‘Companions on the Path’

Sant’Egidio’s Paola Piscitelli & Andrea Bartoli
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Andrea Bartoli and Paola Piscitelli (Carolyn Monastra)

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.

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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.

We invite people to do what the Church has always done: prayer, service with the poor, and friendship.

PE: In 1993, parish life was still strong, the number of priests relatively high, and religious movements were mainly associated with education. Since then the number of priests has halved, the clergy have been discredited by priestly sexual abuse, and the parishes and schools are not central the way they were. In the circumstances, is Sant’Egidio making a different kind of sense to people than it did thirty years ago?

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AB: Yes. In this space that is so different, Sant’Egidio is received as a steady point of reference. We invite people to do what the Church has always done: prayer, service with the poor, and friendship, with a centrality to the Gospel as the center of life. It’s an old Christian calling, but done by lay people who take their vocations seriously. And vocation is significant. We do feel called, not just that we are just “volunteers.”

PE: The service for the victims of gun violence at New York’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral a few years back was like nothing I’d seen in the Church in the United States: the names of victims from all fifty states were read out, along with the circumstance in which they were killed—thus tying the service to the Community’s Litany of the Martyrs—in which martyrs from the first century to the present are remembered. Will that be done again?

AB: That started after the president of Sant’Egidio [Marco Impagliazzo in Rome] came to us and said: “Look around, America has a problem with guns and a problem with violence.” And it’s a beautiful thing; it’s what Sant’Egidio can be for America. Because an encounter with another is not only an encounter with a living person; it can be an encounter with a dead person. In this sense, Sant’Egidio has “met” a lot of dead people, Óscar Romero being the first. Romero died in El Salvador in 1980, and then Sant’Egidio took his memory and started doing the Litany of the Martyrs [in its prayer service], remembering Romero on the day of his death. That morphed into the remembering of all of the martyrs—an incredible transformation.

Now the litany for victims of gun violence continues in Washington D.C., at St. Stephen’s Church [on Pennsylvania Avenue]—the Kennedy parish. It seemed to us that it would be good for the prayer service to be a place where the community offers the memory of those who are killed in a particular city that month. So in Washington, every month we keep in memory every person who was killed by guns that month. It’s our way of looking at a city differently because we are Christians. The company of Jesus is giving us a different eye, a different heart, a different memory. We pay attention to those killed with guns: we remember their names, remember where they were killed.

PP: The names are very important. In today’s prayer [the daily prayer of Sant’Egidio, found in thirteen languages at santegidio.org] there is the passage about Zacchaeus. And Jesus is calling Zacchaeus by name. This is our experience of poverty. It’s never “the poor.” It is a person with a name. “Filomena”: Filomena was the first elderly woman we met on the periferia, the outskirts of Rome [where the Community did its first work]. She had long hair; she was admitted to a nursing home, and they cut off her hair, and she let herself die. Our weekly “Prayer for the Refugees” remembers the names of people who died seeking refuge. There is a liturgy we just did for the first time at Our Saviour [on Park Avenue, near Grand Central Station]: “remembering our homeless friends who passed away.” It is very important that the name doesn’t die. It is the name of an encounter.

AB: The service for victims of gun violence is something we hope to replicate everywhere. So imagine this being an invitation. Imagine that after this article appears, someone in Louisville, Kentucky, says: “We would like to do the same! We can do a liturgy for those who have been killed with guns.” Sant’Egidio is very “invitational” in that way. The Gospel is always inviting us to something else; there is a movement of the spirit that is telling us, “This is the time to try for more.”

PE: Who is the Community in New York now, and how do they find you? One by one?

PP: Yes, one by one, definitely. In New York, we have a group of fifty or sixty people. Some come through the parishes, or they have lost their job, and they want to use their time, or they are retired. These are the people you meet at prayer, and at the Christmas lunch. For me, someone who has lived the Community as my identity, my vocation, these are my brothers and sisters. I call them companions on the path. Some of them are becoming unexpectedly close. So I ask myself: How am I going to communicate this so that it is going to last beyond me? And I tell myself: through the prayers, through the meetings, through the encounters, one by one.

AB: The Christmas lunch: it’s bizarre, when you think about it. Why do you want to do Christmas not in your house? Why do you want to be in a Church, and serve the poor, who have nobody? But that’s exactly what the Gospel says. And so you look around you and say, why not, once a year, do what the Gospel says? And when you actually do it, then what you discover is that you have not fifty people, not sixty, but hundreds of people, and you don’t know who is serving and who is being served. 

PE: So much of my own sense of Sant’Egidio comes from its presence in Rome and its work abroad. How important are its efforts and profile internationally to the Community here in the United States? Communion & Liberation, say, has brought American members to its annual meeting in Rimini and bound them into the movement that way.   

PP: Ah. That is not our way—we don’t have the money. But an effort is made. One woman wanted to go to Rome and see the Community there, so we offered her our air miles. That is the way.  

AB: And there are Americans in Rome who went to Lesbos and worked with the refugees there.

PE: Andrea, you’re now leading the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. What does that mean for your work as a scholar and dean?

AB: We started the foundation as an American entity, to study more this work that Sant’Egidio has done on peace, because there are not so many places where these things can be done. I still have an academic appointment as a CORE Fellow at Seton Hall. I’m developing a new course on Catholic peace stories, because many people do not have a sense of how Catholics have worked for peace over the centuries. And there is, we believe, a very deep rediscovery of the involvement of Catholics with peace, expressed by John XXIII in Pacem in terris and then very beautifully by John Paul II. It was this involvement that Sant’Egidio took on. First there was the Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986; then there was the peace agreement for Mozambique in 1992. The prayer came first—the prayer comes first.

Fundamentally, we in Sant’Egidio believe that peacemaking requires the discipline to, as the psalm says, “Seek peace and pursue it.” There is a double dimension, both seeking and pursuing. You cannot just seek peace; you really need to go after it. And we believe that the Church needs to rediscover that. At the beginning we would say “prayer, friendship, and service.” Now we are saying “prayer, poor, and peace”—the three p’s that Pope Francis associated with Sant’Egidio. There is clearly a vocation to peace, and we’re trying to better understand what it means to be called to this peace that is not just for you, not just for me, but for everyone. 

Related:

Published in the November 2021 issue: 

Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. A third book, Controversy, is forthcoming.

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