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Religious life: the ‘United Nations of Trastevere’

21 September 2018

In the third part of our series on the religious life, Pat Ashworth traces the history of the Sant’Egidio Community, from squatting in a convent to opening corridors to Europe


Members of the Community of Sant’Egidio at the World Day of Peace during the Angelus noon prayer in St Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, in 2015. See gallery for more images

Members of the Community of Sant’Egidio at the World Day of Peace during the Angelus noon prayer in St Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, in 2015. See ga...

THE office of vespers is observed every evening at 8.30 p.m. in the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria, in Trastevere. Alongside visitors from around the world are volunteers who serve with the Sant’Egidio Community. The ancient service has all the passion of youth. It is a joyful and uplifting experience.

The Trastevere district of Rome has a special significance for this international lay movement, a Roman Catholic community with 60,000 members worldwide. It originated in 1968, when political unrest was sparking protests all over Europe. Students demanding the power to build a better world were gravitating towards political activity as the way to bring it about.

Andrea Riccardi and a group of college friends thought differently: more than politics was needed if humanity was to have a fresh start. In Professor Riccardi’s view, “It was useless to change social structures without changing people, and dangerous to do so using violence.”

A worker-priest took Professor Riccardi, who was to become a law student and later a professor of contemporary history, to the slums on the outskirts of Rome. Professor Riccardi described it in interviews at the time as “a shocking discovery: the Third World at our doorstep”.

ALAMYA peace march against all wars, promoted by the Sant’Egidio Community, in Milan, in 2016

The group’s work with the marginalised began with setting up an after-school programme to help dropouts return to the classroom. They had modest ambitions: they would pray together, aid the poor, and so help the human condition a little.

In 1974, Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the Vicar General of Rome, convened a diocesan conference on the social problems in the city. It was a people’s assembly, and the group needed a name in order to address the conference. They had worked from places on the outskirts of the city, and rented places in the centre which had proved too expensive. When the Carmelite nuns abandoned a damp convent at the Sant’Egidio church, in the Trastevere district, they squatted there, and were eventually allowed to use it for a peppercorn rent.

When people asked Professor Riccardi what the Sant’Egidio Community was all about, he would tell them: “Come and pray with us.” Reading the word of God and meditating on it is what clarifies the work, he says.

The Community grew into a movement: a network of small communal fraternities in cities around the world. The model is the first Christian community; at its heart is the Church’s preferential love for the poor, the primacy of prayer, and what they describe as “a pronounced sense of God’s mercy for the sick and sinners, Jesus’s compassion for the crowds, his invitation to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom, and to heal all manner of disease and sickness”.

ALAMYThe President of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, visits the headquarters of the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, to speak on the process of peace and national reconciliation begun in the country after the political agreement signed in Sant’Egidio in 2017

AT THE 50th-anniversary celebrations in New York, in March, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican Observer at the UN, said that the distinctive quality of Sant’Egidio was members who “recognise that the whole world is their neighbourhood, and everyone in need is their neighbour, and every victim of war is their sister, and every victim of oppression is their brother, and every child dying of famine is their own child, and every child who has never been to school is their own student, and every elderly poor and abandoned is their own parent, and every step that we must take must be a step to achieving peace”.

The Community’s work has expanded to address new forms of poverty: elderly people living alone and unable to cope; immigrants; the homeless; the terminally ill; children at risk of social exclusion; itinerants; the physically and mentally disabled; drug addicts; war victims; prisoners; and those under sentence of death.

They run language courses for immigrants, centres that distribute aid, afternoon schools for teenagers, and hostels for the chronically sick. There is the Raoul Follerau hospital in Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa, for TB patients, run by Aid, Health and Development (AHEAD), and a national centre to treat AIDS in Mozambique. Sant’Egidio is among the global leaders on HIV/AIDS, and has been running an anti-AIDS programme in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000.

Two things have brought the Community’s work particularly into prominence: peacemaking in civil wars, and the related global issue of migrants’ attempting to flee to Europe. When Sant’Egidio began, the horizon was, simply, Rome. Then they responded to a cholera outbreak in Naples, in 1973. And then people who had come to know the Community in Rome began to set up communities in their own countries, starting in Europe and spreading into Africa and the Americas.

It has been dubbed “the UN of Trastevere”. Peacemaking efforts began in the early 1980s, helping Christians in Lebanon. The Community emphasises: “Our work for peace is an extension of our work with the poor, not distinct from it.”

In Mozambique, where civil war raged from 1977 to 1992, Sant’Egidio groups long involved in development projects concluded that peace was impossible unless the combatants could be brought together to talk. Known and trusted, they offered mediation in their neutral space in Rome. There were 11 rounds of exhausting negotiations, over 26 months, until a peace treaty was achieved in 1992.

ALAMYThe Church of San Callisto, in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, opened as an overnight shelter by the Sant’Egidio Community, in 2017

They have been peacemakers in Guatemala, Algeria, and Burundi, where they have since participated in the Council for Truth and Reconciliation. The Libyan humanitarian agreement allowing the international community to bring emergency relief into the heavily populated Fezzan district, was signed at Sant’Egidio in 2016 by all political and ethnic groups involved.

At present, they are engaged mainly in Africa, in the Central African Republic, and in South Sudan, where they are working with the bishops of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches to help a country destroyed by years of civil war. They were nominated by the parliament of Italy for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

During the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, the Community has been instrumental in setting up humanitarian corridors for migrants fleeing Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Drownings at sea are “unacceptable”, it has insisted: “Europe must overcome its sterile divisions, and face the immigration phenomenon with a policy combining humanity and security.”

The first refugees to arrive in Italy via the corridors were welcomed in 2016, after a landmark agreement between Sant’Egidio, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, the Waldensian Table (a Protestant organisation), and the Interior and Foreign Ministries (News, 19 February 2016). Under the agreement, refugees classed as “in vulnerable conditions” are allowed entry, and the cost of their journeys is covered by the three organisations.

ALAMYPreparing for the new arrival of 125 Syrian refugees in Italy via the humanitarian corridors promoted by the Sant’Egidio Community and the Italian Protestant Churches, in 2017

On arrival, the migrants are able, with the help of the Community’s networks, to take part in an integration programme that includes Italian lessons, help with finding a job, and school enrolment for children. To date, 1500 Syrian refugees have arrived in Italy from Lebanon under this agreement.

Offices have been set up in Morocco, Lebanon, and Ethiopia, and both France and Belgium have signed similar agreements in partnership with faith groups.

“It’s . . . significant that almost everywhere, humanitarian corridors are possible, thanks to ecumenical work,” Sant’Egidio’s spokesman, Roberto Zuccolini, says. “In this way, Christians of different confessions have united their efforts to answer the greatest challenge of our time: to welcome and integrate refugees into European societies.”

Mediterranean docks cannot be closed, he insists. “European countries have to remember their history, their values, and fulfil their responsibilities. We are convinced that humanitarian corridors — a safe and legal way for both those who leave and those who enter — will continue.

“But we must also open legal routes for those seeking a job on our continent. Because, currently, the only way to reach Europe is illegal, which feeds mafias and other criminal organisations.”

PEOPLE of all ages and from all walks of life are drawn to Sant’Egidio, an inclusive community where everyone has a place, Mr Zuccolini says, and everyone is asked to share the spirit of Sant’Egidio: “Prayer, communication of the gospel, service to the poor, and work for peace. The gospel is for everyone, and everyone is asked to open the heart and change.”

It remains faithful to the foundations laid down 50 years ago by Professor Riccardi, who urged churchgoers to be involved in social issues in order to help society be an expression of solidarity. Globalisation, he said, “makes it urgent to find ways to live amicably, despite our differences”.

ALAMYMembers of the Sant’Egidio Community of Turin distribute food to the homeless, in 2017

The Pope celebrated the 50th anniversary with the Rome ommunity in March, when he praised the Community’s generosity and open heart.

“Fifty years of Sant’Egidio has showed us the power of prayer and friendship,” Mr Zuccolini says. “We would like to continue this way — to live and communicate to all the joy of the gospel, which frees from all fear and poverty.”

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