An Interview with Ana Paula Panzarini

by Eileen Quinn Knight, PhD



Dr. Knight: You have such a wonderful vocation. Can you tell us what it means to be a Focolare member?


Ana: Focolare , or The Work of Mary, is a Lay Ecclesial Movement founded by Chiara Lubich in Trent, Italy. It was the time of World War II and as bombs were falling Chiara began putting into practice Jesus’ commandment of love of neighbor. The mutual love that was soon enkindled, attracted many. In time, she understood God was calling her to help fulfill Jesus’ last prayer “That all may be one.” Before long her charism of unity started spreading throughout Italy, Europe and beyond. The first Focolare group arrived in North America in 1961. Today we have communities spread in the continental USA and Canada. As members all over the world, we try to build unity in the human family – among Christians, with people of the great religions, and with all people of good will.


Dr. Knight: How did you meet the Focolare?


Ana: I grew up in Brazil, a predominantly Catholic country. I took my faith for granted, going to Mass on Sundays but having no deep convictions. I didn’t hear of the Focolare Movement, until I was about 15. A friend invited me to one of their gatherings called a Mariapolis. It was like a week-long retreat, with people from many walks of life. I heard a quote by Chiara Lubich in one of the talks that turned my life upside down. She was speaking to us young people: “We have only one life; it is worth living well.”


I wasn’t sure what it meant. However, returning from that Mariapolis we were trying to put into practice the sentence “Whoever does not love a brother or sister whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).” I realized that my father was my closest neighbor and the hardest one to love. When I shared about this challenge with the youth of the Focolare in my city, one of them immediately offered to teach me how to milk a goat. I was surprised by it, however I saw that she was offering me an opportunity to really show love for my dad, who cared a lot about all the animals in his farm. Her thoughtfulness and love gave me courage to start a new relationship with him. So when I heard his truck turning the corner that evening, I waited for him by the door. When he came in and found me with his slippers at hand ready to help him remove his dirty boots, he was so shocked. He was ready to call an ambulance. That instance melted all the barriers we had ever put up, and I discovered a great sense of interior freedom and new joy in my heart, all because I was doing things purely out of love for God in my neighbor. Chiara Lubich in fact encouraged everyone to fill his or her days with these simple, yet powerful acts of love: “Nothing is small when it is done out of love.”


Dr. Knight: Tell us about the joy of your vocation.


Ana: The Spirituality of Unity of the Focolare Movement gave my life a new meaning. I confess it was slightly overwhelming to experience God so present in my life. I felt like an ordinary person who was suddenly the center of God’s attention. However, as I was completely absorbed by God, I realized that there wasn’t anything in the world which made me more fulfilled than living for unity. This for me meant giving my YES to God following the vocation of a consecrated member of the Focolare.


My Focolare ministry involves a lot of work with preteens and teens. I find it so rewarding to see that, although this age group often feels left out and misunderstood by society and the church, they are very sensitive to God’s presence in their own personal life and among them as a group.


This past summer, with our Focolare Teens4Unity group, we worked with the Youth Ministry Office of the Diocese of Gary on the Focolare’s annual youth retreat which we call Let’s Color Our City Service Retreat. This event witnessed the helping hands of over 100 teens from six states bring warmth, love and color to some of the city’s greyest corners, and they had fun too! The teens said how the experience helped them grow closer to God and understand how something small can have a big impact on another’s life. They all said they rediscovered themselves as “Church” and I felt that it was the most meaningful week of my summer!


Dr. Knight: What is it like to be assigned to the Focolare Community in Chicago?

Ana: Each city or country has unique characteristics -- delightful as well as challenging ones. Besides living in Italy for a while, I had the experience of the West Coast in Los Angeles before moving here. Chicago is a beautiful city with some really rough weather! But the people who live here -- make it all worth it. It really impresses me to see the deep faith of people in the Midwest as well as the meaningful relationships that so many are willing to establish -- it is edifying.


Dr. Knight: Focolare is an international movement, how does it address the needs of the global church?


Ana: Our communities are intentionally intercultural, international and inter-generational. We want to give witness that unity is possible by living it every day. As a vowed “focolarina,” I live in a house with women from several cultures. It takes commitment and willingness to work through each other’s differences and the challenges these differences offer. Focolare members apply the same commitment to the global church. It isn’t always easy, but our goal is “That all may be one.” We take this seriously. Unity is our goal in small gestures and on a bigger scale too. You can see personal and collective experiences from our brothers and sisters all over the world on our website, www.focolare.org. We reach across the globe to pray and assist others in difficult situations as well as to rejoice with them.


Dr. Knight: What is it like to work in the archdiocesan Pastoral Center?


Ana: It’s always busy and never boring. Most days are great. But on some days there are difficulties with people on the phone, or with completing a task. The best part is I’m working with some of the most dedicated and kind people in Chicago, including the Cardinal. I love knowing that I am working not just for an organization, but for the Church. Yet, there are sufferings as well as joys. One day recently there was a difficult moment that had us not feeling our best. The situation was resolved by coming together as co-workers, with a sense of family, to listen and support each other, starting with a reflection on the Gospel of St. John. Where else can you find a workplace like that?

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