SUDDENLY, AS IF SOMEONE BLEW A WHISTLE, SAID THE MINISTER OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, THE STREETS OF ROME WERE FILLED WITH PEOPLE EACH EVENING FANNING OUT TO FEED THE POOR. No, the Scotsman was not describing the work of his fellow Protestants in the Eternal City. Rather he was expressing his respect for the practical gospel witness of a missions movement begun by Catholic high-school students in the late 1960’s.
Our group on the ‘Focolare Trail’ travelling from Trent through Florence to Rome last month had just enjoyed
lunch on the rooftop balcony of St Andrew’s Scots Church. Now we were hearing about various urban ministries at work in the city other than the Focolare Movement, the main focus of our trip.
Andrea Riccardi was still a teenager when he and his student friends resolved in 1968 to follow the radical example of the Acts of the Apostles and of Francis of Assisi to put the Gospel into practice. Based out of a Roman Catholic church called Sant’Egidio (St Giles), the students began visiting slums on the outskirts of Rome to hold an afternoon school for drop-out children, called Scuola Popolare (People’s School).
These efforts grew into a global movement, now known as the Community of Sant’Egidio. It has since spread to four continents and seventy countries. Until recently I had never heard of this work, yet with 50,000 members and many more volunteers, it has to be one of the biggest such ministries in the world. The leadership of this ‘missionary brotherhood’ is totally lay, with no clergy involved as leaders.
While in Rome, we were guests of the Community firstly at a well-attended mid-week prayer meeting in a large historic basilica, and then at a late dinner in a secluded Roman garden. We learned that the first ‘work’ of the Community was prayer. The call to conversion to live as disciples of Jesus meant exchanging the self-centred life to become instruments of love for others, particularly the poor; a disciple followed Jesus rather than oneself. In imitation of the early church, Community lifestyle began with prayer and gathering around the Word of God, as in Acts 2:42-‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ Such a lifestyle was expected of all Community members, both personally and corporately.
The second pillar of the Community was evangelism. For the Community of Sant’Egidio, being disciples and living and sharing the Gospel were synonymous. Sharing the Gospel was an experience of joy and celebration, as when the disciples returned to Jesus in Luke 10:17 full of joy at having seen the devils submitting to the name of Jesus.
The third ‘work’ of Sant’Egidio, lived out as a daily commitment, was service to the poor. The student founders believed they could not live the Gospel far from the poor – not simply as recipients of aid but as friends. Starting with the ‘Cinodromo’ shacks along the Tiber river, they began building friendships with disadvantaged children and offering extra classes. The Scuola Popolare spread to other cities. Living out Matthew 25, the students broadened their ministry to include friendship and help to the physically and mentally disabled, the homeless, immigrants, the terminally ill, prisoners, gypsies and refugees. Now some 8000 were involved in Rome alone regularly ministering the Gospel in word and deed to the urban poor, and 15,000 throughout Italy.
In radical imitation of Christ, Sant’Egidians identified with ‘the least’ in society as brothers and sisters in communities across the globe from Rome to San Salvador, from Belgium to Cameroon, from Indonesia to the Ukraine. Identification with the poor in war zones has led to peacemaking and reconciliation efforts, as well as humanitarian aid projects in Mozambique, Guatemala and the Balkans. Belief in the ‘weak power’ of prayer and the transforming power of non-violence and persuasion stemmed from the attitudes Jesus himself lived out to the end.
The Community saw Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as a key to defusing confrontation in the clash of cultures. Community members have also campaigned for a moratorium on capital executions, against anti-personnel mines and to end slavery where it still exists.
Like the Scots pastor, I had gained a deep respect for the radical discipleship of the Sant’Egidians during my short stay in Rome. I left the city pondering the smallness of my world that I had known little about this movement before.
Till next week,