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Host Sant’Egidio community in familiar mediator role

NCR Staff

Though a product of the same late 1960s radicalism that gave birth to the yippies and “flower power,” Rome’s Community of Sant’Egidio is today anything but a faded icon of another era. Instead, it is regarded as one of the most effective nongovernmental bodies in the world in the quest for peace, justice and interreligious tolerance.

The difference may be that while other student radicals drew inspiration from Che Gueverra or Mao, the founders of Sant’Egidio looked to the gospels and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Launched in 1968 by an Italian high school student named Andrea Riccardi, Sant’Egidio (“St. Giles” in English) takes its name from an old Carmelite convent in Rome’s Trastevere district where early members gathered for worship. The idea was to develop a common spirituality and to apply it in service to the poor of Rome.

The group began by living and working among the “forgotten people” along the city’s periphery, living John XXIII’s motto that the Catholic church is “for everyone, especially the poor.” Members founded so-called “popular schools” in order to boost educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Early on, a custom developed of gathering for prayer at the end of the day. Today the community offers a public vespers service every night at 8:30 in the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Overflow crowds of young Romans and pilgrims come, drawn both by the beautiful music and by the clear connection Sant’Egidio seems to make between liturgy and life.

The community runs the best-appointed soup kitchen in Rome, where 1,500 diners a day are treated like guests at an elegant trattoria, seated at tables and served a full-course meal from a menu. Sant’Egidio members also minister to the elderly, to the handicapped and to persons with AIDS.

During the 1980s, as Sant’Egidio began to expand internationally (today it has some 30,000 members in 35 countries), members found themselves wanting to do more than compensate for the effects of poverty. They wanted to attack the problem at its roots, and that meant working to end war. A breakthrough success came on Oct. 4, 1992, when they brokered a peace accord in Mozambique, ending a brutal civil war that had left more than 1 million people dead over almost two decades.

The former secretary general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, coined the phrase “the Rome formula” in reference to the community’s careful, painstaking approach.

Sant’Egidio also played a role in negotiating an end to the civil war in Guatemala with a Dec. 29, 1996, peace accord that paved the way for a truth commission to document the horrors in that nation over the preceding 25 years.

These efforts have drawn much praise, but some observers say the community’s ability at self-promotion has run ahead of its success on the ground. Many of its other efforts to bring peace -- in Algeria, Kosovo and Burundi -- failed, and even in Mozambique rebel forces have not fully demobilized. According to the United Nations, the country is still a major crossroads in the global small arms market.

Nevertheless, Sant’Egidio is widely sought after as a mediator in conflict situations. Riccardi has won the UNESCO Gandhi Medal, and the community has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This commitment to peace also led Sant’Egidio into a commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. In 1986, John Paul invited leaders of the world’s major religions to join him in Assisi to pray for peace. That session generated sharp criticism from the right, which worried about blurring Catholicism’s distinctiveness. Sant’Egidio, however, picked up the “spirit of Assisi” and has sponsored annual interreligious gatherings ever since.

Sant’Egidio is considered one of the so-called “new movements” that have sprung up in the Catholic church following Vatican II, and it is not without detractors. Some critics see a cult of personality around Riccardi, today a professor of contemporary history at Rome’s Sapienza University. Others suggest Sant’Egidio has forged close ties with the Vatican and the Italian hierarchy at the cost of its independence.

Some commentators charge, for example, that Riccardi has become a favorite in the halls of power in part by allowing Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar of Rome, to bask in the reflected glory of the community.

That John Paul II favors Sant’Egidio is clear. Riccardi is frequently invited to speak at Vatican events, and last March the pope made Vincenzo Paglia, one of the community’s few priest-members, a bishop. Before the appointment, Paglia was the official responsible for the cause of declaring the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero a saint.

Members of the community, however, say they are not interested in ecclesiastical preferment.

“We are men and women together, children of both ’68 and Vatican II, who want to live the whole gospel without addition, as laity,” said Mario Marazziti, a spokesperson for Sant’Egidio. He sat down with NCR after evening prayer at Santa Maria in Trastevere Sept. 20.

“The aim is to change one’s own life, and through so doing to change the world,” Marazziti said, “without relying on power.”

Paulist Fr. Paul Robichaud, pastor of the American parish in Rome at Santa Susanna, told NCR that Sant’Egidio’s diplomatic success has given the community an unusual degree of clout for a lay movement. “There aren’t many groups in Rome with a direct pipeline to the [Vatican’s] Secretariat of State,” he said.

Robichaud praised the community’s outreach to young Romans. “They make church a place they want to come,” he said. “They’ve created a thriving ministry in the center of the city, and that’s not easy to do.”

There are two Sant’Egidio affiliates in the United States, one in New York and the other in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000