Loppiano, not far from Florence, in Italy’s Province of Tuscany, is a very special place; it is a ‘little town’ in which all the inhabitants are trying to live out the Gospel, with especial regard for Jesus’ ‘new commandment’. This unique ‘way of life’ delivers wonderful blessings and a very special atmosphere – a tone which is heaven-like – but one in which feet ‘remain on the ground’. Loppiano is a ‘real’ town, where the inhabitants go to work to earn their daily bread, where there are industries based on a ‘new’ way of running a business under the ‘umbrella’ of the generic title, ‘An Economy of Communion’; it has a Church for all to worship and even a small university for graduates. 


                                           Front and Side View of the Church at Loppiano

But, there is much, much, more to experience. It is organised and run by the Focolare Movement – founded by Chiara Lubich, and her first companions – a ‘new’ experiment in living that has now been in existence for sixty-seven years.

Here in Loppiano, I have been staying on holiday. My vacation here has been an exceptional one, rather more ‘monastic’, externally, than usual, and consisting largely of doing very simple things – but doing them well and with great enjoyment. Joy is a very much a characteristic of Loppiano. God is very close.

(1)  Art work showing many different Religious Orders under the mantle of Mary in the House for the Religious, Loppiano.  (2)  Two Marist Brothers, Missionary of Mary Immaculate, Missionary of Mary Star of the morning, Brother of St Gabriel, Salesian, Franciscan & an Ampleforth monk at the Loppiano school for Religious  

The 900, or so, inhabitants live in their own communities and consist mainly of lay people from the five continents of the world. Some are here on a ‘permanent’ basis, as this provides for continuity to the town. Others are here for just a short time, and these, largely, come to study at the Loppiano School.  You might ask what it is they have come to learn. The answer lies in the one word ‘UNITY’ – that unity which is at the ‘heart’ of the Gospel. Also, you may ask: “Who are the teachers?” In the Gospel, Jesus said you should call no one your teacher except the Christ!  Loppiano does not contradict the Gospel, for here, it is Jesus who is the teacher – helped by those ‘permanent’ members of the community and who have that longer experience of this life of unity, and who are at the service of all who come for a shorter stay. But then, all the others ‘muck in’ and help as well!

Some of the new students at Loppiano Nov 2010 – and – Citizens getting ready for Mass Nov 2010 

It may sound arrogant to say that Jesus is the teacher; however that is the aim, the desire and the reality of all who live here – to live out the ‘New Commandment’, and so have that ‘real’ living experience of what Jesus said, (according to St. Matthew’s Gospel, 18; 20): “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Rather than arrogant, it is ‘awe-inspiring’ to realise that, here in this small Tuscany town, it is the Lord, himself, who is guiding everything.

My holiday abode is in the house dedicated to men in religious life. Those religious who are here, permanently, and those who come for a few months, go to work each day so as to maintain themselves. As I write, there are eight of us in house, but I am here for just two weeks. Nevertheless, I have been joining in with them, as a friend on holiday, sharing their rhythm of life, meals, the cleaning of the house, prayers, and the common meditations, as far as possible. As the ‘law’ under which we live is the Gospel, we do our best to live it with each other, and in practice, it is a most enjoyable experience. All of us are aware that ‘heart’ of the Gospel is ‘Love’! The Latin text “Ubi amor et caritas Deus ibi est” (where there is love and charity, there is God) is written above the door of St. Mary’s Presbytery in Leyland; and God who is love is also joy. This ought to be the characteristic of every Christian community – including a parish – for Jesus said, at the time he emphasised that his mission was unity: “I speak these things in the world so that they can have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17: 13).

It would be helpful, perhaps, to explain those others who find themselves here in town and at the school of Loppiano. I can assure you, here you would find just about every kind of person. Families, who live in their own houses, mingle with other families during their learning time here. There are young people, late teens in age, or above, who live and share together. There are other young men and women, in their 20’s or 30’s, who feel the vocation to dedicate themselves to God, for life, with vows of celibacy, as promoters of unity, and they remain in the world of work. Parishioners of St. Mary’s might have met these ‘Focolarini’ who live, nearby, in Liverpool. There are young priests and seminarians, about twenty in total, nuns, and men and women – usually married, but not necessarily so – who wish to live in the world, and work for unity, as people of the world.

(1) Young married man at work: paint shop (2) Some of the young workers in the carpentry shop (3) Finished products, cots and furniture 

As far as is possible, all the different groups go to work each day.  However, mums may have to look after the children while dad goes to work, or vice-versa; there are other such-like provisos. Thus everyone mixes, naturally, with everyone during the day, but each has their own distinct living space and home life. Then, at certain times, the whole town comes together for the celebration of Mass, or for the various meetings of the different groups. It goes without saying that, in various ways, all are involved with the Focolare Movement, and last Sunday week, there was an up-dating on how the Focolare Movement is responding to what God wants of it, in the special times in which we now live. Again, the whole town was present.

 (1) Three Muslim imams living in Italy.  (2)  Young Muslim girl presenter, and, (3) Muslim and Christian girls from Verona sharing at experience of dialogue 

Last Sunday, there was something special – and unusual – for those able to attend, consisting of a meeting for dialogue between Muslims and Christians, in Italy, the intention being to promote dialogue, where there is often deep division. The event was open to the whole of Italy, and was the first meeting of its kind – organised by Muslims who know, and love, this life of unity, together with their Christian ‘Focolare’ counterparts. I discovered that this meeting had been in the planning for 20 years! I must say, it was wonderful to be here, by chance so to speak, and see all these Christians and Muslims together as ‘one family’. They came from the north and south of Italy, by the coach-load, about 400 in total. Ironic it may be that, since that meeting, terrorists have perpetrated the invasion of a Syrian Catholic Church, in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of some 58 people, including three priests. This is not the norm, for the way Christians and Muslims relate to each other – whatever the media may say; in most places, Christians and Muslims have lived, side by side and in peace with each other, for centuries.

Loppiano is an expression of the life of Church; it formulates the very best experience I have had, of what the post Vatican 2 Church is all about. It is forward-looking; God is very much at the centre of things; in totality, it seems a fulfilment of the famous ‘wise scribe’ in the Gospel, who could value both the old things, and the new.

My readers might ask what, then, is the common language, given that the population is so ‘international’. As Loppiano is situated in Italy, the language of ordinary conversation is Italian, a language that I happened to learn before joining Ampleforth, at the age of 18. For those who do not speak Italian, there are ‘simultaneous translations’, though it is much better to be able to speak Italian. Those who come here ‘to school’ often spend the first months learning Italian, and find this very much to their advantage.

My time spent here has made me reflect, once more, on the importance of having that ‘something more’, to sustain the Christian life we try to live as priests, and people, in our Parish of St. Mary’s. Certainly, my ‘Loppiano experience’ – short I know – nevertheless, has ‘rooted’ me more on my vocation, and for that, I thank God. We all need help – priests, monks and people – and, although this experience may not be for everyone, it is, I feel, one that it is well worth the knowledge