By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 10, 2007
Sid Hayden, a former banker who is now parish administrator at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, embraces the international Focolare ecclesial movement building spiritual unity across economic, racial and religious lines as a “ticket to sanctity” in practicing his faith.
Hayden became involved in this spiritual lifestyle back in the 1970s when his wife, Donna, was invited to a meeting. Calling himself a churchgoing but rather passive Catholic at the time, he was attracted to the renewal movement’s focus on concretely living out the Gospel in daily life. The Focolare movement was founded by an Italian laywoman, Chiara Lubich, during the violence and hatred of World War II.
“I understood that if I was going to get into heaven this is the way to do it,” Hayden reflected in a phone interview. “Regardless of what spirituality you put in your life you have to find something that resonates with you and allows you to meet God and do what he asks you to do.”
It continues to resonate in his soul as he experiences the peace of Christ in studying God’s commands and striving to proactively follow them. The Haydens moved to Georgia about three years ago and established a Focolare small group at their home in Conyers, drawing native-born Americans and immigrants from countries as diverse as Brazil, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, of various ages, both single and married. Attendees each month will reflect on a selected Mass reading and Focolare commentary. Persons may volunteer to share with others how they have tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to apply the Scripture in the past month.
Atlanta was selected by North American Focolare leadership to be the site of the Focolare center in the Southeast, as people are “living this spirituality” in many parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The new center was dedicated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory in August 2006 at 170 Downing Court in Fayetteville. An estimated 65 Focolare participants in Atlanta meet monthly in one of the small groups in Fayetteville and Conyers. The monthly meetings at the new center are on the first Sunday of the month from 4 to 6 p.m. The public is welcome to visit.
Focolare, which means family hearth or fireside in Italian, has over 87,000 members and about 5 million adherents of various faiths in 182 nations. There are 780 Focolare centers in 87 nations.
During the war, foundress Lubich hid in an air raid shelter in Italy where she experienced a spiritual epiphany about the common humanity of all people as she and others came upon Jesus’ last testament, “May they all be one, Father, as you and I are one.” (John 17: 21) With nothing but God to hold onto, she considered how she would live her life if she knew she would die tomorrow. God, experienced as love, changed the 23-year-old’s life radically as she immediately shared her experience with her friends. She realized that God is the only ideal worth living for and focused her life on that project of spiritual unity of the Gospel.
“Initially we believed that we were simply living the Gospel,” she wrote, “but meanwhile the Holy Spirit was at work emphasizing some words of the Gospel which were to become a new spiritual current: the spirituality of unity.”
The first Focolare center started in Trent, Italy, in 1943, and after the war the movement quickly spread throughout Italy and then Europe. By the 1960s it spread to South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania, reaching North America and the Archdiocese of New York in 1961, then spreading to New England and the Midwest, the West Coast and Washington, D.C. In addition to involving dialogues both within the church and with other religions, it includes an innovative economic proposal encompassing close to 800 businesses, a movement for unity in politics for the common good present in 40 countries, more than 1,000 social programs and 27 publishing houses of books and magazines. The Focolare magazine, Living City, is published in English and 20 other languages.
Hayden said that Lubich didn’t consciously set out to start an interfaith or ecumenical movement but this element naturally evolved to extend God’s love across religious divides.
“It’s kind of an ecumenical movement in a sense that the Gospel says that we all may be one. He didn’t say (just) Christians or Jews,” explained Hayden.
In that spirit, Focolare celebrates a decade of fellowship with Muslim followers of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed to build bridges of friendship and understanding with those of other faiths. Mohammed, an American who led a Muslim delegation to meet with Pope John Paul II in 1996 and in 2001 participated in the Vatican’s interfaith peace conference in Assisi, Italy, had read some of Lubich’s writings and invited her to speak in a Harlem mosque in 1997, which led to other meetings. Lubich spoke to the National Convention of the Muslim American Society in Chicago in 2002 where she affirmed “the human family born from the love of God, needs the personal, concrete, generous and unselfish love of each of us so that this poor world can become a dwelling worthy of the children of God. Millions of men and women on our planet have this great and unique aspiration. They await a small group of daring people who are ready to give their lives for universal brotherhood and set off a peaceful, bloodless revolution of love. We want to be part of this group. The lifeblood of our two great religions, Islam and Christianity, is truly peace.”
Marking those 10 years of dialogue, Focolare and the Atlanta Masjid of Al Islam will hold a gathering at the mosque on Fayetteville Road on Saturday, May 19, from noon to 3 p.m.
Hayden, who has six children, likes the way Focolare challenges one to apply Gospel passages more deeply in all areas of life. He recalled that a recent Scripture passage studied was on Jesus’ teaching to give two coats if a person asks for one. While any nice person might go the extra mile in kindness, the challenge of Focolare is to always see Christ in the other person, which helps one to follow the teaching even at times when one doesn’t feel like being nice. This might mean, for example, going the extra mile on others’ behalf and speaking up for the person at work who was unfairly passed over for a promotion. For him it once meant spending time listening to his teenage child’s music to better understand it. He noted it usually involves some sacrifice.
His engagement also developed his openness to God’s direction. So when he was laid off from his banking position, he was open to taking a parish administrator job for 12 years in Indiana and discovered he loved serving the church.
“It’s a spirituality that really calls you to be concrete in living out the Gospel message of being one with everyone,” he said. “For some people it’s very small things. For some people it’s a career decision about what job to take, what field to work in.”
But even the smallest action bears fruit and often the love is returned.
“Chiara understood that God doesn’t want us to just read the Gospel but to put it into practice,” he continued. “What you discover is if you live one passage you begin to live all the other passages, and there’s a connection between all of them.”
He believes that one of the strengths of the movement is that it draws all types of people. “It’s a spirituality that regardless of your state in life you can take and put it in your life.”
To introduce people to the movement there will be a daylong “Mariapolis” Focolare conference at St. Thomas the Apostle on Saturday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Similar conferences are held in several hundred locations around the world every year.
“You’ll learn more about the spirituality and will meet people who’ve encountered it and what it’s meant to them. It will be an excellent time to find out about it.”
Rose Porcatti is one of three Focolare laywomen committed to the movement who live at the Fayetteville Focolare center, a ranch house which they rent and where she serves as area coordinator. She explained that for their first Sunday meetings they have a selected Scripture passage from the Lectionary.
“When we put in practice the word, this produces many experiences. We share what the fruits of the Gospel are in our lives.”
In April groups focused on the Scripture, “I am among you all as the one who serves” from Luke, chapter 22.
Pope John Paul II described the charism of Lubich as a “radicalism of love” and saw in the movement the lineaments of the church of the Second Vatican Council, open to the various dialogues. In 1962 the movement was formally approved by Pope John XXIII under the name “Work of Mary,” indicating a special bond with the Mother of Christ and of every human being. It is part of the phenomenon of flourishing ecclesial movements that have sprung forth over the years from what Pope John Paul called “a precise charism given to the person of the founder.”
Porcatti became involved in the movement in her native Brazil. Most recently she was active with a vibrant Focolare community in Boston.
“I saw that the Gospel can be put in practice in daily life, and this made a big difference in my life,” she recalled, including in her family relationships. “For me it was a discovery that you really can love and bring to life the words of Jesus.”
She also appreciates the Christ-like Focolare attitude toward other religions in the one human family.
“For that all may be one we really need to believe in the divinity within each one. Chiara says we need to always look at what unites us instead of what divides us, to build a better world together,” she said. “When you look at each person, there is Jesus, and that makes a big difference in the relationship.”
Information on Focolare can be found on the international Web site www.focolare.org/en/ and on www.livingcitymagazine.com. For information on the monthly Focolare center meeting at 170 Downing Court, Fayetteville, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To attend the Mariapolis day, call the center at (770) 629-1076.