National News

San Antonio Conference to Focus on Unity in Time of Polarization

Pope Francis is seen in Loppiano, Italy, May 10. He encouraged the members and friends of the Focolare movement to hold true to their founders’ missions and Jesus’ example of being close to the people. (Photo: CNS)

By Christopher White, National Correspondent

NEW YORK — One hundred years ago, a young Italian woman was born into a family that would be plagued by poverty and the devastation of war. In the middle of it all, a religious experience transformed her life, leading her to form what would be known as the “Focolare” movement, dedicated to promoting peace and solidarity.

This coming weekend in San Antonio, Texas, members of the movement, along with friends and potential new ones, will gather to mark the hundredth anniversary of its founder’s birth, with a focus on unity in a time of polarization.

The conference, “A Hearth for the Human Family,” will have a focus on an economy for all, helping to further Pope Francis’s vision in an economy that can “give a soul to the economy of tomorrow.”

On the eve of the conference, The Tablet spoke with organizers Amy Uelmen, Carlos Bajo, and Elizabeth Garlow about their hopes for the event.

The Tablet: This conference is meant to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare. Simply put, why should she matter to American Catholics?

Uelmen: Many are concerned about how divisions in the Church and in society block our capacity to offer a witness of how Christian love can help to heal the maladies of our times. The charism of unity, the gift that Chiara Lubich shared with the Church and the world, is a powerful medicine for these wounds.

In a time of social fragmentation, the Focolare spirituality provides real tools for building concrete communities based on mutual love, across all kinds of religious, cultural, and political differences. In a time of rising anxiety and isolation, we try to create networks of support to help people find meaning in their lives, even in the midst of suffering and difficulties.

Personally and professionally I have been inspired by Chiara’s vision of the unity of the human family and sustained by the practices that help me to make this vision a reality in my daily life. As an American, I appreciate both the broad horizon and the practical tools.

Who will be participating in this gathering and how were they convened? And it’s not just for Catholics, right? 

Bajo: The event brings together grassroots community-builders, entrepreneurs, and academics from various disciplines. In all of our projects we try to bring the wisdom that emerges from putting the Gospel into practice together with reflection on that lived experience. We aim to keep young people out front, so that their questions and sense of urgency can bring driving energy to what we do together.  And yes, people of different Christian denominations and of other religions, as well as those with non-religious convictions, are essential participants. We can’t even imagine our work without that creative dialogue and partnership. We’ll also take this occasion to launch our new “Focolare Forum for Dialogue & Culture” as a vehicle to give greater support, cohesion and continuity to our work together.

Economics will take center stage at this gathering. What is the “Economy of Communion”?

Garlow: Yes, the conference also embraces the longstanding annual gathering of the North American Economy of Communion Association. The EOC emerged in 1991, during Chiara Lubich’s visit to Brazil, as she pondered with local communities how to meet the basic material needs of community members.

Reflecting together on John Paul II’s “Centesimus annus,” the idea emerged to encourage the formation of for-profit businesses that could generate opportunities for dignified work: (1) to directly support people in need; (2) for educational projects to help foster a “culture of giving”; and (3) for the continued development of the business. The EOC also helped to inform Pope Benedict’s “Caritas in veritate” reflections on “hybrid” business models.

Over time, EOC participants have become increasingly attentive to how our work can align with environmental sustainability objectives. Additionally, we have partnered with university contacts to help inspire new business curricula and educational opportunities for students seeking alternative praxes in business and economics. Other projects include support for business incubators for young entrepreneurs in Africa and elsewhere.

I was fortunate to be present in February 2017 when Pope Francis met with EOC participants for our twenty-fifth anniversary and he encouraged us to consider how our small but spirited endeavor could help to generate a more inclusive economy, and even to change “the rules of the game of the socio-economic system.” As I dedicate my professional time and efforts to the fields of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, Pope Francis’s words inspire me to continue to reach for new frontiers in order to foster authentic communion in the market.

Pope Francis is heading to Assisi in March for another major economic summit. What’s the purpose of that trip and how is the Focolare movement involved? 

Garlow: Saint Francis of Assisi confronted severe social inequality by stripping himself of all worldly attachments, becoming poor with the poor, and in so doing, he also gave rise to a new vision of economic life.  This March Pope Francis will build on this legacy by gathering with young economists and entrepreneurs in Assisi to “enter into a ‘covenant’ to change today’s economy and to give a soul to the economy of tomorrow.”

The international EOC project is one of the official organizers of the event, together with the town and diocese of Assisi and the Serafico, in collaboration with the Franciscan Families of Assisi and Vatican Dicastery For Promoting Integral Human Development. Luigino Bruni, the director of the international EOC project is the chair of the content committee. Here in the U.S., events are being planned to bring together economists, entrepreneurs, theologians, consecrated religious, and many others for a robust conversation about our response to this call for a moral economy.

Migration will also be a major topic of conversation. How does it factor in to an economy for all?

Bajo: We recognize that the economic and political tensions are strong and not always easy to resolve. But in discussions marked by fear of the “other” and of losing one’s own identity, we hope to flip the script on how we think about social and economic inclusion.

When we live genuine reciprocity – the capacity to value the contributions that everyone can bring into a society – then marginalized people are no longer reduced to just a burden.  Reciprocity helps us to welcome each other as persons created in God’s image and to celebrate everyone’s gifts, and this moves us far beyond philanthropy into a life of “communion.”

The conference program will feature not only examples of our response to the crisis at our southern border, but also how our Focolare communities in the U.S., Canada, and throughout the globe, are enriched by a migration experience where we welcome God’s invitation to care for each other as an expression of the unity of the human family.