By Greg Mellen     5/11/2020

The Focolare Movement. Often misheard as folklorico in the ears of Orange County Catholics, it may be the biggest worldwide movement you’ve never heard of. 

However, its more than 140,000 members can be found in 182 countries and there are another 2 million with some affiliation. Included in its membership is Diocese of Orange Bishop Most Reverend Kevin Vann. 

During his homily at the Easter Vigil Mass, Bishop Vann talked about the Focolare Movement and how its message of unity and inclusion is particularly resonant in these times of Covid-19 virus and isolation. 

The movement’s goal is to contribute to Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John 17:21 – “May they all be one.” 

The Focolare Movement has been praised by Pope Francis, who said it started as a seed “and has brought to life a tree which now extends its branches in all the expressions of the Christian family.” 

Pope John Paul II corresponded with the group’s late founder Chiara Lubich. It was recognized by the Catholic Church in 1962 and is recognized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity in its International Associations of the Faithful under its formal name, Work of Mary. 

And yet the movement counts only a handful in Orange County. So why is it so largely unknown? The reasons are part cultural and part just an outgrowth of a kind of the selflessness of the movement and its members. 

“We’re supportive of all groups,” said Elena Freeman, who is a coordinator in Orange County with her husband, John. “We help behind the scenes.” 

The Freemans say Focolare members are “scattered in various parishes” in the Southland, although there are dozens of others with various levels of affiliation. 

However, John Freeman said, they are inexorably drawn to the John 17:21 message. “It said unity is the cornerstone of spirituality.”  

In Europe, movements—or groups of church members following a specific spirituality—such as the Focolare, are more popular and receive more media attention, according to Giampiero Sciutto, co-director Pacific operations at Focolare Movement in Los Angeles. “Here in the U.S. spiritual life is centered on the parish level,” he said. As a result, Focolare has been “under the radar.” 

Because of members’ willingness to be supportive, rather than out front, focolarini can easily be overlooked. But they are there working in unseen ways to foster relationships not only within the Church but universally.  

The movement grew out of war-torn Europe. In 1943 in Northern Italy, Chiara Lubich, a young elementary school teacher, formed a group of mostly young women and girls. 

After meeting in air-raid shelters and reading the Bible by candlelight, the group branched out to offer solace, food and clothing in the poorest areas of town. After the war, the Marian movement gained momentum in Italy with the support of Italian parliament member and ecumenism advocate Igino Giordani and publisher Father Pasquale Foresi. 

Since its founding, the group has always been led by a lay woman as president and a priest as co-president. Although mostly Roman Catholic, the movement reaches out to other Christian denominations and even other religions and the non-religious. 

According to the Focolare website (focolare.org/en), the movement includes more than 10,000 non-religious members, is engaged in 1,000 projects worldwide and financially supports 11,000 children in 48 countries. 

Each year it plays host to summer conventions, called Mariapolises, which feature spiritual exercises and sharing. Last year, about 270 youth and adults attended the West Coast meeting. This year, an even larger event was planned for Memorial Day weekend, but had to be canceled, due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We were planning it for years,” John Goodman said. “But we just had to bow to the will of God.” 

Members hold monthly Word of Life gatherings, now done online, in which they reflect and share thoughts on Bible passages. 

Bishop Vann met recently on Zoom with local organizers and about 130 youth and family members, which he spoke about in his Easter vigil homily. 

“We reflected on one aspect,” Bishop Vann said during his homily. “Namely: Jesus forsaken. Which so many of us feel in these times. We all shared how to respond to God while living in the devastation of this plague, where many had the feeling of Jesus forsaken.” 

Despite these times, which share parallels to the founding days of the Focolare Movement, the bishop said it was more important than ever to go out, “spreading the light, the warmth and the love of the Lord.” 

Which is Focolare at its core.