cappuccini on the outskirts of Trent. This is where some of her new friends – Natalia Dallapiccola and others went to live. It was the first hearth (focolare), a modest two-room apartment in the clearing shaded by trees down the hill from the Capuchin church. At that time they called it the “little house” in honour of the house of Loreto.
The young women living in the little house and those outside noted a qualitative change in their lives during those months. It seemed that Jesus was fulfilling his words: “Indeed, where two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). They never wanted to lose him and avoided anything that might cause them to lose his presence among them. This is the ‘focolare’ whose Fire of Love warms everyone’s heart and whose Light satisfies everyone’s mind. “But to have him among us,” Chiara explained, “we need to give our lives for each other. Jesus is in our midst when we are united in his love. He said: ‘May they be one in us, so that the world my believe.’”
A large number of people had joined Chiara and the young women of the focolare in the project of unity which was just beginning to take shape. There were numerous conversions, vocations that were saved and new ones that blossomed. Almost immediately, children, teenager and adults had joined together in following the young women in the focolare. What remains most in everyone’s memory from those days is the crowded and intense Saturday-afternoon gatherings at three o’clock in Massaia Hall. There, Chiara would share her experiences of living the Gospel and the first discoveries of what would later become her “spirituality of unity.” By 1945, some 500 people – of all ages, vocations and social backgrounds – shared the same ideal as the young women in the focolare. They put their spiritual and material possessions in common, as the first Christians had done.
The Gospel promises: “Give and there will be gifts for you” (Lk 6:38). These words were translated into daily life. The young women from the focolare and their friends were giving and receiving on a daily basis. Once, there was only one egg in the house. They gave it to a poor man who had knocked at their door. Later that same morning someone left a bag on their doorstep. It was filled with eggs! It is also written: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7:7). And so they asked, not so much for themselves, but for their needy brothers and sisters. Even in the midst of war they received sacks of flour, cartons of milk, bottles of jam, bundles of firewood and clothing. It was never rare in that focolare to find the table set to welcome not the usual honoured guests, but the often dishonoured poor who sat between focolarine who were there to serve them.
On the feast day of Christ the King, 1945, Chiara and her companions knelt around an altar. They turned to Jesus with the simplicity of children of the Father and prayed: “Jesus, you know how your prayer for unity can be accomplished. Here we are: If you like, use us.” The liturgical readings of that day had grabbed their imagination: “Ask me and I will give you all the lands of the earth for your inheritance” (Ps 2:8). In an evangelical spirit of simplicity they asked for the farthest corners of the earth. They believed that God was all-powerful, and their way of life fascinated anyone who met them.
All this did not go unnoticed by the city with its few thousand residents, nor by the Church of Trent. Archbishop Carlo De Ferrari understood Chiara and her new adventure, and gave his blessing. His blessing and approval accompanied the Movement until the day of his death. From that moment, almost imperceptibly, new frontiers opened in the local region, and there were invitations to Milan, Rome and Sicily.