“Ecumenical” is a Greek word referring to “the whole inhabited world” and mainly concerns religious unity. In the Catholic Church the movement refers to the restoration of the unity of all believers in Christ, transcending differences of creed, ritual, and polity. This aspiration can be traced in various forms from New Testament times but has never been so potent as in the 20th century.
The modern ecumenical movement may be dated from the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, though this itself owed much to earlier movements that prepared the way. They included the Evangelical movements of the 18th and 19th centuries which crossed national and denominational frontiers and led to the great missionary expansion of the 19th century. It was followed in 1927 by the first World Conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne which addressed itself to the theological basis of the Church and its unity.
The initiative between 1910 and 1927 came mainly from within Protestantism, though it was reinforced in 1920 by an encyclical letter from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople appealing “to all the Churches of Christ” for “closer intercourse and mutual co-operation.” This was paralleled by the Appeal for Reunion issued by the 1920 Lambeth Conference.
The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, as well as the Churches of Syria and India, have been in the World Council of Churches from its beginning. The Russian Orthodox Church, overcoming early reservations, joined in 1961, by which time nearly all the Churches had become members.
This atmosphere of looking for unity was reflected in the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Francis Fisher, to Pope John XXIII in 1960. In 1961, for the first time, official observers were permitted by the Vatican to attend the World Council of Churches’ third assembly, in New Delhi.
The Pope’s decision to invite observers from non-Catholic Churches to the Second Vatican Council the following year was of great significance. This was heightened in 1964 by the Council Decree on Ecumenism, which described members of other communions as “separated brethren” rather than as those outside the Church. Within this new climate the historic severance between the Eastern Churches and the Catholic Church began to be bridged and in 1965 Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the anathemas which had been in force since the Great Schism of 1054.
Not only did the highest authority of the Church approve this movement, but lay people also felt the need to put an end to the diversity of sects, cults, and religions and to try to look for unity. One of these lay movements is the Focolare, whose official name – The Work of Mary – embodies a specific form of spirituality best described as the Gospel seen from the perspective of unity.
Focalare’s aim is to strive for the unity Jesus prayed for on the night before he died: “Father, may they all be one” (Jn 17:21). It originated in 1943 in Trent, Italy, when a young schoolteacher, Chiara Lubich, together with a few teenage women, came to realize amidst the devastation of World War II that there is but one ideal that can never fail. This ideal is God, who is love.
Chiara, when she was in her early 20s during World War II, dedicated her whole life to God. It wasn’t long before other young people followed her example and together they formed the first community called Focolare (the Italian word for “hearth”). It was made up of both celibate and married people who spiritually shared in living fully their commitment to marriage.
They focussed their lives on the Gospel and many others followed. Within a few months, more than 500 people had joined them in living what was emerging as a new spirituality in the Church.
Initially approved in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, Focolare received the continued blessing of Pope Paul VI who, on Feb. 8, 1976, said to a group of its members: “Be faithful to your inspiration which is so modern and so fruitful.”
The Focolare movement spread to every continent and came into special prominence in 1977 when its foundress, Chiara Lubich, was awarded the Templeton Prize for progress in religion.
The Focolare is present in 182 countries with permanent centres in 87. Its members number close to 10,000 and approximately two million call its spirituality their own. Through its projects to benefit society, it regularly reaches about a million people.
Approximately 15,000 Christians from 350 different Churches and ecclesial communities are part of the movement. More than 7,000 members of other religions share the movement’s spirituality and objectives in a variety of ways, and there are about 10,000 who do not have any religious affiliation who are also part of the Focolare.
Dear Reader, you, I, and all the peoples of the world should make every effort to fulfill Jesus’ desire: ut omnes unum sint – that all be one!