Jesus in our Midst – on the road to Emmaus with Chiara Lubich

Today’s Gospel features the encounter of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, which I think serves as a valuable image for the spirituality of Focolare foundress Chiara Lubich. I am recently becoming familiar with the thought and spirituality of Chiara and with the movement, and thus far I find its simplicity and radicality refreshing. It strikes me as a witness of the continued work of the Spirit of Christ in the world and of the Spirit of the Council in the Church.

One of the primary features of Chiara’s spirituality is “Jesus in the midst,” which is essentially taken from a lived experience of Jesus having fulfilled his promise given in Matthew 18:20. However, for Chiara this presence is not something which can simply be asserted whenever 2 or 3 persons who identify themselves as Christians gather together or even pray together.

“Jesus is among us when we are united in him, in his will, which means his very self, and his will is that we love each other as he loved us.
The sentence of Jesus “Where two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” goes side by side with another sentence, “Love on another as I have loved you.”

Thus, the pre-conditions of being graced with Jesus’ presence in the midst require each person to fully unite herself to the will of Jesus and that there exists a reciprocal and intentional love which is willing to suffer abandonment and death for the sake of the other.

For Chiara this mutual love as Jesus loved is no mere sentimental feeling, but is an asceticism which is ever-ready to offer up one’s material goods, salary, experiences, desires, hurt for the good of the other “out of love for God, for Jesus in our neighbor.” This reciprocal, kenotic love brings about unity of will among those present in the will of Jesus; it “brought everyone immediately…to one thought, not only, therefore to one heart, but to one thought. And if we were not of one thought, this signified a disunity for us, which we needed to reconcile.”

To those of us who have not experienced such unity this claim may seem farfetched, but the Scriptures certainly bear witness to similar experiences of unity in the apostolic Church, but they also bear witness to the fact that Jesus in the midst is not a once for all static presence. Rather, it is a dynamic reality which must continuously be chosen, just as love demands a habitual exercising of the will.

“When, after an initial moment characterized by particular graces that God sends, there is no longer that complete casting of self into loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength and into loving our neighbor, and there is no longer that readiness to gives one’s life for the other, when –we can say– we give much, but not everything[,] unity among us weakens, to the point of vanishing.”

Jesus’ presence in our midst is as special, personal and real as his presence in the Eucharist. Moreover, for Chiara, what is particularly unique about the presence of Jesus in the midst is that it presupposes a gathering of at least two persons. The Risen Christ can be present in the Eucharist, in his Word, in the hierarchy, and in the midst of two or more persons:

“It appears to me that we can show how all the presences of Jesus are in function of Jesus in our midst, because in the next life there will no longer the hierarchy, nor the sacraments. There will be God –in the midst of his people.”

The personal and real presence of Jesus in the midst brings light, joy, peace, and fire. Chiara connects it with Luke 24:13-35, the Emmaus passage. Jesus in the midst opens up the scriptures to those united in his name as he opened them up to the disciples in Luke, he ignites a burning in their hearts which prompts them to ask him to “stay with us”, and he fills them with a joy which desires to go to others to share this experience of the Lord in the midst.

Perhaps this spirituality is one of the gifts through which the Spirit will continue to renew the Church and ultimately the face of the earth. After all, two of the biggest scandals which often render the Gospel ineffective today are the disunity among Christians and the lack of real, evident love in our churches. If our parishes ceased being sacramental dispensaries and became hearths of this spirituality of unity, of this sort of love, in which Jesus is really experienced as present in our midst, there is no telling how radically society could be transformed.


N.B.  All quotes were found in Chapter 1 of Judith Podilus’ United in His Name.

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  • Greg

    Uh Oh, its the Opus Dei for bad Catholics.

    Here, to keep you balanced please read this piece by the Anchoress

    Stop the New Movements, I Wanna Get off!

    • Mark Gordon

      Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, so I’m not sure I get it when she writes that she’s not a “joiner.”

    • Joshua B

      Thanks for reading and responding. I have no idea where the bad Catholics line comes into play, but thanks for the Anchoress link. I think her piece is significantly more balanced than your comment.

      A few brief remarks:

      1 – Throughout the history of the Church it has not been uncommon for the Holy Spirit to raise up new religious “movements” (orders if you prefer the older groups) to put flesh on the wisdom being taught by the councils. Think of Francis and Dominic around Lateran IV and Ignatius around Trent. It is not at all unreasonable to suspect the Spirit may again be working in similar fashion.

      2 – Pope Benedict (perhaps Ratzinger is technically more accurate here) firmly believes that authentic renewal of the Church will become from grass roots movements and the anawim (like Francis and Benedict) rather than from the Magisterium. Furthermore, he sees these movements as being likely sources of such authentic grass roots renewal.

      3- For her part Chiara, whose personality and work I am only recently getting to know and for whom I have no particular “cult”, had audiences with Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, JPII, and Benedict XVI and was close with Paul VI, John Paul II. They all approved of the movement and her charism because, while its grass roots nature gave it a certain authenticity, Chiara and her first companions always sought episcopal and papal approval and never did anything outside of obedience, thus submitting this particular charism to the authority and wisdom of the universal pastor.

      4 – Finally, I’d like to correct some inaccuracies present in the Anchoress’ piece. Chiara changed her name when she consecrated herself to God, well before there was a movement for her to dream of founding, not because Sylvia was somehow an unworthy name. It was not Chiara’s “decree”, but John Paul II who, during a private meeting, suggested to Chiara that the president of the movement always be a woman as a way of safeguarding the role of laity in the movement. And, while I only know a few focolarini, I have never sensed anything like what Urquhart suggests in his book.

      If you are not comfortable with the movements, don’t join one. No one is suggesting that all Catholics must become members of this or that ecclesial movement just as no one would suggest that all Catholics becomes Franciscans, Dominicans, or Benedictines.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks for this Josh. The Focolare are very interesting for me as well. I’d like to get to know them better. I think a lot of VN readers would find them refreshing. Orthodox and faithful, but not doctrinaire or judgmental. Interested in ecumenism, the environment, social justice and economics, and Catholic teaching on life and family. A rare and welcome combination. And the people I have met have a beautiful simplicity and openness.

    • Joshua B

      Brett, I have had the same experiences, but what really has me interested is the simplicity of the spirituality and its close dependence on the Gospel. I needed something straightforward and from the Word’s mouth.

  • Kurt

    I am confident that Chiara Lubich will be canonized among the saints.

    • Joshua B

      Kurt, I am no expert on her life, but I sense your confidence may be well placed.

  • Mark Gordon

    Thanks, Josh. Very enlightening post. I know nothing about Focolare or Lubich, but the “communitarian spirituality” is intriguing.

    • Joshua B

      It is, I look forward to learning more. It appeals to my ecclesiological sensibilities :)

  • Ralf

    To endorse the oldest existing lay order in the Church (almost 800 yrs.), I recommend a closer look at the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS) – it’s definitely a movement worth considering if one seeks “simplicity of the spirituality and its close dependence on the Gospel”. (In the US its page is

  • Kimberley

    Focolare is a very interesting movement. Their radical enbrace of social justice is appealing. And their New Families Movement as been on the forefront of promoting traditional marriage.