The Littlest Way
The lay Catholic movement Focolare got a boost last year when some of its ideas—including the “economy of communion”—were mentioned favorably in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. On Saturday it got another boost with the first beatification of one of its members, Chiara Luce Badano, a woman whose short life exemplified much of Focolare’s message.
Focolare’s founder, a laywoman named Chiara Lubich, was a close friend of both Paul VI and John Paul II, and an important figure in the ecumenical movement. By the time of her death she and her movement were known throughout world. But Focolare had a strikingly humble origin. When Lubich was twenty-three years old, she and some of her friends began to think about what it would mean to really live the Gospel. Their lives had been violently interrupted by World War II. Their town, Trento, was under constant Allied bombardment. One evening, as they were reading scripture together by candlelight in a cellar, they came upon Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” (John 17:21). These words were to become the keystone of the Focolare movement. As Lubich said, “We live for the sole aim of being one with [God], one with each other, and one with everyone. This marvelous vocation linked us to heaven and immersed us in the one human family. What purpose in life could be greater?”
Chiara Luce Badano was, in many ways, an ordinary Italian teenager. She played sports, dated, and tested her parents’ boundaries. But she had also taken to heart Chiara Lubich’s challenge to the Focolare youth—to live the Gospel so well that “whoever sees you can say, ‘There is another small Jesus living today’”—“yours must be a generation of saints.” Once, when her mother asked her to clear the table, she marched off in a huff—but soon returned and, clearing the table, mentioned the story in the Gospel about a son who does what his father asked after saying he wouldn’t. Through teenage ups and downs—failing a math class, misunderstandings with friends—she grew in her capacity to let love for Jesus on the cross transform her daily life. She often visited sick classmates, even when nobody else would because they were contagious.
People who knew Badano were inspired by what she did more than by what she said. Her mother once asked her if she ever talked to her friends about God when they were hanging out at the café. She replied, “Talking about God doesn’t count for much. I have to give God to them.”
When she was seventeen she felt a sharp pain in her arm while she was playing tennis. She was diagnosed with a horrible form of bone cancer. Throughout the illness, her ability to face suffering with courage emerged not from an individual heroism, but from a life of community. As she wrote to her young friends in Focolare, who accompanied her through the illness step by step, “I feel your unity very strongly, your offerings, your prayers which allow me to renew my ‘yes’ moment by moment.” They in turn received the precious gift of participating in her incredibly profound relationship with God. As one of her friends put it, “To start with we all thought that we were going there to support her. But we soon realized that we couldn’t do it without her, it was as if we were drawn by a magnet. Every time we went into her room, we felt that we had to ‘adjust’ our souls; and then we were filled with joy in those brief moments spent with her.”
As they watched their only child slip away, her parents experienced a similar encounter with God’s love. Her father reflected: “We saw the hand of God in the illness. I discovered a family that I didn’t realize I had. And Chiara’s relationship with Jesus helped us take the necessary spiritual steps ahead. Chiara was desperately ill, and yet we never fell into despair, because in her there was always Jesus.”
In fact, the more Badano suffered herself, the more she seemed to attend to those around her. She often counseled her hospital roommate who was dealing with depression. A hospital worker in despair at seeing so many children with cancer every day had “the best Christmas of [her] life” after talking for a while with Badano. The physicians who worked with her were simply astonished at the way she dealt with the disease—some of them still visit her gravesite to honor her memory.
When she died in 1990 at the age of eighteen, more than two thousand people from all over the world traveled to the tiny town of Sassello, Italy, to attend her funeral.
Badano lived the sort of ordinary holiness that St. Thérèse of Lisieux famously taught. Indeed, she could exemplify a spirituality of ordinary holiness in a way that St. Thérèse herself, as a cloistered nun, could not. Badano belonged to no category of people commonly believed to be specially eligible for sanctity (martyrs, missionaries, nuns and priests). As one of Badano’s friends noted, “She did not come out with any extraordinary words, she did not write pages and pages in her diary—she just loved.”
About the Author
Charles Camosy is professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University.