When Pope Francis travelled to Assisi recently to mark the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic day of prayer there (one which has given rise to an endless source of rumors and dubious innuendos about syncretism over the years), one name on the list of participants may have gone unnoticed by many people among the many dignitaries and religious leaders attending: Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Based in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, Sant’Egidio is one of the “new ecclesial movements” so prevalent within European Catholicism. From its humble beginning in 1978, the community which focuses on prayer, solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged, and ecumenism has spread to over 70 nations.
Most Catholic visitors to Rome are often told that one of the top five things they should do is to attend the community’s evening prayer, held every night in the stunning basilica of Our Lady of Trastevere. Many often then reserve a table at the small, economical and delicious Trattoria degli Amici, a restaurant organized by the community where the staff are developmentally and physically challenged in various ways. The spiritual ethos of Sant’Egidio leads them to try to live out the teachings of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching in small ways like this, realizing the importance that dignified labor provides for all human beings.
Members of the community work in every area of service: hospice to HIV/AIDS patients, homeless shelters and food pantries, refugee centers, nursing and elderly care facilities, death row cells.
They are involved in other more macrocosmic efforts at global peacekeeping and rapprochement. Decrying conflict and poverty, they have helped reconciliation efforts in war-torn nations like Mozambique, Algeria and the Balkans. They continue to frame such important diplomatic endeavors in terms of interpersonal relationships and solidarity.
Perhaps their most famous event is held on Christmas, when the enormous basilica is cleared of the normal seats to bring in long tables. Rome’s homeless, itinerant and forgotten are invited to a traditional holiday banquet beneath the mosaics to be served by ambassadors, politicians and a huge staff of volunteers. This tradition has been replicated around the world from Moscow to Latin America.
As the community puts it when asked where the feast should take place: “Everywhere, above all where there is sorrow. In the churches, in the houses but also in the institutions for the elderly, for children, for handicapped people, in the prisons, at the hospitals, and also in the streets. Because, the sense of Christmas is to bring the feast also to the darkest and coldest corners as well as to the most dispersed and forgotten places.
“The feast arrives everywhere: we can, actually, we want to bring the feast in the numerous sad and sorrowful places of the world: that is why the community wants to celebrate Christmas also in the streets, in the prisons, in the institutions, where a lot of people live alone: children, the elderly, sick persons in the hospitals or in the leper hospitals, where they can forget the burden of disease and loneliness, for one day at least.”
Representatives from the American wing of the movement recently met in Washington, D.C. to explore paths forward on ending gun violence in urban centers, among other initiatives. To learn more, the community can be reached at www.SantEgidio.org.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.