is one of the oddest and most attractive of the new movements in the Catholic Church. It still looks and feels like what it was at the beginning, in 1968, when hairy high-school students in Rome filled with revolutionary zeal started meeting, Bibles in hand, to ponder an ill-thought-out plan to change the world.
Ten of them had been at school together at the Virgilio Lyceum in 1968, when social change mingled with the smoke of Vespas. At the edge of their vision was Pasolini's Rome of shanties filling with southern migrants: after school they headed out there, befriending families, running "popular schools" for children, building houses and feeding the homeless. At night they roomed in basements in Trastevere to establish solidarity with the immigrants, the unemployed, the elderly and the lonely. Every day they prayed together, meeting in churches to read the Gospel—an act which, despite the Second Vatican Council, was still regarded by many priests as suspiciously Protestant.
In Rome's bohemian Trastevere district, a 20-minute walk south from Rome, Piazza Sant'Egidio—from which the Community later took its name—became a meeting place, a marketplace for discussion of what it meant to be a Church present among—and hearing the Good News from—the poor. They asked: "How can we spend our lives for others? How can we overcome the loneliness of the modern city?"
The Pope sat on one of the little benches we had and said, ‘Who are you?’
Between 1968 and 1973 it was known simply as la comunità. Then the young people leased from the government what has once been a Carmelite convent in the Piazza. Sant'Egidio is an awkward name to pronounce in English—sant edge-idyo—and the saint himself ("Saint Gilles" in French, "St Giles" in English) is not especially famous. But a portrait of the saint in the church in the square captures the Community's spirit. It shows a monk protecting a doe with his hand, which has been pierced by an arrow; the arrow belongs to a prince with a bow. The Community takes its name, in other words, from a man who protects the weak from the strong, a man of the Word of God, and a man whose life is dedicated to prayer, community and hospitality. St Giles was also, in the universe of the time, a global figure, who came from Thessalonika in the East but died in France. And he even manages to be ecumenical, a monk of the undivided Church that is both Western and Eastern.
Members of the Community of Sant'Egidio—which now numbers some 8,000 in Rome and thousands more in cities across the world—like to see themselves as unpretentious, preferring to be small with the small, and their Community as prophetic yet ordinary: humble, yet ambitious for peace; firmly anchored in the Gospel, but open to all. Almost all of its 40,000 members in 60 countries are lay people with jobs and families who put prayer and friendship with the poor at the centre of their lives. If they are people of education and privilege, they choose less demanding jobs in order to be more available for prayer and friendship.
No one can say how, exactly, a person becomes a part of the Community: there are no vows, or formal hierarchies as such. "Whoever wants to come takes a step toward the community, which accepts him or her," notes the founder, Andrea Riccardi. Joining, he says, is "the result of two wills coming together". Riccardi acts as an abbatial figure and each of the local communities has a responsable. The Community has a few priests, and a bishop—Vincenzo Paglia of the Diocese of Terni north of Rome, who happens to be also the postulator for the canonisation cause of Oscar Romero—but all were ordinary lay members first.
They asked: ‘How can we spend our lives for others? How can we overcome the loneliness of the modern city?’
Historically, therefore, the Community identifies with that strand in the Church which ties St Benedict of Nursia to St Francis of Assisi—lay men whose intense relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus was shown in their relationship with the poor and their reading of Scriptures sine glossa. The Community's famous work of reconciliation has its echo in St Francis's taming of the wolf of Gubbio and in his crossing the Mediterranean at the height of the Crusades to seek dialogue with the Sultan Melk el Kamal. St Francis, says Riccardi significantly, "brought the Gospel onto the streets. He brought it out of the monastery and the castles."
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan and an old friend of the Community's, recalls wandering the streets of Trastevere in the early seventies. A Jesuit priest at the time, he was troubled by the division immediately after the Second Vatican Council between, on the one hand, those who favoured commitment to the poor and the transformation of society, and those who, on the other hand, stressed interior spiritual growth and prayer. Later he met some members of the Community who invited him to come and see them. "Then I began to understand," he would later write, "to appreciate this living synthesis of the primacy of God, of prayer, and of listening to the Word; of taking God's Word seriously and, at the same time, of dedicating oneself in a concrete, effective way to the poor; of studying society and its problems attentively and with discernment."
The year the students first met—1968—was the time of student activism, of optimism, of revolution.
But while the students shared something of the "spirit of 1968", they chose the Scriptures rather than ideology: they realised the world was not changed by the crucifiers but by the crucified. Andrea Riccardi, an historian by profession, prefers to describe it as an option for history over ideology. He was struck, he said, by a line in a Godard film—"You have to move from existence to history". History, the theologian Yves Congar told Riccardi, creates a profound sense of reality: it teaches complexity; it creates memory. The Bible is, in this sense, history.
Sant'Egidio rejected, in other words, the dichotomy of student radicalism between pure thought and pure action. Sant'Egidio's path was the classic Christian radical one of contemplation in action. The divisions in the Church of the 1970s which bothered Martini—the choice between, on the one hand, the idea that to bring about the Kingdom implied an option for left-wing politics; on the other, a refuge in spirituality, a concentration on interiority, which downplayed engagement with human structures—were not, therefore, the Community's. Sant'Egidio took to its heart the famous words of Karl Barth, that Christians should live "with the Bible in one hand and newspapers in the other".
Most People meet Sant'Egidio, as I did, in the church of Santa Maria in the main square of Trastevere—a vast, ancient basilica where the Community eventually moved to make space for the Romans who want to join their nightly prayer. At 8:30 pm, any night of the week, is a heart-soothing Vespers—known simply as la preghiera, "the prayer"—sung by hundreds of young people. The Prayer reminds visitors at first of Orthodox monastic office, with its smoky candles and icons and choir and shimmering mosaics; but it includes at its heart a proclamation of the Gospel and a ten-minute reflection. Afterwards, the members of the Community hang around the church or move into the square outside. Some will go off to eat in a little restaurant the Community owns, where the waiters have learning disabilities. Some will climb into a car to visit the homeless; others go home to their families.
All this is, in a sense, the answer to the first question asked by the students who gathered in 1968 at the Chiesa Nuova : solitude—how to get out of it and discover others. What has developed since then is the answer: prayer, fraternity and friendship with the poor in an urban context. The contemporary city for the Community of Sant'Egidio is what the desert was for St Antony of Egypt: on the surface a vast, unfriendly place, where the individual is isolated, and must face his or her devils. But it is also the place out of which Christian community, a glimpse of the Kingdom, can be born, through prayer and friendship with the poor.
Christians should live ‘with the Bible in one hand and newspapers in the other.’
Who are the poor? Initially it was the slum children on the outskirts of Rome. These days, it is the elderly, the "new poor" of the Western city. It is also the immigrants, the homeless, the disabled, the prisoners, the mentally ill, the HIV-infected, the children with learning disabilities and the gypsies— anyone, in short, who lives at the neglected margin of the city and who appears, to the eyes of the world, to have nothing to offer it. But the Community knows otherwise: to them the poor are the anawim, the favoured of God. They are where they meet Christ. Their friendship with the poor is what nourishes them and protects them from the urban sin of self-assertion.
Movements sport charisms—unique gifts of the Holy Spirit. For Sant'Egidio, it is the charism of reconciliation. The Community's starting place is always personal: it does not work with the poor; nor does it have an outreach to the poor. The Community is a friend to the poor. The Community delights in meeting people who live on the other side of one of the city's numberless boundaries—between young and old, rich and poor, mobile and immobile—and forging a friendship. What springs from that friendship in terms of practical assistance depends, like all friendships, on what people need, and what can be given.
Whichever city they are in, the communities have a special relationship with its poorer parts. I have visited them in London, New York, Havana, Buenos Aires, and Maputo, and it is this, as much as the icon around which they gather for prayer, that unites them all. In New York, as in London, the Community looks out for the hidden poor, the elderly who live alone in high-rise blocks, attended to materially by social services, but in human terms as abandoned as lepers in Calcutta.
In Buenos Aires, the Community's service is in La Boca, an area of the city where the destitute end up in houses on stilts to avoid the flooding river. In Havana, Community members take the ferry across to Regla, where among the poor in the tin-shack houses they are greeted as good friends, friends to chat to, friends to offer mouth-burning home-made rum to. These friendships are very normal, as friendship always is. But what is extraordinary and quite abnormal is that the friendship exists between people who in contemporary urban society are separated by hidden chasms. Riccardi speaks of the deception of the bourgeois city, the lie of prosperity, which can only be maintained by hiding away the poor. The Community crosses the river, becomes friends to the friendless, and unmasks that deception.
The Community's high-profile work in peacemaking—which has brought with it a misunderstanding of Sant'Egidio as a "parallel Vatican diplomacy"—is simply the extension of this border-dissolving charism. Sant'Egidio has a particular gift for the diplomacy of friendship, which has scored at least one famous success: the brokering of the peace agreement in Mozambique in 1994 which in just three years brought to an end the 16-year-long civil war in that country.
Sant'Egidio became involved in the Mozambican peace process because by then it already had communities in that country. Its friends were starving and dying: war is the mother of all poverty, and peace is above all necessary to the poor. When your friends are dying in a war, you try to end it; if wars persist, it is because we have too few friends caught up in them.
These students realised the world was not changed by the crucifiers but by the crucified.
For the same reason, the Community has set up in Mozambique Africa's first nation-wide Aids treatment programme. If your friends in Mozambique are dying of Aids, you want them to have the kind of anti-retroviral treatment your friends in Europe enjoy. So the Community rejects the notion common in the north that Aids in Africa can only be stopped by prevention alone; the same arguments against administering full HAART anti-retroviral therapy to Africans are the same arguments used against curing TB in the slums of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. The arguments only make sense if the poor are the distant other. Once we make ourselves neighbours to them, the logic dissolves.
The Community's other high-profile work is the annual gathering of faith leaders to pray together for peace. It began with Assisi in 1986, when Pope John Paul II called together representatives of the world's religions to show the world that religion and violence are antithetical, that God is entirely free of violence, that the word for war in God's name is blasphemy. The "Religions and Peace" conference organised by the Community every year since then is the largest interfaith meeting in the world: the last one, in Lyon last September, brought together 500 faith leaders from 50 nations and 5,000 participants. Next year, the meeting will take place in Washington DC in April, followed by a larger gathering in Assisi to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the first.
The dynamic underlying these meetings has been defined in recent years as building a "spiritual humanism of peace". If the world is headed, as Samuel P. Huntingdon famously put it, for a "clash of [religiously-based] civilisations", Sant'Egidio is working to push the globe in the opposite direction.
For all its modesty, the Community of San'Egidio have become experts in networking and campaigning. It has borrowed the skill of socialists at rallies, protests and petitions, and knows how to make use of the media. The Community's public relations are handled by the charming, multilingual Mario Marazziti, a senior producer with the Italian TV company RAI, who organises the Community's slick videos and highly professional press relations. There is almost always some new campaign happening in Rome: a march by the elderly to demand their political rights, an art show by the disabled in the centre of Rome, a lobby of parliament on behalf of immigrants and refugees.
With its acute sense of history, the Community sometimes marches just to remember. Trastevere was once the place, in Roman times, where Jews and later Christians lived, outside the Aurelian wall; during World War II, the Jews in Rome were rounded up by German soldiers using fascist lists, and sent to Auschwitz. What had made the second possible was the herding in the Middle Ages of Jews into the ghetto south of Trastevere. As Rwanda, Bosnia and Northern Ireland—to take just two examples—graphically show, proximity is no guarantee of solidarity and peace. Which is why, every October 16, the Community organises a candlelit march from Trastevere to the old Jewish ghetto, tracing in reverse the route taken by those 1,022 Jews (only four came back)—lest Rome forget.
Another highly effective campaign in recent years has been against the death penalty worldwide. The Community has created a network of 5 million people who are calling for an end to this obsolete, violent, ineffective, humiliating instrument—a campaign which the Community likens to the move to end slavery in the nineteenth century. The "Cities for Life" campaign is typically imaginative: 320 cities—including 30 capital cities—signed up so far agree to light up an urban monument on 30 November each year, the anniversary of the first time in history a state—the tiny Duchy of Tuscany in 1786—abolished capital punishment. This year, for the first time, the list of "Cities for Life" includes three Californian cities—Santa Cruz, Berkeley and North Hollywood—whose authorities have effectively declared themselves opposed to what the state allows. The Community monitors progress towards the abolition of the death penalty around the world on its website, www.santegidio.org. Whenever a death sentence is commuted, the Coliseum in Rome is lit up.
Riccardi recalls the community's first contact with Pope John Paul in 1978. "He was driving by our parish, the first parish he visited, and we called to him. He stopped in and came in to visit the day care centre [for the elderly]. He sat on one of the little benches we had and said, 'Who are you?' We told him about the Community and how we founded the centre. Two months later, he came back to visit the whole Community at the church of Sant'Egidio."
When he addressed the Community some years ago John Paul II singled out two of its vital characteristics: on the one hand, its filoxenia—its love of the outsider—and on the other its openness to the universal. The Community tries to live "without walls", conscious of the tendency in both society and in the Church to build a fortress around itself and to create scapegoats. To the temptation of the Church as refuge and the nation as fortress, the Community responds with a counter-logic of concern for the one who is outside and far away.
If the world is headed for a ‘clash of civilisations,’ Sant’Egidio is working to push the globe in the opposite direction.
Once a year, at Christmas, the Community's unique relationship with the poor is vividly put on show when the pews in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere are removed to make way for tables decorated in seasonal reds and greens. From all over the city, the poor come—the elderly, ex-prisoners, alcoholics, the disabled, immigrants, the homeless—to be served Christmas lunch. Privileged, middle-class Romans serve the poor, turning the tables on society and offering, for a few hours, a clear-sighted glimpse of the Kingdom.
Friendship with the poor is the means, for the Community, of spiritual growth and redemption. The western Christian tradition has always recognised that poverty and weakness are the terrain on which to leave behind the idolatries of this world. In our media-saturated cities, the idols are everywhere, exerting a fascination on us, tempting us to spend our money and time and energy on what fails to satisfy. Like L'Arche, that other great movement alongside the poor, Sant'Egidio realises that the great emotional capacities of mentally ill people call into question the intellectual pride beneath the western assumption that the complexity of the real world can be dominated by reason, just as physical handicaps are sobering for a society drunk on images of people as clean, beautiful and healthy. Urban poverty is not, therefore, something to be "solved"; it can only be conquered through a a conversion which begins by the rich entering into friendship with the poor. As Cardinal Camillo Ruini put it on the Community's 33rd anniversary in 2001: "To choose the poor is to choose God."
Sant'Egidio's "success", if it may be called that, derives from its "weak strength"— daily contact with the Word of God, and with the poor. This is where all the high-profile work—the Cities for Life campaign, the yearly interfaith meetings, the peace-brokering, the Aids projects in Africa—all begins. A community in love with the outsider is, as John XXIII said of the Church he envisioned, "a village fountain", where rich and poor alike come to be cleansed of their diseases, their egotisms, and their fears—a fountain, this time, for a global village.
In the Old Testament a city without walls is not a desirable place to be. It means allowing yourself to fall prey to your enemies. But in Zechariah, the city without walls is the fruit of the Pentecost. It is the place where the gates open to the outsider, and peace flows within. It is the place of laughter, and the love of friends, where the last shall be first. It is not a place which exists for itself, but for everyone; it does not belong, even, to the Community of Sant'Egidio. It is a gift: one that embodies a Church which is for everyone, but especially a Church for the poor.