Once she was Silvia

January 1, 2020 -- Susanne R Janssen

Once she was Silvia
Much is known about Lubich’s public life — but who was she before founding the Focolare Movement?

By Susanne Janssen

A flourishing city today in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains, Trent has a rich and varying history. It had remained a small, quiet town even up until the 1930s and 1940s, yet from 1545 to 1563 Trent had hosted the Council of the Roman Catholic Church. The council was held in three parts and was an important self-reform and dogmatic clarification after the challenge and rise of the Protestant churches. And more recently, a century ago in fact, Trent became the birthplace of Silvia Lubich, the little girl who would later grow up to become the founder of the Focolare Movement.

What about the Lubich family? Nino Carella, a focolarino from Italy, decided that for his doctorate thesis in theology he would dig deep into the archives. He wondered how life was for Silvia Lubich (her original name) before she became Chiara and received the charism of unity from God. What are the traces of her life and her family in the official documents?

In his book Silvia before Chiara: the search for a new way (published in 2014 in Italian by Città Nuova), he shares his findings, including unpublished and little-known facts.

For Chiara’s mother Luigia Lubich, it was her second marriage. In 1908, her first husband passed away after they had been married just one month. She later met Luigi Lubich, whose ancestors came from the region of Trieste.

They both worked at a typesetting company that printed the socialist newspaper Il Popolo (The People) in downtown Trent. They got married in 1916 and lived close to work on 11 Via Prepositura. There all four children of the Lubich family were born.

And there also occurred an anecdote that Chiara Lubich often shared to illustrate what it means to be brothers and sisters, to be family. The children were misbehaving all morning, so their mother scolded them and told them that they would get disciplined when their father came home. As was usual back then, they were all lined up: first the oldest, Gino, then Silvia, then the younger sisters Carla and Liliana.

Gino got a slap on the cheek, but when the father turned to Silvia, Gino shoved her aside and told his father, “Not Silvia, give it to me,” and taking her place, he received a second slap.

Signs of intellectual gifts

While their first years were marked by moderate wealth — her father traded wine from South Italy to Germany — during the Depression in the 1930s, his business went bankrupt, and the family experienced poverty. While Gino went on to finish high school to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor, Silvia went to a school that prepared girls for homemaking and domestic duties.

However, her intellectual gifts were soon discovered by her teachers, and it was suggested that she try to enter high school. She had to prepare for the entrance exam on her own with only textbooks.

Although at the beginning of the summer she passed, she failed in German and Latin, subjects she was never taught before. But by the end of the summer she mastered these subjects as well. Eventually she graduated as valedictorian of her class.

In search of truth

Carella went on to find documents concerning one episode that Chiara herself often told recounting her quest for God and the truth. When a philosophy professor, who always criticized the Catholic church, told the students that God doesn’t exist, she raised her hand and contradicted him, “That’s not true!” despite her fear that she might get a bad grade.

There were no records about this professor after 1940. However, Carella found out that he was of Ladin descendance (an ethnic group in Northern Italy) and married to an Austrian woman. At the end of 1939, after Italy broke the alliance with Germany, this professor had to decide whether to stay Italian or ask for German citizenship.

One day Carella simply tried to Google the names — and he found out that the family moved to Vienna. “The sons were so happy that, after all these years, somebody was interested in their father, who passed away when they were young teenagers.”

One son handed Carella a copy of the last letter written by his father, who served and died in the war. There it became clear that the atheist professor had returned to the faith and waited to encounter God after death.

Local church involvement

Besides her academic education, Silvia Lubich became part of Catholic Action (Azione Cattolica), the go-to organization then for young Catholics. Even before joining, she felt called to a life of holiness. She frequented the student group, and in her own words, did so with great enthusiasm, happy to learn more about the foundations of her faith. This group attended spiritual retreats, conferences, as well as recreational events and feasts.

Silvia was invited to attend courses that prepared young women for a role of future leadership in the Catholic Action groups. Her friends remember her as sociable, friendly. “She knew how to write and speak in public.” And in all her endeavors she seemed to be serious and committed, “while we were still more like children,” a friend remembered.

Silvia Lubich went on to give of herself in Catholic Action and in 1939 was chosen to become a leader, training aspiring members successfully, as noted by her superiors. She became vice leader of the catechists — revealing her talent for teaching and preparing people in their faith, also indicating she received a solid foundation and training in how to achieve these goals.

Her charism grows

Silvia’s participation in all these activities and courses prepared her for God’s plan: to reveal to her a charism for the modern times, a way to holiness for everyone.

Love of God and love of neighbor make up the path. Key elements include: the perfection in charity as the goal; the presence of Jesus among believers united in his name as the source of light and strength; and the exclusive love for Jesus who felt abandoned by the Father before his death as a means to overcome obstacles.

God wanted this woman to bring this charism into the world, and Silvia made herself available. Silvia disappeared and became Chiara (the name she chose when she became a member of the Third Order of the Franciscans).

Thus, a story of light began. Together with her friends and co-founders Igino Giordani and Fr. Pasquale Foresi, this charism gave birth to a community and a work, tested and validated by the Church through a long juridical process.

In later years, the Focolare grew rapidly and spread to almost all countries of the world. New vocations such as the Volunteers of God and the youth branches came to life, and new works, such as the Economy of Communion or the New Families movement, completed the foundation. In all of it, Chiara was an instrument of God.

The final period

However, during her last years, Chiara had to face a tremendous trial, a dark night of the soul. She no longer felt that she could bring ahead the charism. She could no longer feel the union with God that had been essential for her during her whole life.

In a certain sense, one could say that Chiara was no longer there, “only Silvia remained,” as the theologian and professor, Michel Vandeleene expressed it.

“Chiara once said to Eli Folonari (Chiara’s closest confidant), ‘There is no Chiara anymore, only Silvia remains,’ and Eli said that on that day, Chiara gave her the impression of being a ‘poor woman.’ She had lent her humanity to God so that he could use it, and, on Silvia’s utter silence, God had generated Chiara. At the end of Chiara’s life, after decades of loyalty to her Spouse, God withdrew behind ‘the horizon of the sea,’ and Silvia remained alone.

“With that, God showed us the true greatness of Chiara, which is the docility of Silvia who never did her own thing, instead let herself be used by him. It is as if God told us: ‘This work is mine, it is I who made it, on Silvia’s nothingness. So don’t think you can build this work, because none of you is capable of such a thing,’” Vandeleene said.

All of this can be an invitation to imitate Silvia, lending God our humanity so that God can act on our nothingness and use us for His work.


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