As the news cycle slowed over Christmas, one notable anniversary in Rome was largely passed over: the 30th birthday of the famous “Pranzo di Natale” – or Christmas Lunch – for the homeless and those in difficulty, organized by the Catholic lay Community of Sant’Egidio.
On 25th December 1982, the historic basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere opened its doors to around 40 people of various ages and backgrounds living in hardship in Rome, and prepared lunch for them in the church’s nave.
Today, the event attracts 2,000 people in the area in and around the basilica, and a further 8,000 in various churches and venues across Rome. The Pranzo di Natale has also spread well beyond the Eternal City: in Italy alone, it’s become a tradition in 60 cities and Sant’Egidio estimates 150,000 people now take part in the lunch worldwide in 500 cities on all continents, with many held in the southern hemisphere.
The lunch guests, who comprise the homeless, the elderly, street children, needy immigrants, the disabled, gypsy families, and even lonely well-off people who have no one to care for them, are all personally invited by written invitation. Priority is given to the homeless and those who are alone.
“This feast of the family was born from the meaning of family lived with the poor, from a personal awareness of their pain,” writes Andrea Riccardi, Sant’Egidio’s founder, in a book celebrating the 30th anniversary of the initiative. “The Christmas lunch wants to recognize, in a concrete and affective way, the great dignity of the poor, the smallest of the brothers of Christ.”
Recalling how Jesus was born in a manger, a place of poverty, he notes that God “is never ashamed of the poverty of his Son, and never abandons him, even in the abyss of death.”
“This is Christianity!,” he writes.
Many restaurants and businesses contribute to the catering, but the guests are not only given food. They also receive custom gifts with their names on them: clothes, toys, sleeping bags, essentials for those who have sleep rough — all made possible by donations of many Romans.
“Instead of Christmas becoming a curse for the poor, it becomes a blessing,” a Sant’Egidio spokesman says. “It’s a family for those without a family, not only an image but a reality, and one that has become contagious, spreading to other parts of Rome, Italy and the world, and which doesn’t stop at Christmas.”
The charity event is a vast logistical exercise involving an army of 2,000 Sant’Egidio members as well as hundreds more volunteers who have given up their Christmas Day to serve the poor. Church pews are removed and replaced with dining tables, each attractively decorated. Volunteers then go round each table, serving a three course meal with wine. Other volunteers dine with the guests.
“We want to not only give food to the poor but to eat with them and talk with them,” says Deacon Alberto Quattrucci, a Sant’Egidio member and one of the co-founders of the lunch. “One bread is to be eaten; the other is friendship.”
The original idea came from Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, also a co-founder of the Sant’Egidio community, and now – appropriately – president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. A student of history, he had learned that such a practice was consistent with the tradition of the Church, and most notably that Pope St. Gregory the Great had done something similar in Rome.
At the end of the 6th century, St. Gregory opened the doors of churches so the poorest could eat at a time of crisis when Rome was struck by civil disorder and violence that had caused situations of extreme need. Confronted by death from hunger, he suspended celebration of the Eucharist throughout Rome, as on Good Friday, and stressed that the death of a poor person is equivalent to the death of the Lord.
He himself prepared the triclinium pauperum, a table for the poor, where he hosted a meal every day for a dozen poor people of Rome. An angel is said to have appeared at the table.
“At the beginning we were very afraid because it was a very new thing, and I was just 30 years old at the time,” Deacon Quattrucci explains. “Our dream was to have the lunch in St. Peter’s basilica, to show that St. Peter’s was open to the poor,” Quattrucci adds. “This is the real meaning of Christmas – to bring families together and the family of God are the poor.”
But not everyone was convinced. “At the beginning it was very strange because we were young, and parish priests in Rome would say: ‘Why do you have to eat in the church? It’s not so good as it brings in dirt and food,'” Quattrucci recalls. “But step by step we were able to do it, and now a lot of people have begun imitating us – this is very interesting.”
He adds that Archbishop Paglia always considered the basilica of Santa Maria was a perfect place to start, given that it is “on the same level of the adjacent square – that is, the same level of life, without steps.”
For the volunteers, most of the day is needed to prepare, serve and clear up. Beginning with a talk at 9:30, the morning is spent preparing the food, removing pews, and setting up and preparing dining tables. The nave is transformed into a sea of numbered, red covered tables with the names of each guest placed on each one.
As the guests begin arriving around 1 pm, Christmas music is piped through the loudspeakers and the atmosphere of the basilica becomes light and filled with chatter and laughter. On the menu is baked lasagne, followed by meatballs and meatloaf with pine nuts, potato purée and lentils, and salad. Dessert is a selection of Christmas cakes, seasonal fruits and candy.
“It’s very moving and amazing – really beautiful,” says Cinzia who has volunteered at the Santa Maria in Trastevere lunch for the past 20 years. “Often it’s the same people who come every year, and are placed on the same table,” she added. “And each year, something new is added – a new decoration or other addition.”
Lunch lasts an hour and a half, after which an appointed person from each table uncorks a bottle of prosecco. A Santa Claus on a sleigh then rides through the aisle of the basilica, giving jumpers, scarves and other such clothing for the adults, and toys for the children.
Few wish to leave, but by 2:30 the lunch is over and by 4 pm, the basilica is restored to its former self. Being the 30th anniversary, this year’s lunch attracted a fair number of VIPs including Andrea Riccardi, now a minister of state, who ate with the poor; Gianni Alemanno, the mayor of Rome, and Renata Polverini, president of the Lazio region.
Sant’Egidio also provides lunches for the poor in the days after Christmas: on the Feast of the Holy Family, and then on December 26th they prepare food at the Regina Coeli prison in the center of Rome for about 200 inmates, and various other jails across Italy.
The Pranzo di Natale acts as a timely reminder to remember those less fortunate, often easily forgotten in today’s frenetic societies, as Benedict XVI reminded during his Midnight Mass homily last month.
“The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension,” the Pope said. “Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full.”
“Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves,” the Holy Father continued, “that we may recognize him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world.”