My family encountered Focolare when I was 8 years old, when we attended the movement’s first West Coast Mariapolis summer gathering. Something of the theme on finding the presence of God in our lives must have sunk in.
At a certain point, my 10-year-old sister Nancy and I were gossiping about one of the other little girls, and we stopped in our tracks: “If Jesus lives inside her, then we can’t talk like this anymore.”
This marked the moment when Focolare spirituality of unity began to permeate my daily life. A short time later the men’s and women’s community houses opened in Los Angeles.
Through the activities and gatherings for children and teenagers, my Catholic formation was enriched by a strong sense of community with kids my age and by an abiding presence of adult mentors who modeled how Gospel-based values could transform ordinary tasks and relationships.
Both my sister and I eventually discerned a call to consecrated life in a Focolare community house. Nancy found ample space to express her talents as a composer and musician in Focolare’s performing arts group, Gen Verde, and I pursued degrees in law and theology that have sustained my teaching and service in Jesuit institutions.
In the 1990s, some of the core principles of the Focolare lifestyle were summarized for a children’s activity, the cube of love. The six sides of the cube read: love everyone, be the first to love, love Jesus in the other, share the other’s joy or hurt, we love one another, love your enemy. Children are invited to roll the cube in the morning, live the suggestion that emerged and then share with others what happened as a result.
As one might intuit, this is not mere child’s play. In every stage of my spiritual journey and professional life — as a litigator in a large law firm, as a teacher and as a university administrator — this practice has helped me to be concrete in my efforts to live as a Christian.
Recently I was stuck — glued to my chair — reluctant to face a festering tension with another person. I rolled the cube that I keep on hand, and “Be the first to love” helped me start to form the awkward words that eventually broke the ice.
As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, I was especially struck by the stance of my Focolare mentors before the ethnic, racial, social and economic tensions of my city. With time, I realized that their battery pack was a deep and sustaining relationship with Jesus on the cross, when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).
That vital, radical, even visceral love pushes Focolare people to lean into situations of conflict or division, even when that might feel uncomfortable or threatening.
As I opened myself to these depths, I too experienced how the trusting capacity to pray, even in the midst of suffering — “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46) — helped me to discern the healing light, presence and work of the Holy Spirit in my life and relationships.
Most recently, this battery pack has been a source of energy for me to lean into the tensions of political and cultural polarization that have emerged in so many communities and institutions — to help refine our capacities to listen and to accept one another, even across profound differences.
“Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). It is difficult to cultivate childlike trust in such a complicated and wounded world. For me, living Focolare spirituality has been a path to simplicity that helps me to recognize God’s loving presence at work, in our lives and in our world.
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(Uelmen is the director for mission and ministry at Georgetown Law, where she is also a lecturer in religion and professional life. She is a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Uelmen currently lives in the women’s Focolare house in Silver Spring, Maryland.)