Community of Sant’Egidio: Breaking down barriers

Andrea Riccardi, a high school student in Rome in 1968, saw the social and political climates around him constantly changing. He knew that political parties and movements were not going to bring peace and unity to his native land. Riccardi turned to the Bible.

Riccardi, future founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, and a dozen of his high school friends began meeting together weekly to pray and read the Bible.

"He didn't want to be involved politically; he didn't want to join some political party -- he didn't think that was the right way," said Kerri Marmol, a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio in the Archdiocese of Boston. "He discovered that he had the Gospel, the Bible, and he started reading it."

The group of teens, from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds, was especially struck by St. Francis of Assisi, who shunned his family’s wealth and embraced a life of poverty and simplicity.

They, too, felt called to a life of service and friendship with the poor. They traveled to the outskirts of Rome and began visiting and befriending the gypsies — outcasts in Italian society.

Riccardi along with the other teenagers began a program of support and friendship for the gypsy children called “Scuola Popolare” (People’s School). These after-school programs known as “Schools of Peace” continue today, seeking to develop friendships with children and teach them about peace.

Over time, more people began following their example, leading to the development of the Community of Sant’Egidio. The community, which now claims over 40,000 followers in more than 60 countries, is founded on the principles of prayer, evangelization, solidarity with the poor and peace.

In addition to working with the poor and with children, the community, which is based in Rome, is involved in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Spurred by Pope John Paul II’s 1986 invitation at the World Day of Prayer to promote peace, the community began planning yearly international, inter-religious pilgrimages of peace beginning in 1987.

These meetings take place in a different country each year and unite representatives of different faiths from over 60 countries. One of the most notable was the 1998 meeting in Bucharest, Romania, titled, “Peace is the name of God: God, Mankind, Peoples.” This reunion brought together representatives of every major religion and was organized with the help of the Orthodox Church of Romania.

The following year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded the Community of Sant’Egidio the Mahatma Gandhi Medal for its work in promoting peace.

The Community of Sant’Egidio is also active in operating soup kitchens, working for an end to the death penalty, combating AIDS and distributing humanitarian aide.

The community has acted as a mediator in a number of political disputes, such as the war in Mozambique in the early 1980s. After over two years of negotiations in which the community was intensely involved, a peace accord was signed in Rome on Oct. 4, 1992, ending the war.

The community, which is rooted in dioceses throughout the world, first came to the Archdiocese of Boston in January 1999.

Brian Lee, a junior at Boston College at the time, brought the community to the archdiocese after attending evening prayer with members of the community in New York. He was amazed by their commitment to prayer and service.

"We met this lay community that didn't take any vows, were all ordinary people ... with complicated and very human lives, and yet they had an appointment to meet their Lord every week, because they felt a joy in speaking and listening to God," Lee recalled.

Little by little, the small community, which began as five friends meeting to pray together and visit the poor, grew.

"So it's been five years now, and we are more than a little surprised to find ourselves a community of more than 30 in Boston, already a very different community than the five friends we were before -- some of us are married, some single, young, old, students and working," said Lee.

Today, the Community of Sant’Egidio in the archdiocese “tries to live the Gospel through prayer, service and friendship,” just as the original community in Rome does, said Marmol.

The community in Boston meets three days a week to sign hymns and proclaim a Gospel reading together. The practice of praying through song takes its “inspiration from the Orthodox Church,” explained Marmol. The sung prayers symbolize the ecumenical aspect of the community, she continued, by “praying a prayer that unites both the Eastern and Western Church.”

The community welcomes people of many faiths, but Christians in particular, said Marmol. Their works of service benefit people of all religions. The group in the archdiocese spends a number of hours each week visiting the elderly, poor and children.

According to Marmol, the community visits local nursing homes and housing projects three times a week, “becoming friends” with the residents. Marmol stressed that their visits are “not as a service program, but are aimed at becoming “real friends” with the poor.

"It's not volunteering," said Marmol. "It's really friendship."

Last year the community in Boston began its own “School of Peace” at Blessed Sacrament School in Jamaica Plain. Because the archdiocese is closing the school at the end of the academic year, the community is looking for a new site for the program.

Members of the community spend time with the fourth graders after school on Fridays and will soon offer their time on Saturdays. The purpose of the after-school program is to “be a good friend to these children like an older brother or sister,” said Marmol. The community helps the students with their homework and plays games with them.

"Service with children was really the first service of the community," stated Marmol. "We hope ... as we become better friends to teach them about issues of peace ... to start to develop this culture of peace among the children looking outside of their neighborhood, thinking what's it like to be a child in Liberia when there's war."

The community has helped both Marmol and Lee to follow the Gospel through Jesus’ command to “love one another.”

"There is a great joy in going past the barriers that we set up in our lives -- the young can't meet the old, the rich can't meet the poor, the Christians can't meet the Jews," said Marmol. "The community and the Gospel tell us there are no barriers. They are imagined."