Lutheran Bishop, Germany
A German proverb says: Shared sorrow is half sorrow, shared joy is double joy. To share sorrow and joy however is more than just to feel sympathy with another, in reality it means to share life. Not only part of life, but life as a whole – with all its ups and downs, its questions and answers, its problems and fulfillments. And now you may presume: He is talking about family.
Yes, I am talking about family, but I am not only speaking about large families of yesterday and small families of today, but about families as the place where people share sorrow and joy. I love the large family I come from and I love the large family I have at home with five boys and all their different charismas. But “family” is even more than “my family” – the one I come from and the one I have. At home I got a lot of literature about “family” – and most of it I have even read – about family in old Egypt and Greece, family in the Middle Ages, family during Industrial Revolution and family in modern times with all its changes and modifications. But most of all I learned about a wider understanding of family when I came to the Community of Sant’ Egidio.
A couple of years ago the members of the Community of Sant’ Egidio published a book on their Christmas Meal in the wonderful basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. This book is entitled “A worldwide Family without Borders” with an introduction by Andrea Riccardi. The book tells about the thirty years of the Christmas Feast in the basilica. A. R. writes in his preface to the book: “This feast has ripened at a place dedicated to the daily prayer and the liturgy of the Community of Sant’ Egidio. Its beauty, abundance of humanity and deep meaning of this feast are rooted in the Gospel.” The book tells stories of friendship lasting over many years. Basis is the friendship of the community to the poor: Homeless people, lonely people, Sinti and Roma, immigrants, handicapped people, and many others whose life is determined by wounds. This friendship is lived day by day all year long in a personal connection between the members of the community and the poor. So on Christmas day many poor people from all parts of the city of Rome come together in Santa Maria, and this has become a tradition: A family feast for people who have no family. For Sant’ Egidio these friends are no “hardship cases”, no clients as modern social workers would call them. They are regarded as friends and relatives. The Community of Sant’ Egidio lives the service to the poor in the spirit of friendship, in the spirit of family. Christmas is the time when people suffer more from loneliness than at other times. It is also the time when poverty hurts more than at other times The feast together with the poor is something like a family celebration – and the poor are part of this family. This tradition has been exported by the community to many other cities in Italy and other countries of the world. Its purpose is to show that the poor’ s place is in the heart of church. This tradition has not been created by Sant’ Egidio; it dates back to the first millennium of Christianity. It reminds us of the inhospitable “welcome” Jesus found when he came into this world, as St. John writes (Ch.1, verse 11): “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Therefore the Christmas feast in Santa Maria in Trastevere is like a contemporary manger. To welcome the poor in this way is like learning from what Jesus has experienced when he came into this world. As he said himself in St. Matthew, ch.25, v. 40: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” The poor are part of the family of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the lesson, we can learn from the gospel, and that is, where the community learned it, and where we will be able to learn it.
Our panel is headed “Cities, loneliness, relationship, a shared destiny”. Loneliness has become a stigma of our time, and loneliness is not only a question of material needs but a spiritual challenge as well. The World Health Organization (WHO) just published the fact that each year 1 Million people commit suicide. The rate has grown 60 % during the last 45 years. The rate of suicide attempts is 20 times more than the rate of succeeded suicides. About 80 % of them are men. In Germany the rate of people dying from suicide is twice the rate dying from traffic accidents. Fear, loneliness, lack of relationships, and therefore depression is a major reason for this situation. The majority of people dying from suicide are older than 50 years.
What is specific about our cities? Living between freedom and fear – somebody described the situation in the cities. A fascinating variety of life styles is one mark of the city, in a very confined space. And at the same time you will find visible and invisible divisions: rich and poor, natives and immigrants, religious and secular or atheistic. Welfare state, churches’ caritas and diakonia do their very best to humanize the secular city, the city without God as somebody translated the book by the American theologian Harvey Cox written in 1966. In the meantime the situation has changed again quite a bit. I feel reminded of St. Paul speaking to the people in Athens on the Areopagus, as described in Acts 17,22: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. … I found also an altar with this inscription: To an unknown God. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” It seems to me exactly the situation we will find today not only in our cities: A flourishing religiosity, a longing for something that makes sense, but nobody knows where to find it. And like in the times of early Christians people will wonder: Why do they live so different from all others? That seems to me the mystery of Christian “life style” – to live in a way that people will put questions to you: How come? Very often in our western civilization we trust too much in the capacity of welfare state and social structures. We want to get rid of the “good Samaritan” and hope one day the way from Jerusalem to Jericho will be safe enough, so we will not need any Good Samaritan. To me it seems as illusionary as the poster I once saw beside the highway where I live now: “In this state traffic accidents are forbidden. ”
City without God? The message of the gospel is another one: What you have done to one of the least of my brethren you have done to me. We find the Lord in the poor. And if we share our life with them, we will not lose, but gain. That is the wonderful experience many young people all over the world made with and through the Community of Sant’ Egidio. It is a spiritual experience based on the message of the gospel and its option for the poor. If we discover this option for us we will discover part of the truth of the German proverb I mentioned at the beginning: “Shared sorrow is half sorrow, shared joy is double joy.” This experience is worth to pray for it. Maybe we could do it in the way the French Abbé Pierre did it who went to the poor clochards in Paris. He once prayed: “O Lord, give bread to those who are hungry, and make hungry those who have bread.” I wish you both: Hunger and bread.