The community of St. Egidio

Bishop Vincenzo Paglia

Bishop Vincenzo Paglia is bishop of Terni in Italy. A member of the St. Egidio community right from its beginnings, in this article he provides a brief but penetrating presentation of the Community’s history and their method of evangelization.

I am particularly happy to be able to share this moment of fraternity and of communion. It is a moment that is without doubt extraordinary. I see it in the context of the Pope’s exhortation to “put out into the deep” (Novo millennio ineunte). I think that this too is a way of accomplishing it. Indeed, you could even go so far as to say that some navigation has already begun.

When John Paul II, on the Vigil of Pentecost 1998, underlined the birth of the Movements as a new spring in the Church, he was drawing attention to the fact that the “put out into the deep” (“
duc in altum”) had already begun, that a new season in the communication of the Gospel was already emerging. I won't say much on this point, but I believe that the fact of contemporary ecclesial Movements must be understood from within the horizon of the new evangelisation which is already taking place.

Certainly, it is also necessary for the Movements to listen to the
duc in altum!, because the millennium that has just begun demands a greater love, an all-embracing solidarity. And the Movements must respond with greater urgency to this call. The new millennium is not simply a temporal passage, but a call to be more generous in loving, more daring in the communication of the Gospel. The Pope is right when he affirms that we have the programme already. And he is saying it also to us bishops and priests who are often obsessed with programmes and pastoral plans. But the programme is the Gospel, which must be rediscovered, re-understood and announced, from generation to generation. And this is something of the story of the contemporary Movements, including the Community of St. Egidio.

Our experience is a humble effort to discover something of the Christian message in a time of transition like our own. In this context I would like to offer some reflections on the life of the Community of St. Egidio. I will present it in four sections: the first concerns its origins, the second refers to the poor of Rome, the third looks at the life of St. Egidio and the fourth deals with its impact on the world.

Through Andrea Riccardi’s work, the community took its first steps in 1968. You met him when he addressed you the other day. He was then a youth of 17 years old who lived in the particular climate of those years marked by an attitude of protest among young people with their demand for authenticity. I’d like to quote Andrea’s words for you: “for us who were students of Rome, young people from good families attending High School, the 1968 spirit of contestation crossed paths with something very important: the discovery of the Gospel. I would say that the Gospel saved us from the merely destructive tendencies of ’68. How did our desire for authenticity bring us into contact with the Gospel? I remember the first meetings, the first steps, the first experiences and recall the great significance the encounter with the Gospel had for us, understood as an authentic and not mystified word. It was the discovery of
the Book. And the meeting with the Gospel also became a meeting with the Christian world, with the Church which was the bearer of the same Gospel. I must say that the institutions, the largely traditional associations at that time’ were like a background; they didn’t interest us very much. What interested us and continues to interest us is the word of the Gospel”.

One thing was clear: the desire for change would be genuine if it faced the great problem of changing oneself, the ancient and ever new difficulty of conversion of the heart. Well, it seemed to us that the Gospel, that ancient book, could change us. Our faith was to entrust ourselves to the Word of God and begin to follow it, even without understanding very much about what it had to say about the Christian life, but with faith: “On your word, Lord, I will pay out the nets.”

Andrea continues: “with simplicity, but with conviction, I believed: if we can change ourselves, we can change the world. Only new persons can create a new world. The catholic institutions seemed distant from us. I felt I should do something for my high school world, and so we set up a group of high school students who began to meet in the first months of 1968”.

The background to all of this wasn’t just the ’68 student protest movement but also the Second Vatican Council. Its message to young people declared: “we urge you, young people, to enlarge your hearts to embrace the world, to listen to the appeal of your brothers and sisters, and put your energies eagerly at their service”.

We were deeply struck by the spirit of the Council, above all in the sense that it helped us understand that the Church was everyone's home. But not a home in which everyone claimed their piece, but rather a home to be constructed.

By visiting the poor of Rome and its periphery, we realised that the Church was a reality to be built up in the heart of the people, because they felt estranged from it, they saw the Church as a charitable body, but the Word of God did not speak to them through her. Often she was mute in the lives of many women and men. So we realised we had to change our heart in the light of the Gospel, while, at the same time, beginning to build a community at school, in the periphery of the city, where the word of God was rarely heard. Yes, people knew the Church, but not the Gospel.

Our meeting with the Gospel saved us from the great risk of ideologies that was spreading throughout Italy and the West at that time. One of the strengths of the St. Egidio community was putting the Word of God at the centre of its life. This meeting with the Word more and more became a listening to the Word and prayer.

One of the characteristics of the community of St. Egidio in Rome, is the communal daily prayer every evening at Santa Maria’s in Trastevere, in the Trinitá dei Pellegrini Church, in St. Bartholomew’s and other locations. But almost everyone of our community, from Havana to Antwerp, and from Maputo to every corner of the planet where they are to be found, gather in the evening with their friends. Listening to the Word of God each day has accompanied us as the golden thread of our life down the years from our first gatherings in 1968 to our evening prayers in Rome and all over the world.

We gradually came to understand that in the Church it is more important to be disciples than activists or protagonists. If I had to say what theme we would insist on most it would be discipleship. Christians were given that name at Antioch, but disciples were born in Galilee. And that’s the kernel of the issue. In a community which has now become adult the dimension of discipleship is fundamental, each one of us is always a disciple and needs to listen always, because faith comes from listening. This explains the reason for continuity and survival of St. Egidio because St. Egidio didn’t want to be merely some social experience for young people getting together, nor merely an association of adult volunteers (which I don’t disparage) but a community of women and men who meet to listen to the Word of the Lord.

I would like to say that prayer is the first work of the community. Soloviev writes “faith without works is dead, and prayer is the first work and the basis for every genuine action”. It is a work for the whole of one’s life; we see it in the aged when they can’t do anything else, they cannot help, so prayer remains that work which no one can take from them. The first step of the disciple – at the beginning and then every day – is to pray to the Lord: from the first meeting the disciple begins to ask something of the Lord and to listen to what He says, even without understanding very much. Everyone in our community prays with great simplicity and faithfulness, even from the beginning. In this way they express what they truly are: not members of a Christian tribe or of St. Egidio but disciples.

From the beginning the poor have been our companions. At least we have tried to be their friends. It is an aspect which characterises St. Egidio, which I would call, in the words of the prophet, “the alliance between the humble and the poor”.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, the one who felt called to spend time with the man who was half dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, represents one of the basic demands for every Christian, and therefore for us too. The poor then were firstly the children in the slums out in the periphery of Rome, then they became the old, then the foreigners, the down and outs, those sick with aids, those in prison (especially in Africa), and those physically and psychologically disabled.

I could list the works of St. Egidio but what matters most for us is our friendship with the poor. In fact, I would like to characterise our relationship with the poor as a personal friendship. Friendship is a fundamental aspect; we feel that in our care of the poor and in our relationship with them the problem is not only assistance, solidarity, but it is also friendship. It is a silent protest against a service of the poor that is merely functional or assistance-based. The poor, those I know and keep in touch with, are my friends; they are my relations. When friendship is achieved, a true exchange occurs. Because of this every St. Egidio community, even the smallest, is characterised by communal prayer and friendship with the poor.

The third part: what does it mean to become an enduring or stable community? The community of St. Egidio has always wanted to be a lay community of men and women who live the same kind of life as everyone else. They work, they marry, they have their problems, but at the same time they feel that their Christian life is a ‘paradoxical life’, as one reads in the letter to Diognetus.

Today, we are present in about forty countries with communities that are generally small, but which live fully their relationship with the local Church and with the city where they exist. To be a community is to be like everyone in the Church. This gives us a desire to collaborate, to meet with others, to see ourselves as Christians like everyone else, no better no worse.

In the early years we had a very strong sense of living through an intense experience that was breaking ground. But through listening to the gospel and meeting other people fostered a greater sense of friendship.

As Andrea says, “If I have one boast, it is to claim that the St. Egidio community does not take pride in its own identity. If there is one thing that I consider immature in the experience of the Church it is the messianism of groups, movements and institutions. There’s only one Messiah and that is enough. Every ecclesial reality represents a ferment, a way, a help, and it is a way and a help not only for those who are its members. It has a message for the whole Church and it is something that enriches the ecclesial family.

The maturity of an ecclesial experience should be not feeling you are in some messianic sense unique, but rather a charism for the Church. Thanks be to God, there are many rooms in the Father’s house! The one-room church has never existed. Our contribution to the whole church, the universal church, did not come about through institutional solutions – which we did also find in becoming a public association of the Church with a statute – but through an interior choice”.

In this way, though the passage of time, we received the gift of being a little people, spread out and based in many churches. We were born as a movement of young people, as a community in which one knew where one was; but today we are a body of people of every age and with different levels of participation. Though not coming from within it, priests and religious are united to our community in one spiritual fraternity. Naturally this fraternity does not undermine the local church in any way, but rather enriches it.

This is how the Pope speaks about his links with us: “I remember the many meetings with the community at the beginning of my episcopacy, meeeting you at the Garbatello in Rome. In December 1978 I came across your Work of charity and I visited it. After that first time I often met you on the outskirts of the diocese, during my visits, but also in the church of St. Egidio, in the Basilica of Santa Maria’s in Trastevere, and at Castelgandolfo. Then I also met the community of St. Egidio throughout Italy and other countries of the world. I had many opportunities during those years to be in contact and listen to you. It was for you a period of interior growth and development, both within and outside Rome. Your community born in ’68 by a group of students grew in this church of Rome which presides in charity. You then developed elsewhere taking part in the local church, but you have always had a distinct sense of you Roman-ness because wherever there are communities of St. Egidio even if not in Rome they are always Roman. The St. Egidio community has lived the spirit of Rome in the world…”

Our community has its own story and its own geography, but at the same time we feel we are a small community without borders, open to spiritual adventures and links that are unusual no what matter the distances are.

Even though our experience is small I would still have many things to say. I’ll try to gather everything into the final section: the world. In recent years much has been spoken about the St. Egidio peace initiatives.

On the fourth of October 1992 a peace agreement was signed between the government of Mozambique and the guerrillas, putting an end to a forgotten war, with a million and a half dead over fifteen years. The newspaper
Le Monde made a joke of it saying that the treaties were negotiated by ‘amateurs’. But the agreement has lasted. Italy, France, the USA and the UN took part in the negotiations and they have continued to monitor the implementation in Mozambique of the agreement that was signed in Rome. Since then no one has died from war in that African country.

When the peace treaty was being signed a journalist from the
Washington Post asked Andrea, “since when have you given up caring for the poor to break out into diplomacy?”

He had not understood that to work for peace wasn’t different from working for the poor, because war is the mother of all poverty. Our commitment to peace is not the establishment of a St. Egidio ‘diplomacy’, even though that is one of the aspects most noted in the media. The work for peace began through co-operation with Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in Africa, discovering that co-operation was blocked by the war, the principal cause of poverty. We understood that christians, as well as having appeals for peace, peace marches and educating for peace, can also work for peace. Naturally we do this without having the benefit of diplomatic instruments like pressure or money that states have. Christians have their own peace force which is not a substitute for what states do; rather, ours is characterized by weakness. Above all, since ’89 everyone in the world can work for peace. Today wars can be caused by everyone, however, it is also true that all can do more for peace.

For us Christians of this new century, the theme of peace is more and more the order of the day in the life of our communities. Not only for Christians but also people of every religion. This is clear since Assisi in ’86, when Pope John Paul II invited the religious leaders of the world to pray for peace together.

We have noticed that prayer releases profound peace energies. The meetings of members of religions frees them from the great temptation which their leaders often succumb to – all leaders but especially Christians, Jews and Muslims – of remaining entrapped in their own ethnic and national horizons. Nationalism and ethno-centricism constitute a great disease that affects every culture even religious culture. In this sense we felt we should continue the prayer of Assisi year after year as a serious commitment. The image of Assisi is a prophetic one in this era when peoples of different religions live together.

The co-habitation of peoples who are ethnically and religiously different is the great challenge of the next century. It is the reality of the world, which is also contradictory if one looks at Sarajevo, the Lebanon, Jerusalem, Indonesia or at the great cities of the West which are already multiethnic.

Inter-religious dialogue wants to give meaning to this coming together; it wants to go beyond the pre-conceived identities, and speak to the heart in order to find a profound basis for living together. Inter-religious dialogue began enthusiastically after the Council, but that was followed by a period of disillusionment. The great world religions, in fact, are not all synchronic. Think of Islam for example which particularly during the '80's went through a period of rediscovery of pride in itself and this coincided with a re-flowering of itself. So also for Judaism.

Dialogue demands a 'geological' patience, a few years are not enough, because it's not a question of diplomacy but of a change in mentality. Dialogue is an education in understanding the other without losing yourself. Dialogue does not weaken but makes you more aware of your originality, identity and vocation. Those who are afraid of dialogue because of wanting to defend their own identity and faith are hiding a weakness.

The spirit of Assisi is not a call to syncretism or unification. Differences should be respected but dialogue must continue. Dialogue is like love, it does aim to convince or achieve immediate results. Otherwise I would only love my friends and not my enemies. Dialogue is a life offered on the strength of one's own convictions but with the understanding of others. In this sense I believe we must continue our inter-religious dialogue. Difficulties should not frighten us.