SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Andrea Riccardi is a professor of contemporary history at the Third University of Studies in Rome. But the 50-year-old Italian is much more widely known as the founder of the international Sant'Egidio community, one of the most promising lay movements to emerge since Vatican II.

Riccardi's father was a bank president who was largely uninterested in religion. But animated by his own faith, 18-year-old Andrea and some of his friends moved from Rome's wealthy neighborhoods to the city's impoverished outskirts in 1968 and 1969. By 1973, the young people were meeting to read Scripture and pray each night in the St. Egidio Church in the Trastevere area of Rome.

According to Sant’ Egidio and the World, Riccardi's 1996 book about the community, the young activists worked and went to school in the city by day. At night, they roomed in basements in Trastevere to establish solidarity with immigrants, the unemployed, the elderly and lonely.

Early efforts to serve included an outreach to the elderly and home-bound and the establishment of a day care in a neighborhood where a baby had been bitten by rats.

Since then, the tiny group of idealistic teenagers gathered together by Riccardi has grown into an ecclesial community with 40,000 members in 60 nations including the U.S., where Sant'Egidio affiliates have been founded in New York and Boston.

Along with serving the poor, Sant'Egidio has acted as a peacebroker in countries like Madagascar, where the community played a role in the 1992 negotiations that ended 16 years of civil war. Sant'Egidio also has been active in building opposition to capital punishment, gathering 2.7 million of the 3.2 million signatures of death-penalty opponents that were submitted to the United Nations.

The community was nominated for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and received the 2001 Felix HouphouetBoigny UNESCO peace prize in February.

Riccardi recently received the University of Notre Dame's annual Award for International Humanitarianism, given previously to such individuals as Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier and Brother Roger of Taize. He spoke with Register correspondent Catherine M. Odell.

Odell: Please tell how the Sant'Egidio Community was born, when you and your friends were just high school students at Virgilio High School in Rome.

It was 1968, and in that climate, young people were beginning to be protagonists. There were two major influences on us then. One was the Second Vatican Council and the other was the student revolts of 1968. We were a small group of students who discovered the Gospel and we wanted to live with the poor.

I asked myself, “How can we change the world if we don't change the hearts of people?” We believed that the Gospel had those words that could change the hearts of people. We began to work in this shanty-town, this slum next to the Tiber.

Suddenly, all of these young people from rich families were discovering the poor and a large part of the world they had never seen which was poor.

What kept you going in these early years of community life?

What really pushed me to continue was not courage, but the awareness that this was my path. The joy of seeing the poor who were happier and the joy of seeing young people find some motivation for their lives was wonderful.

But, the [response from] the Church was a problem. Sant'Egidio was not being understood or accepted. I have memories of being thrown out every time from one place or another [where we tried to meet]. The priest would throw us out saying, “You are not Catholics. You are Protestants. You read the Bible and there is no priest with you…”

Besides Jesus, who were the patron saints or models for you then?

St. Francis of Assisi, because he was a person who brought the Gospel into the streets. He brought it out of the monastery and the castles. But there were many other encounters with friends who helped me see things differently. I discovered ecumenism through some friends.

How did Pope John Paul II become a friend of Sant'Egidio Community?

Right after he became Pope, he was touring Rome in December of 1978, and wanted to know the city. He was driving by our parish, the first parish he visited, and we called to him. He stopped and came in to visit the day care. He sat on one of the little benches we had and said, “Who are you?"

We told him about our community and how we founded this day care. Two months later, he came back to visit the whole community at Sant'Egidio. We think of him not so much as Pope, but as the bishop of Rome, our bishop.

What are your hopes for the Sant’ Egidio Community?

The hope for this community is that we will never become proud, that we will never think of ourselves as the best in the world. I hope that the community will continue to work for the poor. I want us to be truly brothers and sisters unafraid of evil, unafraid of war and living with the audacity of the simple ones.

The secret of Sant'Egidio is that we are strong. We do have strength, but not the strength of power or money.

Our strength is the strength of faith and love, and sometimes, we can show that this is stronger than the powers that be.

Catherine M. Odell writes from South Bend, Indiana.

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