From the hovels of the peripheries of Rome, at the end of the 60s, to Africa, Asia, and America, taking everywhere the passion for the three “Ps,” as Pope Francis once said: prayer, poverty and peace, this is the story of Sant’Egidio Community, which in 2018 is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
In the burning atmosphere of the youth protests, among the powerful ferments of novelties that were shaking the Church designed by Vatican Council II, the eighteen-year-old Andrea Riccardi gathered around him a group of high-school students to pray, to listen to the Bible, to lead an after-school program for poor children in the southern outskirts of Rome. The Community then took the name “Sant’Egidio,” the Saint after whom the premises were named, which became the headquarters of the Community, in the popular neighborhood of Trastevere. Then the Holy See recognized the Community, in 1986, as an international Association of lay faithful. Today its close to 60,000 members are scattered in 70 countries. The first communal work is prayer and the reading of Sacred Scripture; then communication of the Gospel and, especially, service to the poor, wherever a small Community was present and active.
The friendship, with the pupils of the Roman slums, broadened in time with the disabled, the homeless, immigrants, the terminally ill, prisoners, nomads refugees, and drug addicts with a myriad of initiatives. Outstanding among them is the Christmas lunch: on December 25, all the Communities worldwide offer a lunch and an afternoon of celebration to the poor, the elderly who are alone, and the homeless. The last time 240,000 persons participated in more than 70 countries.
The step was brief from solidarity with the poor to the commitment for peace in several hot spots of the globe, with members of the Community who were mediators in long-standing conflicts, such as the civil war in Mozambique, which lasted a good 16 years, to the signing of peace in Rome, at the Community’s headquarters, in ’92 – hence the nickname “UN of Trastevere.”
The Community supports a worldwide opinion campaign for the total abolition of the death penalty in the world. In addition, the Dream Project is a vast program of prevention and therapy for AIDS in Africa. Another program, “BRAVO: (Birth Registration for All Versus Oblivion) seeks to promote the registration of newborns in countries where children without documents risk being victims of slavery, organ trafficking or sexual abuses.
To address the waves of landings of immigrants and refugees from Africa or from the Middle East on the Italian coasts, in 2015 the Community began to establish “humanitarian corridors” to make possible access in Italy of refugees and those requesting asylum in conditions of legality and security. After Italy, others corridors were opened to France and Belgium.
Finally there is the original vocation of commitment to ecumenism and the dialogue between cultures, peoples and religions. Every year the Community convokes in a different European city (with the exception of Jerusalem in 1995) a great meeting of prayer for peace, in ideal continuity with the historic Day held by Pope Wojtyla in ’86 at Assisi, together with the religious leaders of the whole planet.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, ZENIT Interviewed Marco Impagliazzo, 55, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Perugia, President of the Community:
ZENIT: Professor Impagliazzo, how and when did you get to know the Community? And what struck you of what the Community did?
Professor Impagliazzo: It was 1977; I was 15 and was a young student at the Visconti classic high school, a bourgeois high school of the center of Rome, next to Piazza Venezia. That year there was a student revolt again, although in a minor tone compared to ’68. The students occupied the schools and managed themselves the hours of lessons in class. Then a group of students of Sant’Egidio Community organized a week of lessons on the relationship between the school and the city. The idea was to tell Rome, especially the peripheries, how the working class suburbs were born, the great conglomerate of palaces of the Fascist period and who lived in them . . .
They were truly interesting, managed by the students themselves until one day they said: “up to now we have talked a lot, now let’s go to see the peripheries!” Then they went to a working class suburb of Rome, where there was a “school of peace” for children. They asked there if they could give a hand: you are students, you have education, help these poor children to study,” <they said>. We did so, and it was a most beautiful moment. I said I was a Christian, that I had been a scout, but that I was <then> living a period of difficulty in my relationship with the Church. That meeting with the children of the Garbatella – a neighborhood that is much improved as compared to before – to be able to teach them, meeting with the poor, struck me so much: it seemed to me the realization of what Jesus says in the Gospel. Since then, I have never left the Community.
ZENIT: After the Council, there was much talk of attention, on the part of the Church, to the “signs of the times.” They were years full of novelty for the Church, but not always easy. What were “the signs of the times” that inspired the Community?
The first, I believe, was the clear word of Pope John XXIII, when he said that the Church belongs to all and especially to the poor. At that time there was still too much distance from the poor, despite the many works of charity that the Church was doing, and that distance was filled. It was as if the poor were considered “clients” of the Church, which the Church should consider in fact as “clients.” Instead, it seems to me, the Church of the poor meant that the poor were “part” of the Church, not its “clients.” And this was very important for the beginnings of the Community.
Another sign of the times were the “peripheries.” In the peripheries, Rome was a city made of hovels, between the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, 100,000 people lived in hovels. It was necessary to fill the distance between the city of the rich and the city of the poor of the peripheries.
Yet another signs was that the Word of God began to occupy a central place in the life of the Church. The Council had again given back to all Christians the Word of God, saying” now read it, study it, love it, and pray with Scripture.” And this familiarity with Sacred Scripture has been always at the heart of the Community’s vocation up to today.
ZENIT: In half a century of the Community’s history, 1986 was a very important year, when Pope St John Paul II convoked the world’s religious leaders to Assisi to pray for peace. Since then, the Community has kept alive the so-called “Spirit of Assisi,” organizing a meeting of prayer for peace every year in different cities of Europe, with representatives of all the world’s religions. The reality of the last years, however, has often contradicted in fact the idea that religions don’t admit hatred and violence . . . What do you think? What is the sense of your commitment?
First of all, I say that this intuition of John Paul II was truly prophetic, in the sense that it anticipated the times, given that terrorism was not yet born, which was cloaked with religion; I’m thinking of the attacks of 2001 in the US and what was said then and is said about Islam in particular, which is a religion linked to violence . . . well before all of this, Wojtyla understood that it was truly necessary to have a discourse of great clarity, to get rid of all ambiguity on the religion-violence relationship. And his wasn’t a defensive discourse, if anything it was a discourse to attack, because he affirmed that religions must not only say “no” to violence, but must say yes to peace.
We believed it a lot, therefore we put it into practice asking the religious leaders, who come to our meetings, to work together for peace and also for development, to help those who suffer. A common ground can be found here between religions, which can certainly not be theological. However, it can be a commitment for a better world and, especially, for peace. Naturally, it wasn’t always easy. In the first years of 2000 the “Spirit of Assisi” suffered because of the attacks on Islam, the widespread Islamophobia, and sometimes also because of the leaders’ inability to seriously take a position against violence. Then we began to be asked: “how useful are these meetings?”
In reality, we saw over the course of the years that, yes, these meetings were useful because they created bonds and inspired new choices, and also much of the work for peace in the Community, in so many areas of the world, especially in Africa, up to the Central African Republic, where we had worked on a road map for peace together with Muslims . . . But I could give so many other examples.
ZENIT: One of the Community’s commitments, at the global level and especially in Italy, is for the reception and integration of migrants, a topic favored in Pope Francis’ teachings. However, there are numerous others in which immigration from below, becomes unsustainable for a society. So what’s the task of politics in face of this phenomenon?
I must say that to listen to the Pope, who speaks of migrants, always strikes me so much, because I see two sources in his words. One is the Gospel, from which the Pope draws strength — I’m thinking of the account of the Last Judgment, Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” — but I think of the whole Bible, where the foreigner is always under God’s protection. Then there is the Pope’s personal history, connected to Argentina, which became a great country, precisely because of the mixture of many peoples.
Unfortunately, unfounded and erroneous discourses are made on immigrants, especially in Italy. The first mistake is to confuse the reality with the perception that one has of the phenomenon. And the responsibility here is on many intellectuals, on politicians and politics, also on the press that sometimes does not give the true dimensions of the phenomenon. In Italy, especially in these days of electoral campaign, we are forgetting that the immigrants contribute to our wellbeing; they constitute 8% of the population, and the vast majority is working, in factories, in fields, in families. Then there is a certain integration, which works. The problem is to conjugate the two verbs that Francis says: to welcome and to integrate, because it’s correct to welcome, however, it’s also necessary to integrate. And here politics is lagging behind; I’m thinking only of the law on mitigated jus soli and jus culturae, that has not been approved by the Italian Parliament. We welcome but we are unable to integrate. Then citizens react with fear when, instead, the responsibility of politics should be, in fact, not to blow on the fire of fear but to resolve the problems.
ZENIT: What is lacking to facilitate the integration of foreigners?
An elementary thing is lacking: to open legal ways for immigration. There are many legal immigrants in Italy, along with a certain number of illegal ones, those that arrive via the sea <in boats>, because in Italy, as in Europe, the legal channels are closed, or there are pre-established quotas of arrival that are very low. However, our economy is in need of immigrants. Therefore, if anything it would be necessary to discuss the establishment of higher quotas and to establish agreements with the countries of departure to make them respected, making those governments responsible; then to try to simplify so much legislation that doesn’t help the integration of those who arrive. A good example is the humanitarian corridors, a legal way of emigration for one fleeing from war and not leave him/her in the hands of traffickers of human beings.
ZENIT: When you speak of the press, which also manipulates the reality, what are you referring to specifically?
There is a certain type of press, linked to certain parties as the Lega in Italy, where the migrant is always presented as a problem, AS someone who wants to take away our jobs, our serenity . . . not to speak of the fake news that goes around on the social media networks>.
ZENIT: The vocation to service of the poor is part of the DNA of the Community. Francis said right away that he desired a “poor Church for the poor.” How do you imagine such a Church? And can we say today that the Church is or is not in tune with Francis on this point?
ZENIT: I see great changes, especially after the Holy Year of Mercy, happening particularly in Europe. I see that the Pope’s words have been listened to in parishes, families, Associations, which now pay more attention to the poor, with new structures and a new sensibility. For attunement to be truly realized, time is still needed, naturally. What is lacking, in my opinion, is to insert the poor and ‘the meeting with the poor also in catechesis, in the talks we address to young people. For a young person encountering an elderly man alone or a poor child, and helping a man who lives on the street is a great catechesis. We have yet to understand in depth how much the poor evangelize us, because they represent Jesus. The poor person is a “sacrament,” which should grow in the awareness of the life of the Church.
ZENIT: Sant’Egidio Community has just celebrated its 50 years with a visit to the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella. What help will this visit give you for the future and why was it so meaningful?
President Mattarella struck me especially when he said that the Community has overcome barriers of space and time. That is, it didn’t remain caged in the space of the origins, namely, Rome, but extended itself to the whole world. And it didn’t remain linked to the period of its birth, but succeeded, then, in the new times that came later. This stress on the dynamic capacity of the Community, to go across space and times, struck me. It means that it’s still a young Community, with the audacity and wish of the origins to live in the world to make it more just and more human. And this acknowledgement makes us happy because it comes from the Head of State; it’s like a “thank you” from the whole of Italy, which he represents.