In the 60s, when Beatlemania was taking Liverpool by storm, the Focolare Movement’s spirituality of unity was making inroads right there. It came about through Fr Green, a Benedictine monk, who asked Chiara Lubich and Fr Pasquale Foresi that the Focolare open a house in Liverpool. The Archbishop of Westminster, Msgr John Heenan, advised them to start off from this city where Catholics had reached 40% of the population, while in the rest of Great Britain they averaged 10%. “If you succeed in Liverpool, where it’s much easier, you’ll succeed everywhere else,” said the Archbishop.
And so it was that Mari Ponticaccia and Maria Egger became the first two Focolare members to establish themselves in England in November 1963. They rented a tiny apartment which was spartan in its furnishings. In fact, the only pieces of furniture were their suitcases! But little by little, things started to arrive and eventually they moved into a proper house. From its humble beginnings in Liverpool, the Focolare Movement spread to the rest of Great Britain.
However, even prior to this, contact had been made from overseas. Some of Chiara’s first companions, such as Eli Folonari, Valeria Ronchetti and Doriana Zamboni, had already been making trips to the UK from Belgium, Holland and France in order to meet with people who had got to know the Focolare. In 1961, by means of these personal relationships, the first group of people from England participated in a Mariapolis in Belgium. And turning over the photo-album, one notices that way back in 1959, at the Mariapolis of Fiera di Primierio (in the Italian Dolomites), there was already an English participant.
Once the Focolare was eventually established in Liverpool, Mari Ponticaccia found work as a teacher of French whilst Maria Egger worked in an old people’s home. In 1965, in that small apartment composed of just two rooms, Chiara Lubich came to visit. She was invited to speak in the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool to 50 priests in an era when ecumenism was practically non-existent. The event raised eyebrows even more so because it was promoted by a woman.
The adventure that had begun had ecumenical characteristics and the Focolare community, right from the beginnings, presented itself composed of people belonging to different churches. They were small communities built on authentic personal relationships, true friendships, mutual love, and there were meetings and annual Mariapolis gatherings which gave them formation in the new spirituality.
In 1967, a Focolare centre was opened in the heart of London because a house was made available for a year. The Movement developed steadily, and by the late 70s there were Focolare centres established also in Scotland – in Glasgow in 1976 and in Edinburgh in 1982.
Chiara Lubich visited England eight times and she always regarded this country as having a leading role in ecumenical dialogue.
In 1977, quite unexpectedly, Chiara was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion at the Guildhall in London. There, Chiara shared her experience in front of various religious dignitaries and she had the profound sensation that all those present, even those of other faiths, were one family. The Focolare Movement subsequently embarked on promoting interreligious dialogue.
Chiara Lubich’s last trip to England was in 2004. She was welcomed warmly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. During every visit to England, in fact, she had the opportunity to meet with the Primate of the Church of England and to dialogue personally with ecumenical leaders and leaders of other faiths. This commitment to building universal brotherhood was also extended to the political arena. During her visit in 2004, Chiara met with a group of parliamentarians from both Houses.
Today, the Focolare Movement in the United Kingdom numbers 7,000 adherents, of which 1,700 belong to churches other than the Catholic Church.
Within this historical context we would like to mention Maria Voce’s first visit to England currently taking place. Maria Voce is the current President of the Focolare Movement and her program includes meeting with the local Focolare community in London on 3 September, and an “Open Day” with ecumenical and religious leaders.
By our correspondent Aurelio Molè
Below: Arrival of Maria Voce in London airport on 1 September 2011