In Conversation with the Communita di Sant’Egidio

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I’ve just returned from a wonderful time in Rome, where I was invited to participate in an ecumenical dialogue facilitated by the Communita di Sant’Egidio: a Catholic lay community that started nearly fifty years ago in Rome and is now in 74 countries.

Fourteen of us spent twelve hours in conversation; a mixture of Catholic bishops, university professors, leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance, World Vision and Samaritans Purse. And me.

Our aim was to look together at issues around the nature of church, the role of prayer and the place of the Gospel amongst those at the peripheries of our societies. I can’t hope to do justice to such a rich day, but there are three things that I am taking away with me particularly.

Firstly, the Community itself

I am returning home humbled and inspired by the little I have learnt of Sant’Egidio. As a community they are dedicated to Prayer, Peace and the Poor and my day with them gave me just a glimpse of the many ways by which they live out those emphases. We had lunch across the piazza from their main building, at the Trattoria de Gli Amici (the Restaurant of the Friends): a restaurant that they run cooperatively with people with disabilities. We heard of their soup kitchens that feed 800 people, of the individuals who they have befriended, and of their friendship with the Pope and of how they facilitated the end of the Mozambique civil war in the very room where we had our meeting.

We joined in their daily evening prayers, which they hold along the street in one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The large church was packed, with hundreds of people. The twelfth century mosaic was stunning to look at while the singing took place around me.

I have so much to learn from their way of life and their commitment.

Secondly, the place of the poor

We had a long and challenging conversation around poverty and spirituality. Echoes of Liberation Theology were reverberating around the walls loudly as we discussed God’s preferential option for the poor. I was constantly reminded that this was not a theoretical discussion: many people around the table spend much of their lives in the company of those who were poor and it is their lived experience that they see God’s face in the faces of the poor more than they see him anywhere else.

I was particularly challenged by the question: if we are not with people who are poor, does that mean we won’t see Jesus so clearly?

I was also struck by a reflection on the story of the rich man and Lazarus and how Jesus named the poor man Lazarus but did not name the rich man, in contrast to our societies which name rich people, but keep poor people anonymous. We must never let ‘the poor’, ‘refugees’ etc become social categories: they are people with names.

Thirdly, the strength of prayer

We had a beautiful discussion around prayer, its place in the work of poverty relief, and our own personal experiences. Here are some of the things that people said:

  • ‘Prayer is getting out from oneself in order to meet the Father who is waiting for his child to return’
  • ‘In prayer we say no to the ego and yes to “we”. No one prays alone: we’re in community with angels and saints, both on earth and in heaven’
  • ‘Prayer is a barrier to evil and is one of the engines of history’
  • Prayer is one thing God gives us to do that keeps us sane’ (in the context of finding ourselves hopeless in the midst of the world’s problems)
  • ‘Prayer prepares us. It broadens the walls of our heart to make us more receptive to God’.

Cara mici – dear friends – I’m sorry you couldn’t be round the table with me, but I hope this gives you a flavour of a special and memorable day.

(image: the ceiling of one of our meeting rooms in the community’s base, originally a closed Carmelite convent)