ROME — Arguably the most powerful laywoman in the Catholic Church in the late 20th century is now a candidate for sainthood, after the launch of a beatification process on Tuesday in Italy followed by 18,000 people around the world via live streaming.

Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement, died in 2008 at the age of 88. The bid to declare her a saint comes shortly after a mandatory five-year waiting period in Church law to open a beatification process expired.

Bishop Raffaello Martinelli of Frascati, Italy, officiated at Tuesday’s launch of the process. Frascati is the diocese where the international headquarters of the Focolare is located and where Lubich was buried after her funeral in Rome, which was attended by an estimated 40,000 people.

The Focolare, which in Italian means “hearth,” is a Catholic movement founded by Lubich in Trent during the Second World War with the aim of promoting unity. Over the years, it’s been especially active in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and currently claims 100,000 members in 182 countries.

The Focolare are also the only movement in the Catholic Church whose statutes require the group’s president to be a woman.

During the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Lubich was a close confidante and probably the most visible lay woman in Catholicism.

Pope St. John Paul II, for instance, requested her participation as an observer at several meetings of the Synod of Bishops.

Upon her death in 2008, Benedict XVI regarded Lubich as the “founder of a large spiritual family that embraces multiple domains of evangelization,” and expressed his admiration for Lubich’s constant commitment for communion in the Church, for ecumenical dialogue, and for fraternity among all people.

Born in Trent in 1920, Lubich’s given name was Silvia. Her admiration of St. Clare of Assisi led her to adopt the name Chiara, which is the Italian form of Clare.

In 1943, after consulting a priest, she privately took vows consecrating herself to God and gradually began forming a circle of friends who read the Gospels together. Those meetings where the beginning of what is now the Focolare, which is also known as “The Work of Mary.”

In his first — and so far only — meeting with the movement’s delegates last September, Pope Francis called the Focolare “a little seed in the Catholic Church’s womb that in the course of the years has brought to life a tree.”

That tree, the pontiff said, “now extends its branches in all the expressions of the Christian family and also among members of different religions and among many who cultivate justice and solidarity together with the search for truth.”

The Focolare began their ecumenical dialogue in 1961 and have forged ties with Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others, including the American Society of Muslims founded by the late Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.

Talking to Vatican Radio, Maria Voce, who succeeded Lubich in the presidency of the movement, said there is a large cache of documents, letters, and videos of Lubich that they had turned over to the diocese for a tribunal that will study the sainthood cause.

With the collected information, the tribunal will have to determine if Lubich lived Christian virtues in a heroic way and deserves to be declared venerable. If so, the attribution of a miracle to her intercession would then be the normal requirement for beatification, and another one would be needed to declare her a saint.

In that Jan. 20 interview, Voce said Lubich’s holiness can be seen in her ordinariness, calling her an example of being a saint “by leading a normal life.”

Everything extraordinary in her “normal life is the fruit that comes from God, from Chiara’s relationship with God and Chiara’s normal relationship with the people,” Voce said.

If Lubich is eventually declared blessed, she’ll become the second Focolare to receive the honor. Chiara “Luce” Badano, an Italian girl who died at 19 after a two-year fight against bone cancer, was beatified in 2010.