Rome, Italy. At the Pontifical Urbaniana University an array of witnesses from different religions, following a path of dialogue traced out by Chiara Lubich. Their private audience with Pope Francis.
Some words of Grand Buddhist Master Ajahng Thong became rather famous when Chiara Lubich accepted his invitation to share her Christian experience at a monastery in Thailand (1997): “When we are in darkness and someone brings us a light, we don’t ask whether the person is a man or a woman, young or old [and so it is with Chiara who] will speak to us of the light she has discovered.”
What took place today was not merely a commemoration, but a step into the future, rooted in the experience begun by Chiara Lubich and now shared by many, despite their individual differences. Roberto Catalano from the Focolare’s centre for interreligious dialogue called it: “a choral witness that testifies to a common decision and commitment. We’ve been meeting in many parts of the world, discovering that we can become brothers and sisters. We are called to continue this path together, making it real in our daily lives.” The audience of 500 guests included 250 people who had previously attended a three-day interreligious convention at the Mariapolis Centre in Castel Gandolfo.
Among these there was a group from 8 religions who had attended a private audience with Pope Francis prior to the general audience of March 19, 2014. Iranian Muslim theologian Shahrzad Houshmand remarked: “He’s a fatherly figure who increased the brotherhood among us.” She also presented a letter to the Pope in the name of all the Muslims attending the Focolare gathering, in which they expressed their “profound love and respect for him and for his outreached hand towards Muslims around the world”. Hindu Professor Kala Acharya said that she gladly welcomed the Pope’s invitation to continue this journey without ever stopping: ‘For us too, the joy of the journey is more important than reaching the destination.’” Then the Pope turned to all of them and said: “Pray for me.”
Enriched by this experience, later in the afternoon, the interreligious convention opened its doors to the public. The venue chosen was the Pontifical Urbaniana University, which is known for its interest in world cultures and religions. The title of the gathering was: “Chiara and Religions”, but it could equally have been called Chiara and different religious paths. In her address, Focolare president Maria Voce stated: “Among her outstanding skills, perhaps the one that spoke most to today’s world was dialogue. Chiara had intuited that the path of the human family could be a different one, one directed towards peace. However, the condition for this would be a radical change of mentality, because ‘not only is the other person not a threat to me – but a gift!’” What was Chiara’s secret? Maria Voce explained it like this: “Love, the love which Chiara who was a Catholic discovered in the Gospel and in Jesus. But she also found the presence of love in other faiths and cultures.” This presence of love transforms a “potential clash of civilizations into an authentic encounter of men and women from different cultures and religions.”
Cardinal Arinze (once president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) presented the impact of Chiara’s charism on dialogue: “The focolarini and focolarine are a people on the march, in communion, on the move. They go out to the peripheries: they go out, encounter, dialogue, listen and collaborate.”
The day concluded with a series of testimonies from Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews: Dr Waichiro Izumita, Japanese Buddhist from the Risho Kosei Kai; and Thailandese monk Phra Thongrattana Thavorn who prefers to be known by the name given to him by Chiara – Luce Ardente (Burning Light). He told of his first personal meeting with Chiara: “I was overwhelmed by her, by her eyes, her simplicity, concern and respect for who I was, her deep listening, that indescribable atmosphere. . . She talked to me about her Christian life, about her charism of unity. . . I also felt like one of her children, also because of the light that I received and the zeal to spread the light of unity among all.” Rabbi David Rosen from Jerusalem: “The commandment to love God invites us to follow the example of Abraham: to behave in such a way that God is also loved by others. This is what we see in the Focolare Movement.” Then spoke Imam Ronald Shaheed from the Mosque of Milwaukee and close collaborator of Imam W D Mohammed; and Ahmer Al-Hafi, professor of Comparative Religions in Jordan: “Chiara has helped me to understand the Koran in all of its deepest senses. I understood from Chiara that love is the essence of God, and that the religion of love is one.” Vinu Aram, Hindu and honorary President of the Religions for Peace Assembly, met Chiara when she was a teenager and Chiara was a friend of her parents. As an adult she discovered Chiara’s great message, which now continues to inspire her on her journey to “build a more united world, a world in which everyone can feel at home.”
The “dialogue and prophecy” continue. A journalist asked Maria Voce if Chiara had a dream. Maria Voce responded: “She once confided her dream: she wanted to bring the world to God in her arms. Now we try to be her arms to help bring this world all united to God.”