A real eye-opener
For Chiara Lubich’s centennial (1920–2020), Living City is featuring a series of interviews with Focolare members in North America — this time with Dick and Shirley Tetreau from Toronto
By Chiara Catipon
The dinner was scrumptious, the table impeccable and the conversation joyously profound. Actually, the dinner turned into an impromptu interview of Dick Tetreau, 94, a retired director of Regis College Library at the University of Toronto, and Shirley, 82, former ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada. As they told of their meeting the charism of Chiara Lubich, certain memories were indelibly etched.
Their story began in 1974. The Focolare was present at a national meeting in Texas of all U.S. Catholic movements. Eight years prior, Focolare founder Chiara Lubich had asked four Italian men and women to move to New York to help the nascent community in North America. To the typical introductory question at that national meeting, “So, what do you do?” one of these focolarini, Sharry Silvi, replied, “I live the Gospel.”
When the Tetreaus heard this anecdote from a highly respectable and enthused participant at that Texas meeting, they inquired and soon discovered that a Focolare household had started in New York. They immediately arranged for a meeting (they lived in New Jersey at that time), and joined 250 couples at a big auditorium in Newark — and waited. Yet there were no focolarini in sight.
Finally they arrived — after being stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. Unruffled by cars honking and people shouting, Sharry said that if that’s where they were, then that’s obviously where God had wanted them to be in that present moment. And so, they didn’t want to be anywhere else.
“That was a real eye-opener for the two of us,” Dick recalled. “Traffic was definitely not one place I’d ever want to be.”
“The Will of God,” “the present moment” — such concepts were rarely heard in Catholic circles in the immediate post-Vatican II era. So after hearing the story of the Focolare’s origins, Dick and Shirley approached Sharry, who asked them what they had understood. Shirley immediately said, “That I should see Jesus in every person, for ‘whatever you do to the least, you did it for me (Mt. 25:40).’”
Shirley’s voice rose, as she recalled: “That was quite a revolutionary thought! What immediately came to mind were all the dirty dishes, pots and pans that I was always groaning about. I thought, ‘Now, I’ll go home and wash one dish for Jesus in Dick, one for Jesus in Mike, one for Jesus in Joe and one for Jesus in Mary… and maybe with a smile.”
Building spiritual muscles
Dick was then director of St. Peter’s College Library in New Jersey. He began helping the focolarine with the English edition of the Living City magazine. With that excuse, he entered into regular contact with the focolarini and began his early ‘training’ in a new way of life.
When he first arrived at the library for work, he was welcomed by the coldest faces imaginable. Unbeknown to him, a woman who had worked there for 30 years thought that she was going to get the job. This created a division there: employees were either on his or her side.
His colleagues expected him to fire her, but he didn’t.
Instead, he explained: “I always treated her with all the respect and love that I could muster. And when I left, I recommended that she become the director. It was like a constant gymnastics exercise, but I was able to build a good relationship with everybody.”
Something was astir not only at work, but also at home. Shirley recollected: “I started to see how Dick was always so kind and helpful. He took care of changing diapers and cooking and cleaning. I began to see that there was something changing.
“For example, we had a small linen closet in the hall, and you had to fold the towels a certain way to get all of them in. And he actually asked me to teach him how to do that! Before, I would always complain whenever he’d do the laundry, because he’d put all the colors together. Then he began asking me, ‘Do the whites go with the blues?’ This was amazing!”
Practicing a spirituality
Looking back, Dick affirmed, “Today, I can truly say that this charism of unity has brought about a significant difference in my life. I already had a very solid formation and education in the faith as a young man, so I partially understood what Jesus was asking from me.
“But then I realized: ‘Here are people who are living what I like talking about.’ Until I met this spirituality of communion, for me, Christianity had been more like an intellectual game. Here was a concrete witness of what it is to live as a Christian today. It was challenging, but also encouraging, because I saw it. I figured it’s possible, if you see it lived.”
Instead, Shirley came from a family that had left behind all religious practices, so she embraced the Christian faith at the age of 19. When in 1975 they attended their first Mariapolis (Focolare’s summer family gathering) held in Pennsylvania, she listened closely to all the experiences and presentations.
“I felt my soul opening to a new understanding of the Church and to a true personal connection with Mary,” she recalls. “After those two special graces, I decided I wanted to know more.”
A communitarian way
For Dick, the other novelty about the charism of unity was its communitarian nature. “Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.’ This living with Jesus among us really was like a bombshell for me, a revolution in the way I looked upon the things that I always knew. I knew the words of the Gospel, but this idea of going to God together ...” Dick’s voice here trailed off into a brief, solemn silence.
“Even when I failed, which I did several times a day,” he continued, “I also understood that this was the Jesus that I chose, Jesus abandoned on the cross. Words don’t do justice to what went on here” — he says, pointing to his heart — “but it was a real change. I can fall on my face 15 times a day, but I can also say, ‘It’s you, Jesus’ 15 times a day, and he will never leave me.”
“Up to this day,” Shirley says, “Dick and I hold hands when we go out, not only as a sign of affection, but more profoundly, of our journeying together. But we’re also together with others going to God together. We’re not just the Focolare in the U.S. or Canada. We are where we are to live our part. But God uses our little part with everybody else’s little part to bring about the unity he wants.”
Dick’s blue eyes flickered with childlike simplicity. “Now that we don’t have any particular task entrusted to us, we have people constantly coming to talk to us. We listen and share from our experiences of struggles as a couple, of raising our children. It matters not what ‘official’ roles or titles we hold. At the end of my life, Jesus will only ask me: ‘Did you love me in all the people who came your way?’ I better have a good answer.”
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