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Andreas R. Batlogg SJ

The Optimists of Sant'Egidio

About the Profile of a Christian Community
with Global Influence

 

From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2011, P. 613-628
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    On the occasion of the 25th international peace meeting which will take place in September in Munich, Andreas R. Batlogg presents the Community of Sant'Egidio, which by its global commitment at social trouble spots has been bearing for decades a credible witness out of a Christian attitude.

 

From 11 to 13 September 2011 in Munich the 25th international peace meeting will take place. This time it is organized by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising together with the globally present ecclesial community of Sant'Egidio, which north of the Alps is already well known not only to insiders. It has its origins in Rome and has repeatedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The theme of this year's meeting is "Bound to Live Together. Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue" {1}.

Guests from Germany and across Europe are expected, and from around the world high-ranking representatives of religions and of the societal and cultural life as well as heads of state and heads of government, including President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is no coincidence that the 11 September was chosen as the opening date: A decade has now elapsed since two jetliners caused the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and thousands of people were buried beneath them. Another passenger jet raced into the Pentagon in Washington and a fourth plane, which was also hijacked by Islamist terrorists, hit a corn field in Pennsylvania - due only to the spirited intervention of passengers who so prevented a bigger catastrophe. Between the church service in Munich's Frauenkirche and the official opening ceremony in the afternoon, a memorial service on the occasion of the anniversary of the terrorist attacks ("9 / 11") will therefore take place.

At a press conference on 4 July 2011 in Munich, the Secretary of Sant'Egidio, Cesare G. Zucconi, pointed to two other occasions:

"It is of particular significance that this meeting in Munich takes place in the year of the beatification of Karol Wojtyla and 25 years after the historic meeting of Assisi. By a network of friendship among representatives of different religions and cultures from more than 60 countries, the community has since then created a pilgrimage of peace with annual stages in various cities in Europe and the Mediterranean area. {2}

 


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Among the representatives of different religions there are mentioned: for the Catholic Church, besides the host Archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the two Curial Cardinals Roger Etchegaray and Kurt Koch were announced, as well as numerous bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including the President of the Episcopal Conference of Ecuador, for the Orthodox Church delegations of many Patriarchates, for the Protestant Church of Germany the Chairman of the EKD Nikolaus Schneider and Bishop Johannes Friedrich, for Judaism the chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, several rabbis from Israel, Berlin and Cologne and Riccardi Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, for Islam delegations from 20 Arab countries from the Mediterranean area and from Asia, including the Officer of the University of Al-Azhar, the President of the Islamic Center of New Dehli, Wahiduddin Kahn, or the respected parliamentarian from Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, and the two Grand Muftis of Istanbul and Sarajevo, Mustafa Cagrici and Mustafa Ceric. There will be represented also the main Buddhist schools of Japan, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, besides those of Shintoism and of Indian religions.

 

Bible instead of Marx and Mao

Who is this international community that was founded after the Second Vatican Council and backs so intensely this inter-religious prayer meeting? It was held for the first time by Pope John Paul II in 1986 in Assisi, and since 1987 the peacemakers of Sant'Egidio are in charge of it. Where and what are its origins? And what is the secret of its success?

The roots of the community, which has about 60.000 members and is now represented in over 73 countries, go back to the legendary 1968s and to Rome {3}. A group of about 20 high school students of the renowned Roman Liceo Virgilio, among them Andrea Riccardi who later became longstanding president of the Community, met in garages and basements in order to study the Holy Scripture - a counterpoint to the reading of Marx, Mao, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, which at that time was common and considered to be modern. They were animated by the desire to authentically live the Gospel, and tried deliberately to take a different path to societal change than the leftist students, because through the invasion of Russian troops in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 not all people were disillusioned regarding a "humane variant" of the communist state ideology. In retrospect, Riccardi summarizes:

"Socialism did not show a human face. At the same time one could not identify with the brutality of the United States in Vietnam. There was still another position that spoke of the Third Way: neither for the East nor for the West. I personally believe that we must change people. In this sense, I began to read constantly in the Gospel and the Bible. ... and at the same time I kept a certain distance from the church. {4}

 


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From a minor group of the academic Gioventù Studentesca, which had initially its headquarters at the Borgo Santo Spirito, the narrow area between St. Peter's Square and the Tiber River, and was not in everything conform with the other groups, Riccardi formed an own clique; it met for the first time on February 7 1968 in the Oratory Chiesa Nuova, the Church of St. Philip Neri. This meeting is considered to be the "constituent assembly" of the community. The basic question that worried everybody read, "How am I to live as a Christian in a modern city?" {5}

 

The Shock: the Borgate - the Other Rome

Reading the Bible, to which the examination of the founding fathers Benedict of Nursia and Francis of Assisi was added, had a result that was not planned in advance: The scales fell from the pupils' eyes: they saw the social plight - not far away in other continents but in Rome - right on their doorstep. There were sufficient opportunities for social activities - offside the tourist attractions. The immigration from the Mezzogiorno to the borgate, i.e. the outskirts and suburbs, had at all times produced settlements of corrugated-iron huts and shacks. There was also in the course of time the influx of refugees from Africa. The shock that the "Third World" is not a distant reality but begins at the gates of Rome, was traumatic for most kids from good middle-class families: "The illusion of a 'civil city' was that the poor were kept hidden" (20).

Young priests took the youths along into the suburbs. An initially modest but quite effective social service developed step by step: care of abandoned children in afternoon schools, medical services, the care of older people who were thus enabled to stay in their familiar environment, distribution of medicine, procurement of jobs. In his last speech to the Roman parishes Pope Pius XII had spoken of Rome "as almost a mission field", whereas Riccardi in a book published in the late 70s {6} denied that the Eternal City was a holy place - in view of the desert-like, squalid housing areas of the periphery. The eucharist was celebrated even in garages - in the language of the people, however, not in Latin.

As for my part, I thought of the '68 movement and succumbed to the attraction of the Gospel" (18), Riccardi said later. He had recognized that here also "a minimum of theological education is needed and that one must be able to orient oneself, even if the gospel is sufficient in itself" (20). That's why he then began to read theological literature. He fell to reading Yves Congar OP and Marie-Dominique Chenu OP, Henri de Lubac SJ, and Karl Rahner SJ; but he read also Oscar Cullmann and Paul Evdokimov. Riccardi became a self-taught theologian. He initially enrolled for law but became eventually historian specializing in church history.

 


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He later visited many a time Congar in Paris, and the Dominican theologian came to Trastevere and emphasized on that occasion, "the council and '68 were two events that belonged together. ... Both made up the core of the '60s." {7}

 

"The People of Sant'Egidio"

In 1970, the search for premises or a center began. Several attempts failed. At the university, the young idealists were not welcome - a pastor had once called them "extra-parliamentarians of the church", referring to the extra-parliamentary Right and Left, and thus assessed them as "outside the church" (21). They met in San Gregorio on Monte Celio at the Camaldolesi Friars' monastery. In the historic center of Rome they rented then an apartment which soon became too small. Finally, in September 1973 they made a find in Trastevere (trans Tiberim), the historic harbor district on the right bank of the Tiber, near the Vatican, and situated on the slopes of the Gianicolo.

The friends occupied a small abandoned nunnery of the Carmelites. It had originally been built in the 16 century by the Roman noble family Colonna and was now owned by the city of Rome, which did not know what to do with the dilapidated, vacant premises. Meanwhile successively renovated and revitalized, they received in 1978 a lease. The convent at the Piazza Sant'Egidio, with its little church was dedicated to St. Egidio. It has given the Community (quite pragmatically) the name of Sant'Egidio, since 1974 - on the occasion of a meeting of various Roman lay groups - with the addition of "comunità" (community). Soon the members, when they daily met for evening prayer in the church after their social services throughout the city, were simply called the people of "Sant'Egidio" {8}.

The inhabitants of Trastevere were initially "rather viewers": "At the beginning rather indifferent, they are now sympathizers" (40). Foreign visitors came long since not only because of the restaurants or in search of antiques to Trastevere. Sant'Egidio became a trademark and a fixed address at least for a churchly Rome programme. The reputation of the community grew rapidly, partly because prominent churchmen, including the then rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Carlo M. Martini SJ, were fascinated by the community. During an evening stroll, the Jesuit had noticed a young man with a Bible under his arm; he disappeared behind a small door - in the convent of Sant'Egidio, and thus aroused his curiosity. Martini prayed with the young people, celebrated Mass with them, visited the sick and elderly. "After the offered dinner Martini also washed the dishes. Martini was at times every evening with the students. {9}

 


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Also as archbishop of Milan (since 1979) and cardinal he remained closely linked to the Comunità, like several other Jesuits from the headquarters at Borgo Santo Spirito and promoted it according to his possibilities - grateful for his experience during his time as Rector at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and at the Pontifical Gregorian University:

"Then I began to understand and 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. What happened to me, many others have certainly also experienced" (8).

 

Structure, Methods, Programme: "Friendship with the Poor"

At Pentecost 1986, the community was recognized by the Vatican as an international "public association of believers" (CIC/1983, cc. 312-320) according to the new canon law. Statutes were drawn up, which in 1994 were submitted in a renewed and revised version. Every four years, an election meeting consisting of approximately 40 representatives elects the president and a council which includes Italians and non-Italians and is "the trend-setting body" (51). There is a spiritual assistant, who is appointed by the Pontifical Council for the Laity - out of a list of priests proposed by the community. This office was held by the Roman diocesan priest Don Vinzenzo Paglia (born in 1945) until his appointment as Bishop of Terni-Narni-Amelia in Umbria. In 1972 he had joined the community, and from 1981 to 2000 he was parish priest of the parish of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The Bible scholar, who was later heavily involved in Albania, especially shaped the community as regards prayer and liturgy.

Many people support the community of Sant'Egidio - without joining it. The community, says Riccardi, "has the features of a family, and at the same time a solid structure" (49):

"But the 'functioning' of our community is essentially based on the consensus, on the agreement with the Council and within the Council. Certainly, there are also different opinions, different dispositions of people and sometimes different requests and preferences" (54).

The fluid boundaries are also evident in the fact that not only Catholics but also members of other Christian denominations - especially Orthodox Christians are fond of the community's liturgy which is strongly shaped by the Byzantine liturgy ("They see themselves as brothers and sisters in the spirit of Sant'Egidio", 58) - are members or sympathizers, occasionally even Muslims, as in Indonesia:

 


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"Andrea Riccardi sees this as proof that it is no essential constituent of religion to separate people, as it is now almost taken for granted as regards the contrast between the so-called Christian Europe and the Islamic world." {10} Over ten years, the by now late Waldensian pastor Valdo Vinay preached every Thursday evening, without ever having been explicitly a member:

"This openness," said an observer, "belongs to the secret of the spread of the community and its success. A rigid association policy, which first asks for membership and not about what someone can do or contribute, would have suffocated Sant'Egidio." {11}

Although recognized by the Church, the members of the community did and do not want "to be a religious order or secular institution, but as a loose community especially of academics they want to contribute their idealism and their expertise, in order to solve acute social and societal problems." {12}

Besides on donations, today the funding of the community draws on a portion of its members' income, paid over to Sant'Egidio. In some churches, collections are held for the concerns of the community. Social services can be maintained substantially by public subsidies, since the State did no longer refuse the Community of Sant'Egidio the recognition and granted the association as a legal entity and provider of social services the "entitlement to subsidies" [Spendenwürdigkeit]. Besides the nonprofit association, a non-governmental organization (NGO) was established. It carries out international peace projects. And there is a foundation for peace.

Although getting on in years - in 2008 the fortieth anniversary has been celebrated {13} -, despite a highly professional organizational structure the Community has retained the original pioneering spirit:

What mattered for the first activists was to live a new form of contemporary Christianity for laymen. They dissociated themselves from the traditional patterns of church life and their social integration. This was directed both against the traditional Catholic Associations in Italy ('Azione Cattolica') and against 'Democrazia cristiana' (DC) and its church-related environment. In the prevailing pluralism also within the church, Sant'Egidio is the attempt to give ... the testimony of faith a new, distinctive face." {14}

And the programme? The primal impulse remained alive: prayer and friendship with the poor. The youthful idealism of the beginning did by no means disappear over the years. But the community is now a respected, well-established organization. It has also espoused the cause of peace and human rights, ecumenism, dialogue between people of different religions and people of different cultures. The association statute describes in Article 2 as first target "evangelization" and in Article 3 the "service to the poor" (50 f.).

 


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However, it seems that the crucial point is not the social activity and thus the institutional side but the attitude in which one gives help. And so feeding the poor does not fob off them; it is the attempt to give (back) dignity to the nameless of society:

"The most important thing for us is to live in friendly relations with the poor. We in Sant'Egidio see the poor as our friends and family members. In this spirit, we help about 4.000 old people in Rome alone." {15}

On the occasion of the since 1992 regularly organized Christmas dinner in the specifically for this purpose cleared out and adapted church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, this is exactly what it is about: to hand out not only food to them but also to dignify them by laying name tags and gifts with a name tag out ready for the needy {16}.

 

From Rome via Naples into the Entire world - a "Network of Social Mystics"

With its origin in the academic and student environment (up to this day the most members are drawn from there), the community initially had not thought of or even planned to become active outside of Rome. That changed in 1973 when in Naples a cholera epidemic broke out and the community members considered what they should do:

"At that time, we were of the opinion that the South begins behind the shanty towns of the Roman suburbs. Not until then, I got to know southern Italy better. We made arrangements so that some of us were able to go to Naples and to set up a community. This appeared to us to be the minimum of solidarity that we owed those people" (56).

But Riccardi emphasizes the exceptional situation resp. the uniqueness of this action:

"However, this kind of founding, which could be described as 'classic' (some members travel far away and try to build up something there), has not convinced us. We did not want to found a large movement and send people everywhere, and so in some way become a religious order as many others" (ibid.).

But the example set a precedent and found successors. As a result, in Italy communities emerged in Florence, Livorno, Genoa, Novara, Turin, Milan, Parma, Trieste, Padua, Naples, Bari and Catania. Abroad, where the members are "ecumenically more flexible" {17}, groups or branches were established in Antwerp, Belgium, in Barcelona and Madrid, Lisbon, Budapest, Dublin, Prague, and after 1989, even in Moscow and Kiev.

 


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In Germany there are communities in Würzburg, where the association "Menschen in der Stadt e. V." exists, in Mönchengladbach and more recently also in Munich, where the community has about 50 supporters (adults, students, pupils) who at Pentecost 2011 moved into new rooms in the Schwabing parish of St. Silvester, at Biederstein near the English Garden {18}.

But already in the 80s the "network of social mystics" {19} had also offshoots in Latin America (San Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba, Argentina), also in New York and later in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, in Mozambique and Indonesia. There is a group of friends at the University of Algiers. With the exception of Rome, Riccardi sees as specific nature of the foundings:

"All the other communities of Sant'Egidio result from the fact that individual visitors or groups here in Rome discovered our activities and consequently wanted to build such a community also in other places. People come to Sant'Egidio, pray together, and meet members of the community. Some people find themselves in the spirit that prevails among us, especially if they stay for some time in Rome, as e.g. as students. They absorb something of this spirit. If someone tells us that he wants to do something like that at home, we answer him: 'Well. Do what you are able to do'. Then he writes us, perhaps, that he has formed a group of five people who take care of poor children or something like that. Then someone visits him, as soon as it is possible, and we keep in contact with him. At a certain point of time it may happen that everything developed in a way that this group actually becomes a 'Sant'Egidio' community" (57).

"In everyday life," says Hans Peter Oschwald, who in the '70s by a documentary on German television drew attention to Sant'Egidio, "in the wide world the communities work completely independently of Rome. The headquarters in Trastevere ... is something like a mother community. There is also a delegate who serves as a contact point for non-local and foreign groups and discusses with them if needed." {20} What appears actually striking is that it was never planned to export Sant'Egidio. The opposite is true: The development was exactly reverse:

"We have not sought the world, the world has sought us. Friends have come to Rome and asked whether they are able to live our experiences in their country ... Thus, one community after the other came into being, a community of communities, a kind of family which is named after Sant'Egidio. We are not a movement, we are a brotherhood of communities. ... Sant'Egidio thus became first European, then African and eventually Latin American." {21}

Children and old people in need, disabled, disadvantaged minorities as e.g. foreigners, refugees, homeless people, prisoners, street children, lepers, Sinti and Roma gypsies and AIDS patients (including children with AIDS) benefit from this volunteer work.

 


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Canteens and clothing stores enjoy a large clientele. In dozens of countries there are "Schools of Peace", where on the basis of Christian faith not only reading and writing but also the values of human coexistence are communicated. The in February 2002 launched programme "Dream" (Drug Resource Enhancement against AIDS and Malnutrition) was built up with international support and the help of ten African countries and particularly works on the prevention of passing on AIDS from mother to child. Another humanitarian initiative is the project "Bravo" (Birth Registration for All versus Oblivion). It responds to the problem of children who are not officially registered. With its help they learn to exercise their rights and to protect themselves better. Together with the UN and other organizations, the community has been campaigning for years for a moratorium and the abolition of the death penalty.

In its layout, the website of the community (www.santegidio.org), which is accessible in 23 (!) different languages, is similar to an Italian newspaper. It informs constantly about the various projects and uses all the technical achievements such as video news and YouTube, but it also records the history of the community and its spiritual contents. Several times a year you can receive an illustrated "Letter from Sant'Egido".

 

The Special Favorites of the Pope?

Perhaps Pope John Paul II has contributed to the spread and popularity of Sant'Egidio. A rather chance encounter has at least done no harm. The first Roman parish attended by him was San Francesco Saverio in Garbatella, where the community had at that time opened a small kindergarten, after rats had gnawed at a child at night.

That was on 3 December 1978, so not even two months after his election as pope. A few months later, he met all the lay associations in Rome, including the at that time still not officially recognized Community of Sant'Egidio and spontaneously recalled the encounter in Garbatella. And soon afterwards, on 22 July 1979, in the first summer of his pontificate, he invited the Comunità into his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, where he could welcome in the garden about 400 members. "Through you I get to know my church, the Church of Rome" (68), he stated in his speech. A year later, he emphasized:

"After a year of meetings with you and your experiences, I must say as Bishop of Rome that I'm very glad to have you here in Rome. For I believe that your movement, your experience and your reality, that all that which is summarized under the title 'Community of Sant'Egidio' is a kind of evangelical leaven. It is the leaven that makes the mass which is called the church of Rome, or simply Rome grow" (71).

 


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One or two times per year the Pope invited Andrea Riccardi and Vinzenzo Paglia for a meal. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Sant'Egidio, he came on 4 October 1993 to Santa Maria in Trastevere. During his 27 years of pontificate, it was obvious that he had special sympathy with "the people of Sant'Egidio", and that the community got easily and fast access to the Pope. Were they therefore the "favorites of the Pope", who by chance had got them in his "sight"? So much publicly expressed interest and goodwill could not remain hidden from other communities and members of the Curia. Envy and suspicion arose. Riccardi neatly differentiates:

"Let me explain. On the one hand, there is the bishop of Rome, who is a father and a friend; and there's the Pope, who is head of the universal Church with his area of responsibility" (79)

And he never tires of emphasizing that it is not about exploiting the Pope, or "to use the pope for backing one's own ideas" (ibid.):

"We are not allowed to use the pope to legitimize quickly and easily our initiatives or those of others. The history of religion teaches us that in certain countries Catholics have fought each other, and everybody then invoked the pope in Rome. It's a fact: The Curia is a part of the Church of Rome" (77).

Also Benedict XVI, who as Curial Cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for various reasons had reservations about the community, seems meanwhile to have rediscovered Sant'Egidio for himself. In 2008, he has appointed Andrea Riccardi as an auditor in the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, in 2011 in the Pontifical Health Council.

 

Andrea Riccardi - the "Face" of Sant'Egidio

Although he as president has meanwhile been replaced by the historian Professor Marco Impagliazzo, Andrea Riccardi is still "the face" and the guiding spirit of Sant'Egidio. As regards his civilian profession, he is since 1981 Professor of Modern History, History of Christianity and History of Religion at the University of Rome III, at the Faculty Lettera e Filosofia. He gives interviews and as a historian he publishes especially about the history of Christianity and the history of the Popes of the 20th century. He was assistant to Pietro Scoppola, the biographer of Alcide de Gasperi, and wrote a book about Pius XII. As the "chief ideologist" of the community he has published important writings. The titles alone indicate the direction: "God has not Fear" (2003), "La paix préventive" (2005), "Living Together" (2008) {22}. The charismatic man with the meanwhile graying full beard has retained a boyish smile and radiates thus still something of the dynamism and enthusiasm of the founding years.

 


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In the Coronation Hall of Aachen's town hall Riccardi was awarded in May 2009 with the International Charlemagne Prize, which is awarded since 1950 and is considered to be the European Nobel Peace Prize. He thus joins the ranks of Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, Vaclav Havel, Jacques Delors, Bill Clinton or John Paul II. The names show in which "League" Riccardi and thus Sant'Egidio play resp. are classed. "Alone," said the laureate at that time, "politics can not get along." {23} Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament, praised on this occasion Riccardi's concept as an antithesis to Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations".

In this illustrious round, Riccardi nevertheless fits "in no scheme. He has never held a public or political office or attended a diplomatic academy. But as the founder of the 'Community of Sant'Egidio' Riccardi has possibly more contributed to peace in the world and to reconciliation between peoples than many awardees before him." {24}

Riccardi is the living and very vivid proof that the gospel is not only suitable for everyday use; it is also able to bring about concrete results in politics - especially in situations where conventional mechanisms and efforts have no (no longer) effect..

 

The Peacemakers: Quiet Diplomacy

In public, Sant'Egidio is perceived today primarily because of its (mostly) successful peace initiatives, which represent only a portion of its spectrum. When on October 4th 1992 a peace treaty was signed between the Government of Mozambique and Renamo rebels, and thus an end was made to a 16-year civil war which cost more than a million lives, "the people of Sant'Egidio" instantly became internationally known - also beyond their religious and social commitment. This historic moment was preceded by two years of peace negotiations on the initiative of Sant'Egidio.

"The peace efforts of the community," said Riccardi in a publication that looks back on initiatives of Sant'Egidio," show among other things that globalization does not only affect the markets. It is not only a phenomenon from which one has to defend oneself because it favors the invasion of others. Globalization is a reality that makes us global citizens, with the responsibility and ability to act." {25}

In any case, dependent on the conflict situations, this was successful in varying intensity {26}: in Mozambique, Algeria, Guatemala, Burundi, Albania, Kosovo, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.

 


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The community was also active in Sudan, Angola and Uganda and in Lebanon - and who knows where else? One focuses on "quiet diplomacy" and works discreetly and informally, as long as it is possible. No wonder that - in Sant'Egidio an unpopular labeling; like other names it reflects only a part of reality and often rather leaves facts out of account and reduces them - here and there is spoken of the "private" or "little United Nations" {27} or the "UN of Trastevere" {28} (Igor Man).

Riccardi fights against the insinuation that he was something like "the diplomatic arm of the Vatican or of Italy" {29} The "parallel diplomacy" asserted by certain quarters is for him an invention of the media. Such a thing would neither be done nor sought:

"With some members of the Curia I am close friends, but I am aware that Sant'Egidio is a controversial institution. One has to accept it as it is, everything is discussed and is discussible. We are not the Messiah in the sense that everyone is able to identify with us. I dislike the attitude of some groups that feel as the Messiah; it bothers me. For some people the standard of the 'holiness' of others is in how much they can identify with them. But the matter is more complicated. And the church is large. At the same time we must not pursue the policy of the Curia. This is certainly not our job. We are a reality in the Church: we have concerns, ideas and experiences." (78)

Riccardi neatly distinguishes between cultivation of contacts or relationships and lobbying:

"It seems impossible for me to take a place in the Roman church without maintaining relationships with people who are working for the universal Church. Here, however, the question raises: What kind of relationships should you have." (77) He denies to have a special method, and regards this as a matter of principle: "I do not know where our competence lies. I can tell you stories of how the contacts and discussions happened, what our problems were, what our strength was. ... And beyond this ... I can only decidedly advise you against asking an Italian or generally Mediterranean people about their methodology ... " (Ibid.).

Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said in 1993:

"The Community of Sant'Egidio has developed techniques that differ from the techniques of professional peacemakers - but also complement them. ... Their ability to involve others in seeking solutions proved to be particularly effective. It used its own techniques, which can be described as discreet and informal and which at the same time result in a harmonious interaction with the official activities of governments and international organizations. Based on the experience of Mozambique, the term 'Italian Formula' has been coined, in order to describe this mixture of commitment to peace, which is partly dependent on governments and partly not, but unique in its kind. Respect for the conflicting parties and for those that are locally affected by the conflict is crucial for the success of such initiatives" (90 f.).

 


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The formula goes back to the "Roman formula" of Pope John XXIII: "Seek what unites and leave aside what divides." By producing a climate of confidence, a climate of encounter is created which possibly initiates a climate of reconciliation. The crucial point is: Sant'Egidio is usually successful. The message is as simple as - in the literal sense - disarming: talk to each other, unconditionally, in order to find a compromise.

The Washington Post once spoke of an "an unlikely team of mediation peace brokers" (83) - the world provides enough material for it. Despite many successes, Riccardi is realist: "One should not always strive to be the Angel of Peace". {30} In Algeria the community failed. Riccardi nevertheless describes this as a "failure with success", because the Algerian question "came on the first page of the world press; that means this question resp. the search for its peaceful resolution got at last the public attention which it deserves." {31}

 

The "Adventure Assisi"

The motto "Finding out what unites rather than divides" also applies to the ecumenical efforts of the community. Worldwide attention was aroused in 1986 by the world peace prayer of Assisi, initiated by the community. It was necessary to overcome enormous resistance of curial circles. They (i.e. Lefebvrians and other reactionary and conservative factions in the church) were intensely annoyed to see the Pope on a level with the Dalai Lama, a chief mufti and a rabbi, with gurus and Shamans. But as is well known, John Paul II has ignored it, despite all accusations of syncretism and of treason. Since then, the top representatives of the religions meet annually to pray together. Even high-ranking politicians always take part in it. It will be interesting how the "appeal for peace from Munich 2011" will be formulated, with which this year's meeting will be completed on 13 September.

The Community of Sant'Egidio is not the actual inventor of the prayer meeting. But it has taken up the Pope's invitation to continue the prayer "in the spirit of Assisi" {32} , and to cultivate it. This meeting, to which is "ascribed the rank of an unparalleled event in the history of religions and churches", has signal character for the dialogue with other religions and a corresponding theology {33}. Riccardi sees "the spirit of Assisi" as nothing else but "the legacy of the pioneers of dialogue between the religions, which began with the Congress in Chicago a century ago, was afterwards continued, and had eventually impact on the Second Vatican Council" (105).

When in 1987 the Community invited to a prayer on the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, there were strong concerns in the Curia: it regarded "Assisi" as an "unrepeatable cause of the Pope" (75).

 


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During a papal audience, which the community had asked for and where bishops, muftis and rabbis were present, the Pope said to Riccardi, "By a hair's breadth you would have been excommunicated". Riccardi was very much bothered by this remark. John Paul II once again took the microphone and said quite audibly, "You have the courage to continue Assisi" (ibid.). This they do - and soon they meet now in the Bavarian state capital, after Aachen 2003 for the second time in Germany.

 

Visionaries or Incorrigible Optimists?

Are "the people of Sant'Egidio" visionaries? Or perhaps only incorrigible optimists? They believe at least in Christianity's potential for change. They manage to do what established NGOs, but also the UN and other international organizations have often not achieved: they get enemies at one table so that they start at least talking; they are socially active where people slip through the social net. Initially convinced that all this cannot function in the existing groups and factions of the Church in the 60s - many founding members have closely experienced at first hand the crisis of priesthood after the council, the resignation of the charismatic Abbot of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Don Giovanni Franzoni, OSB, had many of them shaken to the core - they have not only dreamed but acted.

"The people of Sant'Egidio" are Christians on whom hopes are pinned. This was also stated by a number of religious orders in 1995. Inter alia the Superior General of the Jesuits, Dominicans, Friars Minor, White Fathers, the abbot primate of the Benedictine monks and Sister Superior General of the Sacred Heart Sisters expressed their friendship and support:

"We believe that you are a contemporary form of the Gospel's dream, which had led St Dominic, St Francis and St. Ignatius. ... It is important that in the church people are who dare to take risks and to plunge into new initiatives, which sometimes may be judged completely differently. ... Don't lose heart! You are a wonderful example of the diversity and richness of charisms in the Church." (32 f.)

Andrea Riccardi has learned from the poor "not to believe in an illusory world without the poor and not to build up artificial walls between me and those who are suffering" (208). Friendship with the poor enriches. Referred to Rome and Europe where Sant'Egidio has its origin, the historian says as regards the future:

"We are now able to build a culture of closeness. But it's much more difficult to live in friendship than to hate an enemy. The culture of friendship is complicated, whereas the culture of hate is easy. That's the problem" (209 f.).

 


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"The people of Sant'Egidio" face this problem. The community has begun at the periphery, at the outskirts of Rome. Its wide-ranging commitment has led them time and again to the margins of society and church. They remained a thriving, attractive community for many people because they know and cultivate a center: the daily prayer. Many priests and members of religious orders frustrated by the post-conciliar developments have taken new courage by Sant'Egidio and have grown in their vocation. New challenges are waiting, also in a Europe that is more and more fixated on the euro and economic agendas:

"Now, because a clear enemy is no longer visible, a certain indifference appears more clearly ... Due to the fact that the church is no longer public enemy number one, her existence is also trivialized. She belongs to a kind of supermarket of everyday life, where all the shelves are somehow the same. I wonder what it means to preach the gospel in this new environment. When I look at our cities with the cathedral in the center, it occurs to me that everything is only archeology, because in the outskirts there are no longer churches which stand in the middle, and maybe that is the reason that there is no longer a center in the personal and social life" (210).

These are questions and concerns which already in 1968 worried the high school students. They were the trigger for the founding of Sant'Egidio.

 

NOTES

{1} The programme and a variety of information (partly translated into English), can be found on the website of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, see www.erzbistum-muenchen.de/Page012969.aspx.

{2} The statement is published on the website of the archdiocese www.erzbistum-muenchen.de/media/media16469720.PDF.

{3} The numbers vary, since there is no official membership and sometimes one rather speaks of "supporters" of the community than of members, occasionally there are mentioned more than 70.000 members.

{4} A. Riccardi, Sant'Egidio Rom u. die Welt. Gespräch mit J.-D. Durand u. R. Ladous (St. Ottilien 1999) 17 f.; quotations from this extensive interview are given in the text with page numbers in brackets.

{5} "Das Evangelium neu entdecken". Ein Gespräch mit Andrea Riccardi von der Gemeinschaft Sant'Egidio, in: HerKorr 52 (1998) 127-132, 127.

{6} See A. Riccardi, Roma, "città sacra"? Dalla Conciliazione all'operazione (Milano 1979).

{7} "Das Evangelium neu entdecken" (note 5) 127.

{8} H. Oschwald, Bibel, Mystik u. Politik. Die Gemeinschaft von Sant'Egidio (Freiburg 1998) 30.

{9} Ibid. 29.

{10} Ibid. 120.

{11} Ibid. 38.

{12} V. Conzemius, Politik u. Mystik. Die Comunitä von Sant'Egidio, in: NZZ (international edition), 13. 4. 1999, 38.

{13} On this occasion, in Würzburg on 23 November 2008 November 2008 in the cathedral a festival service took place. It was celebrated by the president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko.

 


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{14} K. Nientiedt, "Türen u. Fenster offen halten". Die römische Gemeinschaft Sant'Egidio - ein Beispiel zeitgenössischen Christentums, in: HerKorr 63 (2009) 242-247, 243.

{15} "Das Evangelium neu entdecken" (note 5) 128; see about it A. R. Batlogg, Freundschaft in Gott. Besuch in der Gemeinschaft S. Egidio in Rom, in: GuL 61 (1988) 219-227.

{16} See Gemeinschaft von Sant'Egidio, Das Weihnachtsmahl. Eine weltweite Familie ohne Grenzen (Würzburg 2010).

{17} Oschwald (note 8) 117.

{18} See F. Ertl, Friede auf Erden. Eine Begegnung mit Andrea Riccardi, dem Gründer der Gemeinschaft Sant'Egidio, in: Münchner Kirchenzeitung, 12. 6. 2011, 13.

{19} Oschwald (note 8) 55; see A. R. Batlogg, Weltweites Netzwerk sozialer Mystiker. Die Gemeinschaft Sant'Egidio: Beten, Helfen, Frieden vermitteln, in: Die Furche (Wien), 12. 11. 1998, 9.

{20} Oschwald (note 8) 118.

{21} "Das Evangelium neu entdecken" (note 5) 131.

{22} A selection: A. Riccardi, Salz der Erde, Licht der Welt. Glaubenszeugnis u. Christentum im 20. Jahrhundert (Freiburg 2002); the same, Gott hat keine Angst. Die Kraft des Evangeliums in einer Welt des Wandels (Würzburg 22003); the same, Der Präventivfriede. Hoffnungen u. Gedanken in einer unruhigen Zeit (Würzburg 2005); the same, Die Kunst des Zusammenlebens. Kulturen u. Völker in der globalisierten Welt (Würzburg 2008); see by the same the until now not yet into German translated books: Mediterraneo. Cristianesimo e islam tra coabitazione e conflitto (Milano 1997) and Governo carismatico (Milano 2003).

{23} Quoted from: (reb.), Karlspreis an Andrea Riccardi verliehen, in: FAZ, 22. 5. 2009, 5.

{24} D. Deckers, Ohne SChema, in: FAZ, 20. 5. 2009, 10.

{25} A. Riccardi, Einleitung, in: Wege zum Frieden. Die internationale Friedensarbeit der Gemeinschaft Sant'Egidio, edited by R. Morozzo della Rocca (Würzburg 2010) 7-20, 20.

{26} See D. Deckers, Die Friedensstifter von Trastevere, in: FAS, 17. 5. 2009, 11.

{27} See Nientiedt (note 14) 245.

{28} Oschwald (note 8) 13.

{29} "Das Evangelium neu entdecken" (note 5) 129.

{30} Ibid. 130.

{31} Ibid. 129 f.

{32} John Paul II, Farewell address of 29. 10. 1986 in Rom to the participants from various religions in the Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986; quoted from: Der Dialog muß weitergehen. Ausgewählte Dokumente zum interreligiösen Dialog, edited by E. Fürlinger (Freiburg 200) 118.

{33} M. Seckler, Synodos der Religionen. Das 'Ereignis von Assisi' u. seine Perspektiven für eine Theologie der Religionen, in: ThQ 169 (1989) 5-24, 5.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'