VATICAN CITY — Seated on one side of this reporter was a very elderly woman with a wizened, smiling face. On the other was a placid old gentleman, wide-eyed and blinking in a wheelchair.
They were seated near a boy with Down syndrome, homeless men and women — and hundreds of clergy, religious and laity from around the world.
Such was the diverse cross-section of society attracted to the Sant'Egidio Community, which celebrated Mass on Feb. 5 to mark the 36th anniversary of the founding of the organization.
The community is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council and began in Rome in 1968 at the initiative of a young man named Andrea Riccardi.
Now 53 and after winning numerous prestigious awards, Riccardi leads a movement of lay people numbering 50,000 members in 63 countries.
Its aim is to serve the Church and the world through prayer, solidarity with the poor, communicating the Gospel, ecumenism and dialogue.
“The liturgy tonight created an atmosphere of sympathy — a togetherness of the heart,” said Bishop Luigi Paiaro of Nyahururu, who had flown in from Kenya to attend the event in the splendor of St. John the Lateran Basilica.
“That's what the Sant'Egidio Community is to me — its charism is knowing how to interpret new aspects of the Gospel that have been forgotten, namely compassion and love for the poor.”
The principal celebrant in the colorful liturgy was Cardinal Camillio Ruini, the vicar of Rome. “He gave us substantial support,” Sant'Egidio spokesman Claudio Mario Betti told the Register after the Mass. “What we are trying to live is the reality of the Gospel.”
Spirit of St. Francis
And it is a philosophy that has garnered plenty of respect.
In addition to the domestic work of running soup kitchens for the homeless and building “family homes” for the elderly, the community is very active on the world stage, mediating conflicts, campaigning for fair treatment for AIDS victims in Africa and pushing for a moratorium on the death penalty.
Like its first reference points, St. Francis of Assisi and the early Church Fathers, the community has been able to break down barriers and act as the instrument of miraculous achievements.
The movement's part in brokering peace in Mozambique's civil war, for instance, is said to have been substantial. It has also worked closely with the British Foreign Office in the field of conflict resolution in Africa and Serbia, and continues to work for lasting peace in war-torn Liberia, Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And its success in this field and efforts in dialogue have paid unexpected dividends, hastening progress in interreligious relations.
“We were actually asked by Algeria to work for peace — Muslims asking us as Christians to do this,” Betti said. “[They] thought it amazing what we had done in this area — our work had echoed throughout the Muslim world.”
The community has also had a positive effect on relations with Judaism.
“We have very good relations not only with the community but also its leaders,” said Oded BenHur, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See. “We might actually join our activities in Africa in the battle against AIDS — it's about time we joined hands.”
But while the community is committed to interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, it is criticized by some quarters, including some in the Vatican, who believe its work is having a relativizing effect on the Gospel message.
Betti agrees in “some way” with that argument, but he has great faith in dialogue and insists the community is not trying to confuse the message of Christ.
“Only when one is profoundly rooted in one's own faith and tradition can one dialogue,” he insisted. “Sant'Egidio is profoundly Catholic and Christian and that's why it is able to do this.”
John Paul's Servants
As with almost all the issues it champions, the community follows closely the pronouncements of Pope John Paul II.
“At the first World Prayer Day for Peace in Assisi, the Pope didn't want us to become involved in some kind of syncretism,” Betti said. “But there are things we can do together — work in justice, peace carried out in charity and love,” he said.
The same day as the anniversary, the community launched a campaign that looks at new ways to help the elderly, who, Betti pointed out, “are usually forgotten.” The community is trying to help the elderly in emergency situations, such as the heat wave that claimed thousands of lives in Italy last summer.
So the work of the community, which the Holy Father once said had no limit “but charity,” continues.
And its efforts remain highly valued, as much outside as inside the Church.
“If [Sant'Egidio] didn't exist,” said concelebrant Cardinal Renato Martino after the Mass, “then you would have to create it.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.