Peace, the Poor and Sant’Egidio

Parishes and Movements Series, Part 10

BOSTON — St. Francis of Assisi exhorted believers to “Preach the Gospel always — and use words if necessary.”

It’s little wonder that St. Francis — and the first Christian community of the Apostles — helped inspire a high school student named Andrea Riccardi to listen to and live out the Gospel more fully through friendship to the poor.

In 1968, Riccardi and some friends began Sant’Egidio, a new movement in the Church that began ministering to the poor in the streets and slums of Rome. (Sant’Egidio — “St. Giles” in English — was the first church where the group held prayer meetings.)

Today, 50,000 Christian lay people are committed to various initiatives in more than 70 countries.

Sant’Egidio communities have sprung up in the United States since the 1990s, beginning in New York City and spreading to Berkeley, Boston, Minneapolis, South Bend, Ind., and Washington, D.C.

Sarah Moses, an organizer of the Boston community, told the Register how Riccardi’s inspiration plays out today, particularly during the era of the New Evangelization.

“We are trying to be an example of how lay people can fully live the Gospel in their lives,” she said. “For me, there is a sense that the community is an example of how to have a vibrant faith, reach out to the world and be joyful about our faith. I hope that’s what we are for people, inside and outside the Church,” Moses said

Sant’Egidio is based on five tenets: prayer, communicating the Gospel, solidarity with the poor, ecumenism, and dialogue to resolve conflict or differences.

These translate into various initiatives, including inviting anyone and everyone to weekly prayer meetings, establishing friendships with the poor, the elderly, immigrants, and any marginalized population, running Schools of Peace for more than 100,000 children in five continents, participating in the annual World Day of Peace, reaching out to death row inmates, starting Project Dream, an HIV/AIDS treatment program in sub-Saharan Africa, and helping to mediate an end to Mozambique’s civil war in 1992.

Like other new Catholic movements such as Focolare, Sant’Egidio invites adherents of other faith traditions and all people of good will to be part of their community — in both the giving and receiving ends.

“Who is and who is not part of Sant’Egidio is a fluid thing,” said Moses. “The elderly Russian Jewish immigrants we visit are just as much a part of the community as some of the undergrads who help but don’t consider themselves to be of any faith. Some people volunteer and don’t come to our prayer meetings,” she said.

Bearing Fruit

In an ongoing series on new ecclesial movements and how they help parishes, the Register looked at the Sant’Egidio community in Boston, where a few dozen members visit two nursing homes and a low-income housing development for the elderly weekly, run a School of Peace on Saturdays for children in Jamaica Plain, and hold three prayer meetings a week. Moses estimates that the community serves about 50 elderly and 25 grade-school-age children.

Betty Toohey is just one of the beneficiaries of Sant’Egidio’s ministry in Boston. The 77-year-old initially was touched by the young people taking interest in the lives of the elderly at her housing complex; now she goes with them to visit her peers in a nursing home once a month.

“Sant’Egidio has gotten me to feel like I can always do something, despite my age and any physical problems,” Toohey told the Register. “I am so motivated to keep on doing things; I know that I have a lot to look forward to when I get up in the morning.”

Toohey, who is from the Baptist tradition, also attends a weekly prayer meeting as often as possible. She told the Register that when the community first invited her to pray with them, she hadn’t been to church in years. “My young friends know what different religions we all are,” Toohey said, “but you’re just one of them.”

Moses — who happens to be Episcopalian — stressed that the community serves anyone in need and attempts to live the Gospel rather than verbally preach it. “We don’t hide who we are, but we make it clear that anyone can be part of our friendship,” she said. “Eventually, if it’s appropriate, we evangelize by inviting them to prayer.”

Due to Sant’Egidio’s outreach, Moses has seen some elderly reconnect with their faith. “It’s beautiful to see not necessarily a conversion but a sense of reawakening of a faith by helping them be at prayer,” she said.

Parish Connections

Though Sant’Egidio holds prayer meetings at three Catholic churches in the Boston area, the community doesn’t have a particularly large presence in the parishes. Passionist Father Roger Elliott, pastor of St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Brighton, said the parish has been happy to host the prayer meetings, but doesn’t have many dealings with Sant’Egidio otherwise. Still, he told the Register that he is open to the new movement’s presence at the church. “Whatever comes along, I’ll give it a chance and see what it’s like,” Father Elliott said. “They seem to be good people and very zealous in their care of the elderly.”

As a parishioner at St. Mary of the Annunciation in Cambridge, Bob Doolittle has attended a Sant’Egidio prayer meeting and potluck dinner there.

Despite Sant’Egidio not having close ties to the parish, Doolittle said that the community is well respected. “They are exquisitely good people — you can feel it and see it,” he said. “They are off the charts caring for people. In whatever way they can they walk with people, wherever they are.”

Moses said that the community has talked a lot in the last few years about what it means to be connected to a parish.

“We’re always happy to connect with a parish, but as a lay movement we are not limited to the parish as far as membership and identity,” she said.

Paola Piscitelli, New York City-based president of Sant’Egidio in the United States, told the Register that she didn’t think one movement should necessarily overlap or coincide with a parish. “The parish has a larger mission to gather different identities,” she said. “I think it’s good when a parish welcomes several movements so people can be enriched in several ways. For a parish to say ‘I’m a Sant’Egidio parish,’ it’s limiting in the sense of welcoming others.” She added, “There are many different ways to live the Gospel.”

Annamarie Adkins is based in

St. Paul, Minnesota.

At a Glance

Movement: The Community of Sant’Egidio, the focus of this article, is an apostolic movement of moral and religious renewal.

Founding: Andrea Riccardi, a Roman high school student, started the Community of Sant’Egidio in 1968, in the climate of renewal created by the Second Vatican Council.

Membership: The Community of Sant’Egidio comprises a network of small fraternal life communities, with about 50,000 members in 72 countries, in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America.

Character: From the outset, specific features of the community have been service to the very poor and defense of human dignity and human rights, together with prayer and the communication of the Gospel. It has established ways of helping and extending friendship where there is poverty under many forms (elderly people living alone and unable to cope, homeless people, terminally ill and AIDS sufferers, children at risk of delinquency, physically and mentally disabled people, drug addicts, war victims, inmates and people under sentence of death).

How it fits in: On May 18, 1986, the Pontifical Council for the Laity decreed the Comunità di Sant’Egidio to be an international association of the faithful of pontifical right.

On the Web: