(Originally published on Issue 60, June 2018)
On Saturday 14th April, 23 Shi‘a Muslims – including university students, seminarians and professionals from 15 cities, from Argentina, USA, Canada, UK, Italy and Iran gathered in Italy for what can only be described as an experience of a lifetime.
For roughly five days in Loppiano and four days in Rome, we embarked on a two-part journey with our Focolare brethren. In Loppiano we learnt more about the Focolare Movement and got to experience their way of life, and in Rome, we joined an international conference on hope. Perhaps most of us did not expect that on this trip we would embark on a life-changing experience, a journey on which we would get glimpses of God’s love and His potential plan for establishing unity on earth around the Oneness of His being.
The programme was organised by Sophia University Institute of Loppiano, Italy – an academic institute established by the Focolare Movement, represented by its president, Professor Piero Coda – in conjunction with the Islamic Centre of England (ICE) in London and Risalat Institute in Qum, represented by their director Huj. Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali.
The few days spent in Loppiano were packed with programs and tours as we were taken around the village to see the various schools, businesses and workshops that made up the community. The participants arrived from their various countries on day one and we were settled into our respective accommodations. The next day began our introduction to Loppiano whereby we watched videos about the history and purpose of this small town which has become a kind of lab of fraternity; its diverse members try to build a sampling of a united world. We also heard testimonies from residents about the concrete ways in which they strive to live a life of mutual love and unity with one another. We then proceeded to attend the local mass, after which we lingered to meet and greet people from all over the world and from all walks of life.
In the afternoon, we met with the heads of the various ‘Schools of Formation’. The discussion that ensued was intense and fruitful, and the hour-long planned session ran much longer than expected. These teachers spoke about some of the practical ways in which they attempt to bring God to all aspects of life. They also try to instil in students the need to set aside oneself in order to welcome and love the other.
We later managed to visit the School of Families and the School of Priests where we met and interacted with the various members of the Schools. We asked questions, held discussions and toured the facilities. The School of Families hosts families from different parts of the world to experience the culture of unity while immersed in the Loppiano atmosphere.
Families spoke about the importance of communication and explained at length how they emerged stronger and more unified as a result of this program. In the School of Priests, it was interesting to hear about how priests from different parts of the world spend an average of four months at the formation centre to live the spirituality of unity as a priority. With an emphasis on mutual love, these priests do everything together in harmony, including praying, cooking, cleaning, and studying.
Over the course of the next few days, we visited Polo Lionello, the Centre for Economics, where we were given a tour of an exhibition displaying and introducing the Economy of Communion – an ethical business model that was founded by Chiara Lubich. The model encourages participating businesses to be an integral part of their communities, willingly sharing a portion of their profits to those in need, thus fostering a “culture of giving”.
The talented handicrafts of Loppiano were a joy to see. We visited the studio of renowned artist Ciro who is famous for transforming everyday “scrap material” into beautiful pieces of art. We also visited Hung, the Calligrapher who made stunning wire sculpture. He is also known for his graceful Chinese calligraphy pieces, and we were honoured to have him create a piece for us as we all watched enthusiastically.
Among the highlights of the Loppiano trip was the Fifth round of Wings of Unity held at Sophia University Institute. The conference featured talks by Dr Shomali, Professor Coda, Roberto Catalano, Vincenzo Di Pilato and Sister Shahnaze Safieddine. The theme for this session was: “Mission of Prophets & Mission of Religions”. The discussion brought forth a deep sense of spirituality and connectedness with the Almighty.
Drs Coda and Shomali demonstrated a humbling, yet inspiring example of qualities present in the leaders of the end of time. These godly scholars (and their teams of educators and directors) demonstrated a similar action, not in the sense of revelation, but in the sense of bringing to life the spirit of revelations. As they shared their views from the scripture, our hearts kindled with a united sense of devotion to the Almighty and His appointed saviours for the end of times; topping the spiritual fuel for this ongoing life journey.
On our last day in Loppiano, we participated in a sharing session with Sophia staff and students. Professor Coda and Dr Shomali both gave inspirational talks, and we all left feeling inspired by the deep sense of unity that we witnessed.
After this great experience, our group was on a spiritual high as we bade farewell to Loppiano and made our way to Castel Gandolfo on the outskirts of Rome, home of the Centro Mariapoli.
The picturesque views of the winding roads to the top of the hill, where one view opened to the stunning Lake Albano and the other the valley leading to Rome, were the perfect setting for the interfaith conference.
The Focolare Movement was hosting an international conference for their Muslim friends entitled “Giving Hope Together: Christians and Muslims journeying in the charism of unity”. Around 400 Christians and Muslims from all over the world gathered for this four-day event.
The program included keynote talks by religious leaders, testimonies and experiences by different participants. The talks covered topics such as “Suffering in Islam” presented by Dr Shomali, and “Suffering in Christianity” as well as talks on Lady Mary from both religious viewpoints. Various workshops and sharing circles split the big group into smaller ones so that all were able to interact and network with fellow brothers and sisters in a more intimate manner.
An open afternoon was organised for Saturday the 21st April to invite other guests to partake in this conference, and here Professor Coda and Dr Shomali introduced the Wings of Unity project to all in attendance. Throughout the conference, one attained a new sense of appreciation for the multicultural mosaic of the brethren in faith who shared in this collective unity between Christians and Muslims. It also offered a lens of recognition and reflection of the global peaceful movement of the Focolare, aiming to bring everyone closer to God, irrespective of their declared doctrinal affiliations or lack thereof.
Our trip to Loppiano and Unity conferences in Rome were both avenues of reflection, meditation and grounding of oneself back to the ultimate reality; being one with the Almighty. It provided a spiritual boost and cleansing, turning one’s heart (as one of the Focolarini beautifully articulated) into a blank page awaiting God to write His will upon it so that we can fulfil it (as prescribed).
All gratitude belongs to Allah SWT to whom I am ever indebted for this invitation to the summer trip to Italy. In many ways it was but a pilgrimage to higher forms of unity in God; one that was collective, selfless and God-centric.
The trip to Loppiano felt like a dream come to reality and provided a heartwarming glimpse at what life in the future (at the end of times) may hold God-willing. Loppiano and its inhabitants provided an ideal sample of what a society governed by high standards of moral ethics that aims to bring unity with God would look like. The organisers, teachers, students and population in general demonstrated an outstanding sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in God and an intense sense of devotion to serving Him and being one with Almighty by being one with his creation.
The trip to Rome was very special. It was certainly a conference that was first of its kind compared to others I have attended. As we participated in Juma prayers and ending the conference program with our Christian brethren during their Sunday Mass service, we underwent a similar sense of spiritual uplifting (and arguably higher on both occasions) as they were closer approximations to what spiritual devotion would be like in the forecasted advents of Imam Al-Mahdi and Jesus peace be upon them.
Dr Salaam al Attar (London, ON)
This trip made me appreciate different aspects of Islam more and the hope that it’s possible to build a utopian society. I’ve also started understanding more deeply the importance of the human connection and living the words of the Quran that we recite daily.
Sister Adeelah Nasser (Houston, Texas)
Leaping in Loppiano
Passport ready, journey proceeds
Italy the destination, time to lay down more seeds
Flying into Florence, as picturesque a city you will see
Then travelling onwards to Loppiano, busy with trees
Instant calm, instant serenity
People determined to love for God in His Sublimity
No space for enmity
We were in the presence of Spiritual wings of unity
Old friends from around the world were reunited
In essence their hearts can always be sighted
The mark of one is their character
Rationality, deeds, efforts and virtues are what matter
We sought the path of Absolute Truth
Even though sometimes we get distracted by a sore tooth
We can still smile in this world of suffering
When you have love, the pain can even be sweetening
From Loppiano to the old castle land outside Rome
We embraced a conference for which many had come
Muslims and Christians from across the continents
Sitting together being reminded of the blessings The Divine had sent
The Holy Prophets and Virtuous Mary are flag bearers for the ship of Truth, to join is free
This ship sails on, they know their destination but the Question arises do we?
Energised seeds of hope can become branches of light
Let’s pray we get to see that sight, the pure light in all its Might
Dr Ahmed Khweir (Glasgow, Scotland)
In The Name of our God
The Most Merciful and Kind
Who made everything we find
Before our eyes and mind
His Mercy contains all things
Under the sun and where lies
The unreachable high rings
Of the vast expanding skies
His garb is that of Tawheed
Manifested in multitude
He gives and gives to those in need
Not seeking their gratitude
His Word is Truth; His Action: Light
No gift decreases from His Might
He is The Beginning, The End
Towards Him all hearts and minds tend
The key to knowing Him is here:
Know yourself, and you will find
The One who nurtures humankind
From your own heart, He is more near
And so He brought us to this sea
To drink from a pure source and see
His beautiful signs everywhere
We thank God for our Unity
Dr Mostafa El-Diwany (Montreal, Canada)
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: