Chiara Lubich, founder of the international Focolare movement of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most influential women in modern Catholicism, died Friday, her movement said. She was 88.
Lubich died at her home south of Rome after being discharged from a hospital Thursday night, in line with her wishes. She had been in frail health for years and had recently had respiratory problems.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of condolences in which he praised Lubich's "constant commitment for unity within the church, ecumenical dialogue and brotherhood among all people."
The Focolare movement is said to have more than 140,000 core members and 2.1 million adherents in 182 countries.
The conservative group, named for the Italian word for hearth or fireside, attempts to spread Christian values by strengthening traditional families and promoting ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.
Born Silvia Lubich in the northern Italian city of Trento in 1920, she founded the movement there in 1943. She said she experienced a religious awakening in a bomb shelter during World War II and felt a call to alleviate human suffering.
Then a schoolteacher, she started by sharing food and medicine with the poor in Trento during the war.
She went on to found one of Catholicism's so-called new lay movements, centered on the belief that one did not have to become a priest or nun to live a full Christian life.
She later took the name Chiara (Italian for Clare) out of her admiration for St. Clare of Assisi, who along with St. Francis of Assisi sought to live the Gospel in a radically different way.
Preaching that the Gospel should be put into practice in every aspect of life, Lubich won the support of Pope Paul VI in 1964, and her influence began to increase.
Lubich was particularly close to Pope John Paul II, who also championed other lay movements in the church, such as Opus Dei, the Community of Sant' Egidio, and Communion and Liberation.
She promoted inter-religious dialogue, and in 1997 preached at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in New York's Harlem area and addressed monks at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand.
Lubich founded "mini-cities" in several countries where members could live and carry out their spiritual and social vocations. She won numerous awards, including the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion and the UNESCO peace prize.