January 20, 1998
Christianity for a new millennium
Patsy McGarry finds a new religious movement in Italy
facing up to the world's everyday problems
Deep among the unpredictable, cobbled streets of old Trastevere in Rome there is a small, 17th-century church where a revolution has begun. It is the church of Sant 'Egidio (pronounced Ajidio) where, many believe, lie the seeds of a future kind of church.
The people who go there are young, lay Catholics, who are radical in the literal meaning of that Latin-based word (from "radix", meaning root). There, among those tangled streets along which, according to tradition, Saints Peter and Paul walked into Rome, they have gone back to the early church searching for a Christianity which has greater relevance to today.
What they have found has helped them reach across the accretions of history to people of other persuasions and those of none, around the world as they search for that which unites while setting apart what divides.
In the process they have brokered peace in Mozambique, after a 16-year war, have been involved directly in trying to bring an end to conflicts in Guatemala, Albania, Rwanda, Berundi, Algeria, Sudan, Angola, and Northern Ireland. They do so discreetly, away from the limelight. For instance, in 1995 they hosted a meeting in Florence of all parties to the Northern conflict: details remain sketchy.
In 1995, also, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, with the backing of such disparate personalities as chief Mufti Sellani of Tunisia, the former Russian president Mikail Gorbachev, Cardinal Duval of Algiers, Patriarch Bartolomeos I of Constantinople, Rabbi Samuel Sirat, president of the European Rabbis' Association, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and the Islamic University of Rabat.
Meanwhile, they have been caring for about a third of the AIDS patients in Rome. They visit the terminally ill, campaign for better conditions for the elderly, educate the poor, and also help them acquire housing and jobs. At one centre alone in Travestere they serve 1,500 meals a day to emigrants, the homeless, and refugees, and run hostels for those in need of accommodation.
Yet in all of Rome they number just 8,000, while in the rest of Italy 5,000 work in about 20 cities and towns. Outside Italy another 2,500, in approximately 22 countries - including about 20 in Ireland - do likewise. Ordinary, lay people, most in regular jobs, they "live" a practical Christianity of prayer and action 24 hours a day.
Sant 'Egidio (St Giles in English) is a quintessentially democratic organisation, whose leaders are lay and elected every four years, though clergy may be, and are, members. Yet it enjoys the unequivocal support of the Vatican, which in 1986 conferred on the community a unique status as "a Public Association of Laity".
Pope John Paul II has visited the community twice in Trastevere, in 1979 and 1993, and among their most ardent admirers is the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini, the man tipped by many commentators as most likely to be next Pope.
Later, in an interview with the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, he said of them: "In times when religion was becoming either extremely politicised, or retreating into pure spirituality, the community's path seemed to answer a need which I - and many others apparently - felt for a form of evangelical Christianity, capable of responding to people's suffering."
What was to become the Sant 'Egidio community began in 1968, when Andrea Riccardi, an 18-year-old secondary-school student from an upper-middle-class background in Rome, got a few friends together. They decided to apply the gospel in practical ways, while also meeting for prayer. They discovered the Rome of poor, shanty towns on the city's fringes, with its population of uneducated and destitute migrants. The movement grew from there.
Today, Andrea is president of the community and lectures in church history at the La Sapienza University, in Rome. Most members spend their free time living out what he describes as a robust Christianity, while those in the Travestere area gather at 8.30 p.m. each day for about three-quarters of an hour in the church of Sant 'Egidio to pray, sing hymns, and listen as a colleague reads from scripture.
The community's Italian president is Mario Marazziti, assistant to the director of Italy's TV2 station, who joined the community in 1970. It was raining as we crossed the greasy cobbles to the church and Marazziti was explaining the community's policy of having "a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other". He talked of their desire to combine a spiritual life with social commitment in the spirit of Vatican II.
Their service of the poor was because the poor were poor, not because the poor may be, or may become, Christian, he said, and he elaborated on their three principles of spreading the word of God, (generally through example), serving the poor, and ecumenical dialogue. The poor, he said, are at the centre, while the community's peace-making efforts are motivated by a belief that war was the greatest of all poverties.
The word "willingly" was very important where they were concerned, he said, with members giving of themselves what they could - willingly. There was no compulsion, no minimum of service required, no requirement to attend evening prayer.
What became manifest was a 24-hour-a-day Christianity, lacking any hint of piety, or detachment from this world.
In fact Sant 'Egidio is of the world and in the world: they like it that way, and believe it should be that way. Andrea Riccardi has said that the community resists the idea of becoming an institution. They have no wealth, (70 per cent of their funding is collected on the streets, with the remainder coming from state or local authorities for specific projects to help those in need), no power, and no vested interests, he has said.
He feels the community might be described as a symptom of the waning power of institutionalised religion. "Today, the world is less believing than it was yesterday," he told the Financial Times, "but 'secular' doesn't mean 'without faith'. There are people who have faith in the broad sense of the world, if not in the sense of professing a faith."
The interesting thing, he said, was that "in this secular world I, as a Christian, feel myself at ease."
In the church, some 200 young and younger people were at prayer. The atmosphere was relaxed, casual, and friendly. A small choir led the hymns. A cross of St Francis hung just before the sanctuary, underlining the importance of that saint's influence on the group. Another great influence has been the Dominican priest (later Cardinal, and now deceased) Father Yves Congar who helped them towards an understanding of the potential of the lay role in the Church. Icons of the Eastern churches seemed to be everywhere.
Hanging to one side of the sanctuary was an armless Christ on a cross. Its story summed up much of what Sant 'Egidio is about - giving meaning and significance to the abandoned and discarded. Someone found the cross thrown somewhere, Marazziti said. "It is the cross of the powerless," he explained, "but we are its arms: we are the arms of of Jesus."
Religious Affairs Correspondent
of The Irish Times