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Perennial hopeful sees Nobel pass by again


As far as the Nobel Peace Prize is concerned, the Community of Sant’Egidio has become something like the Boston Red Sox -- a squad forever on the verge of winning the big one, only to see it slip away.

And, like the Red Sox, the annual disappointment for Sant’Egidio comes in October.

Ironically, the announcement that the Nobel committee of the Norwegian parliament had picked Jimmy Carter for this year’s Nobel came midday on Oct. 11, the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the event that breathed life into Sant’Egidio. Founder Andrea Riccardi, a widely respected Italian church historian, was taking part in a round table discussion on the council at Rome’s Foreign Press Club when the news broke.

Riccardi betrayed no emotion, but he could be forgiven for feeling that another crowning moment had come and gone.

It is a measure of what makes Sant’Egidio unique that while other new movements inside Catholicism get excited principally about ecclesiastical honors, such as the canonization of their founders, Sant’Egidio Ñ which, to be sure, does not snub signs of hierarchical favor -- nevertheless covets the Nobel Prize above all.

Launched in 1968 by Riccardi, then a high school student in Rome, Sant’Egidio (St. Giles in English) takes its name from an old Carmelite convent in the Trastevere district where early members gathered for worship. (Sant’Egidio is today nicknamed “the U.N. of Trastevere.”)

Inspired by Vatican II and the leftist student energies of the time, members began by living and working among the poor along the city’s periphery. They founded “popular schools” for disadvantaged children.

In 1986, when John Paul II called leaders of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for peace, Sant’Egidio welcomed the initiative despite criticism from some quarters that the event risked relativism. Every year since, they have sponsored an interreligious gathering to keep “the spirit of Assisi” alive.

In various parts of the world, Sant’Egidio has been involved in negotiating an end to armed conflicts. A breakthrough success came on Oct. 4, 1992, when they brokered a peace accord in Mozambique, ending a civil war that had left more than 1 million people dead. The community proudly says the Mozambique deal was “the first intergovernmental agreement ever negotiated by a nongovernmental body.”

The community also took part in negotiations in Algeria, Guinea Bissau and Yugoslavia. It is credited with playing a role in the 1996 peace treaty in Guatemala, ending a 36-year conflict that saw some 200,000 people “disappeared.”

Sant’Egidio is active on human rights issues, especially its campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide. In 2001 the community delivered a petition with 2.7 million signatures supporting abolition of capital punishment to the United Nations.

Because Sant’Egidio was born in Rome, and because it is involved in a bewildering variety of secular and ecclesiastical projects in the city, its local profile is high. While Catholics elsewhere may associate “new movements” with the conservative wing of the church because of the influence of groups such as Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, and the Neocatechumenate, Vatican officials tend not to make the same association because the movement they know best is often Sant’Egidio.

For its contributions, Sant’Egidio won the 1999 Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize, awarded by a U.N. jury headed by former U.S. Secretary of State (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) Henry Kissinger.

Also in 1999, Sant’Egidio won the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize in Tokyo, awarded by a committee of seven members representing the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

The big one that has so far gotten away, however, is the Nobel.

Every year for the last decade, the community has been tipped as a candidate. This year, for example, the American Friends Service Committee, a co-recipient of the award in 1947 on behalf of all Quakers, nominated Sant’Egidio.

“Their commitment to nonviolence and their sustained and effective peace building work amply qualify the Community of Sant’Egidio to join the ranks of other Nobel Peace laureates who have pointed the way toward world peace,” said Margery Walker, clerk of the Nobel Nominating Committee of the American Friends Service Committee.

Sant’Egidio officials thought 2002 might be the best shot, since it marks the 10th anniversary of the Mozambique peace accords.

Though rarely expressed out loud, Sant’Egidio’s interest in the Nobel is clear to those who know the group. A few critics, turned off by what they see as the community’s appetite for self-promotion, have actually said they wish the Norwegians would give Sant’Egidio the prize so they can get it out of their system.

Perhaps Riccardi can take some consolation from a bit of history. In 1994, the U.N. awarded the Houphouët-Boigny Prize to Jimmy Carter; in 1999, it went to Sant’Egidio. In 1992, the University of Notre Dame bestowed its international service honor on Carter; in 2001, it went to Riccardi and Sant’Egidio.

If this trend holds, Carter’s victory may mean there is hope yet for Sant’Egidio’s Nobel cause.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002