Fifty-three years after it was founded in Rome by young Catholics moved by the spirit of Vatican II and the European spirit of 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio now counts about fifty thousand members in more than seventy countries. But it is still something of a mystery in the United States. This is due in part to the movement’s name: originally called simply “the Community,” it took the name of the early medieval European monk Sant’Egidio after it was granted use of a seventeenth-century church in Trastevere dedicated to him. It’s also due to the sheer variety of the Community’s efforts. For some, Sant’Egidio is a leading voice against the death penalty. For others, it’s the broker of peace agreements in Mozambique and Burundi late in the twentieth century. Or it’s the inheritor of John Paul II’s precedent-setting meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi in 1986. Or it’s the group that coordinated Pope Francis’s breakthrough journeys to Lesbos and the Central African Republic and helped set up the Vatican’s first shelter for people who are homeless. Finally, Sant’Egidio’s hard-to-define character is due to its limited presence in the United States: informal groups in New York and Washington D.C., at Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, and many “friends” in California. And yet for those of us Americans who have come to know it well, Sant’Egidio is a vital center of our lives as Catholics and a profound source of our confidence in the future of the Church.
Sant’Egidio’s two most prominent figures in this country are a married couple who came to the United States three decades ago. Paola Piscitelli coordinates the New York group’s Friday-evening prayer service at the Church of the Epiphany, the weekly meal offered to homeless people in Grand Central Station, regular visits to nursing homes, language schools for recent immigrants, and a Christmas Day lunch held at St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral. Andrea Bartoli, a scholar of international relations, has taught and led programs at Columbia and Seton Hall, served in a dean’s role at George Mason University, and now heads the new Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. I recently interviewed them in New York.
Paul Elie: Most accounts of Sant’Egidio begin with its founding in Rome in 1968 and carry the story forward from there. Let’s go in the other direction. What is the Community in the United States now, and what does it mean for you to be a part of it?
Paola Piscitelli: It’s a challenge, first of all. Andrea and I grew up in the Community in Rome, and when we came here almost thirty years ago, we didn’t have much of a relationship with the United States: we’d met some people from Taizé at Dayton, that’s all. So there was the challenge: How are we going to speak about our experience to people here? We faced a Church that was not very friendly to movements, that was very much shaped around the parish, for worse or for better. At first we were perceived as a foreign body: “Are you a cult or something?” I don’t know why, because movements have been part of the Church from the very beginning. So here was this “community” that sounded a little funny, and the challenge was: How are we going to fit?
Now I think we are in a beautiful moment for the Community, in a way that is very mysterious. At a time when everything was locked down, the Community blossomed, encountering people who wanted to do something—people uneasy about the lockdown, uneasy about the Church, wanting to be together rather than alone. Some were coming from a parish, some were not, some were not coming from any religious background all…but they found in the Community that moment of unity and commitment or encounter with the poor that they were looking for.
PE: Can you describe the form the Community takes in the United States?
Andrea Bartoli: Sant’Egidio is a space of prayer, service, and friendship, and there is a faithfulness to that that comes into the weekly rhythms. Sant’Egidio started serving food to the poor in Grand Central Station twelve years ago, and never missed a Tuesday, not even during the pandemic: everything was closed, and it was the homeless and Sant’Egidio on the street. The prayer service is also very faithful, because it’s not only in the parish of Epiphany on Friday, it’s also at the Hopkins Center nursing home in Brooklyn on Sunday. Sant’Egidio is with the new Americans from Burkina Faso and elsewhere who learn English from us; it’s with the kids from Our Savior in the Bronx, who meet every week for tutoring and counseling. So Sant’Egidio in New York is meeting and doing something every day now. True, it took thirty years before blossoming, but we don’t mind.
PP: The Church is a long story.
AB: I think it’s important to bring the Church back to a structure that speaks to the present—a sense that we are all sharing the future, and the future is not hopeless. Sant’Egidio is for those who are trying to say, “Okay, the world is a little problematic, but it’s good to hope, and it’s good to be committed to doing a little something, because we can make changes.” We can make changes on the death penalty, on refugees. We can teach English to people who could not speak English before. We can visit the elderly in a nursing home. There is so much we can do.
PP: Until recently, we didn’t have anybody who was paid. This is a surprise for people: How can you make anything work without people being paid? Whenever you have a structure, you have a paid staff, and in the parish, when you have something you need doing, you look for a staff person.