WE LIVE IN AMAZING TIMES. IN A THOUSAND YEARS, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN SUCH OPENNESS BETWEEN THE MAIN STREAMS OF CHRISTENDOM. The western churches, bitterly divided for almost half that millennium, have never been so conciliatory as today. Evangelical historian Mark Noll poses the question in the title of a recent book, Is the Reformation over? (Baker 2005).
Not that he’s ready to give an unqualified ‘Yes!’ to that question. But compare today’s climate with the typical Evangelical attitude from 1873, quoted in his introduction: ‘The most formidable foe of living Christianity among us is not deism or atheism, or any form of infidelity, but the nominally Christian church of Rome.’
Much obviously has changed since then. The Second Vatican Council resulted in four major developments effecting such change:
· non-Catholics could be seen as ‘brothers’
· lay piety was encouraged
· Christ’s unique role as mediator was emphasised, and
· some Catholic blame for inciting the Reformation was recognised.
This summer, without any initiative on my part, I find myself on a literal pilgrimage towards Rome. Three weeks ago, I was invited to a gathering at a Focolare Centre on the outskirts of Rome. Some fifty movements-Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant-were meeting to plan a second Together for Europe event to be held in Stuttgart next May. The first was held in 2004 with 10,000 participants, when over a hundred locations and 100,000 people across Europe were connected with Stuttgart by satellite.
Together for Europe aims to celebrate our common Christian European heritage and to promote Christian unity. A warm openness towards one another characterised this recent meeting of participants from Taiz√©, YMCA Germany, Orthodox youth movements, Alpha, and many other movements I knew little about – like Sant’Egidio and Focolare. The emphasis was on relational ‘unity’, not doctrine. To be honest, I was not quite sure about the basis of our unity.
This last week, I flew to Milan to join a busload of mainly evangelical pastors and urban mission practitioners from across Europe, along with a group of American doctoral candidates, on a so-called Focolare Trail. I had never heard of Focolare until Together for Europe. Our trail began in Trent, northern Italy. The (infamous-for-protestants) Council of Trent met there in the 16th century, resulting in the Counter-Reformation. Four centuries later, as the city was being bombarded by the Nazis in 1943, a young woman named Chiara Lubich felt led not to flee the city with her family. Instead she stayed to minister God’s love to those suffering. People saw her and her friends as spreading God’s warmth, and gave them the name Focolare, the fireplace.
If the first ‘Trent movement’ stressed ‘truth’, this new Trent movement was committed to fleshing out God’s love to all, regardless of race and creed. Worldwide, many thousands have committed their lives fulltime to this lifestyle and work. Millions are said to be involved in some way with this movement, active in as many countries as is YWAM. Most on our ‘trail’ had no prior knowledge of the movement. “Why haven’t we heard of this before?’ several asked.
We met the mayor and bishop of Trent who both testified to the positive influence of the movement. After exploring the origins of the Focolare in Trent, we travelled south towards Florence. There in the rolling Tuscany countryside we discovered a whole village called Loppiano, developed as a social, artistic and industrial model based on Focolare values. We heard about the Economy of Communion, developed by Chiara and others back in 1991 and now involving over 700 businesses worldwide. We watched her address to the European Parliament on the subject.
From Loppiano, we travelled on to Rome, back to the same Focolare Centre where I was three weeks ago. Like many of my fellow travellers, I was staggered by the scope of this movement as we heard further professors and Focolare staff explaining their vision for renewal at both micro and macro levels. One thousand mayors from across Europe, for example, were gathered by the Focolare Movement to pledge to work towards a renewed Europe through applying the principle of love, and ‘loving the other’s political party as much as one’s own’!
Now that sure sounds like a movement of hope for Europe, doesn’t it? Yet, impressed as I am by this renewal movement, I’m still not quite ready to give a positive answer to Noll’s question. Our Trail is not yet over, we’re still in Rome, and I’ll continue my musings next week. So, till then,