[Editor’s Note: Amy Uelmen is a lecturer at Georgetown Law School, and has been living in a Focolare community house since 1995. She is the co-author of Focolare: Living a Spirituality of Unity in the United States (New City Press, 2011), which was written with Thomas Masters. She spoke to Charles Camosy about celibacy in the Catholic Church today, and how it is lived by the Church’s different members]
Camosy: You are not exactly a nun, but have taken similar vows, right?
Uelmen: Yes, within the Focolare Movement the vocational path of the “focolarini” includes living in community, and our community life is supported by the three traditional vows, poverty, chastity and obedience. These may be taken perpetually only after a substantial period of personal and communal discernment.
We can be a little bit hard to peg. My favorite definition of our form of life came from an agnostic friend who described our community house as a “nomadic, cosmopolitan monastery.” We are available to move for the needs of the community throughout the world, and we hope to keep our houses international and intercultural, as much as possible.
We do not dress in habits, we tend to work within our own professions, and married people (who live with their own families) also have an essential role in our communities. But the way that we accompany each other in the spiritual journey could be analogous to some forms of monastic life.
You are a lawyer and a law professor. How did someone like you end up living in a community with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? Isn’t that a little bit unusual for your career path?
As long as I can remember I have been drawn to a radical interpretation of the Gospel. When I was about 9 and my sister was about 11, we emerged from Sunday Mass after hearing “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.” (Mk. 10:21). We grilled our parents: “So why don’t we do that? Let’s sell the car, we could walk to the mini-market for food, and we could all take the bus to work and school. And the dishwasher — we don’t really need that, right?” My parents were less enthusiastic about our plans, and perhaps that was my first clue that not everyone has the same interpretive instincts when it comes to this passage.
With the help of the Focolare spirituality, my childhood and teenage years in suburban Los Angeles were marked by an effort to swim against the tide of the consumeristic society that surrounded me. Perhaps this is what also prepared me to “receive” an invitation not to marry “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 19:12).
During my first year of college I found myself unexpectedly attracted to what for me was the palpable presence of Christ in the form of community life particular to the Focolare. I had spent a week in our community in upstate New York, Mariapolis Luminosa, helping with concrete tasks like folding sheets and chopping carrots. I was shocked by how much fun it was, and found myself asking: “How can chopping carrots feel so sacred?”
Shortly after I broke off a recent dating relationship, I found myself in the story of the rich young man of the Gospel: Jesus looked at me with love and asked if I wanted to stay with him. (Mk. 10:21) Not wanting to walk away sad, I said an initial yes, but then spent the next six months wrestling with God because I had always imagined myself as a person who would marry.
I think a lot of people would find the idea extremely challenging.
I can’t remember what exactly helped me to settle into the idea, but as I gave the process of formation to community life a chance, I became increasingly comfortable and experienced a sense of interior freedom and joy.
Then in 1995, toward the end of our formal program of formation and discernment in Italy and Switzerland, Focolare founder Chiara Lubich came to speak with our group. What remained with me was the image she shared of consecrated life: It is like a fountain in a public square, where anyone can come to sit down and have a drink, be refreshed, find rest. In contrast, those who marry and have children also need to focus their energy and attention on the flow of water into their homes for those entrusted to their particular care. At that point I realized how attracted I was to the public nature of the path that I had set out to follow, and how much I wanted to be available for anyone to draw something refreshing from my life with God. I felt from within an undeniable seal on my choice: “I am a public fountain.”
So is there a big focus on this in your day to day life?
For consecrated life in a Focolare community — or perhaps any religious community — celibacy is certainly not an end in itself, but together with poverty and obedience, a support to assure the kind of availability, openness and freedom that makes possible community life in the service of God’s Kingdom.
Recent headlines have once again provoked a debate about whether celibacy is healthy. What kinds of support can make the choice personally and emotionally sustainable?
We all need to cultivate in our lives spaces for vulnerable intimacy. The Focolare community lifestyle includes prioritizing time in the calendar for meals together and frequent sharing of how the life of the Gospel permeates our perspective, decision-making, and interactions in the world. We need to be deliberate about making time to put in common what is really going on inside — and not just the beautiful triumphs, but also the struggles, darkness and uncertainty.
I also deeply value the possibility for more private space with the person who is responsible for our community to work through particular challenges, as well as the periodic practice of what we term “the hour of truth.” We need each other to discern how to shed the habits that may be obstacles to the life of Jesus in us and to highlight aspects of our growth as we travel together along the paths of holiness.
Some recent discussions of celibacy in ministry tend to link the rationale to a kind of time management. At times the implication seems to be that a priest should be available 24/7 for ministry. I do not doubt that there are moments when a radical sense of availability to the community can lead to a certain kind of heroism. But if stretched beyond emergencies, this mindset can lead to an unhealthy savior-complex and personal burn-out.
In the Focolare spirituality, the antidote to this is to place work and outreach alongside other aspects in life, including prayer, study, care for one’s health and one’s home, and attention to the communications media. I have found tremendous sustenance in the call to curtail the darker side of my activist and workaholic instincts by paying attention to these other expressions of love in my personal and community life. Because of their exposure to the elements, public fountains also need to be cleaned and maintained, lest the water become toxic.
What kinds of perspectives has the choice opened up for you?
As I have grown in this path over the past thirty years, trying to live what Chiara Lubich describes as “the chastity of God” — a complete and total focus on trying to love with all my heart the person I am with in the present moment — I experience how the commitments I have made in this form of life help me to channel my energy into an availability for God to generate something new and creative in my various relationships.
Recently I got together for a meal with one of my close friends from college. She has a husband and two beautiful kids and has been extraordinarily successful in her career by any measure. And yet she confessed a certain restlessness. We shared deeply about what brings us joy, and also talked through creative ways to find deeper meaning in our lives. After our time together, as I was walking to the metro, I felt a spontaneous conversation with Jesus open up: I am fifty years old, I have no money, no possessions, no husband, no children, and by worldly standards a much less successful career path than my friend. And yet, there is something—or Someone—within who says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42, NRSV)