President George Bush’s June 9 visit to the Sant’Egidio community in Rome highlighted the acclaim the Catholic group has earned for its international peacemaking efforts.

Sant’Egidio spokesman Claudio Betti, a history professor at the University of Perugia, joined the community in 1971 at the age of 14. He spoke in the garden of Sant’Egidio headquarters in Trastevere about the community’s origins and achievements.

How did Sant’Egidio start?

It was back in 1968 when a group of students led by Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the community, decided to try to live the Christian life and an ordinary life. And we began to meet before going to school for prayer and in the afternoon they went to meet the poor in a very poor area of Rome.

That was really the beginning. It was a very intense period, just after the Second Vatican Council, and it was just after or during the student revolt.

So these two aspects, let’s say a social desire for change and a religious desire for change, met together in Sant’Egidio.

From its origins, was it intended to reach out to the poor?

Let’s put it this way: Prayer and service were always at the root of the community. I would add also a third aspect that has always been very important which is friendship. We’ve always wanted to be a community, not a movement as such, but a community, and with a sense of family.

The first young people started to read the Gospel before entering school and served the poor in the afternoon and tried to live a life of community.

Why has Sant’Egidio been called the United Nations of Trastevere?

You must remember that our main focus has always been service to the poor. That has never faltered. We have always been close to the poor wherever they were.

And so we started by helping the young kids in school, helping immigrants from the south of Italy. Of course as the community developed we began to meet new forms of poverty. We met the immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities.

As the community spread in other countries, we also met the great poverties of the world and one of them was war.

And we’ve always thought that war was the mother of poverty. And we can say the mother of all poverty because where war is, there cannot be any form of development, or growth, of the society. And that is the reason why we started the work for peace.

That’s probably why they called us the U.N. of Trastevere because we started back at the end of the 1980s, in this very garden. There is this very beautiful banana tree and that was the place we had the first toast between the guerrilla movement of Renamo and the government of Mozambique, which was the real first enterprise of peacemaking in the Community of Sant’Egidio.

We had the guerrillas and the government of Mozambique here for 27 months, 11 rounds of talks, and Father Matteo Zuppi, a priest of the community, and a bishop of Mozambique.

This team of negotiators led the negotiations for 27 months, arriving on Oct. 4, 1992, to the signing of the peace agreement in Mozambique, and don’t forget, it’s St. Francis’ feast day. And the peace was signed and ever since Mozambique has been at peace.

After that, a lot of people wanted this house to be like a house of peace. We have been recognized, especially in Africa, as people who are able to bring about changes in situations of conflict.

What’s the secret of Sant’-Egidio’s effectiveness?

There is no break between how our communities live with the poor every day, every single day at the grassroots, and the big international commitment of the community. The focus is the same, it’s the idea of being close to those who suffer. … And this is the secret that many others don’t have.

Big NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or big governments cannot do that. They cannot be close to the grassroots because their structure is not able to do that.

Another secret is patience, for example. We can be patient. We are all volunteers and this I want to say very clearly: We do not have donors to suit. It means we can take the time that it takes for a process to go ahead.

We create a climate of trust, and we can be confidential — this is another secret. And another aspect, which I think is very important in conflict resolution work, is that we are non-threatening. We are not a government; we have no power, no weapons, no money.

What are the community’s best achievements, in your view?

On the international level, Mozambique is the masterpiece.

On a daily life, I would say the fact of having survived 40 years with the faithfulness to this vocation of serving the poor and reading the Gospel is the best achievement.

For a group to survive and to live prayer, serving the poor and living together as a fraternity, 40 years is a great achievement.

Edward Pentin writes

 from Rome.