From Trastevere to Texas

Sant'Egidio vs. the Death Penalty

To understand the death penalty, Mario Marazziti likes to say, you have to go to Texas. In 2000 (having seen San Quentin in California) he went to Texas, and that has made all the difference. After that trip came many more—and came his friendships with Johnny Paul Penry, Dominique Green, Eddie Johnson and other men sentenced to death. After it came the World Coalition for the Death Penalty, the moratoria on executions in individual countries, the presentation of 3.2 million signatures to the United Nations Secretary General, the UN General Assembly’s statement against the inhumanity of capital punishment, and the pledges of several dozen countries to abolish the death penalty or suspend its use. Out of that trip, that is, came the growing movement for abolition of the death penalty worldwide; and out of it has come a book titled 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty. (An excerpt appears at the end of this article.)

Just as Mario had to go to Texas to understand the death penalty, if we want to understand the present movement against the death penalty we have to go to Trastevere. In Trastevere—the rustic, vibrant district “across the Tiber” from imperial Rome—the group of friends known as the Community of Sant’Egidio came together in the spring of 1968 and began their efforts, first in the periferia, Rome’s outskirts, then Southern Italy, Northern Europe, Africa, and now overlooked or disdained places all over the world.

The guidebooks still call Trastevere a working-class district, and there are still plenty of working people in its flats and apartment houses. Yet the district—a short walk across the bridge from the Campo de’ Fiori, a stroll along the pilgrim path from St. Peter’s—has lately become an upscale bohemia akin to the East Village in New York or the Mission District in San Francisco. In summertime, especially, it can seem that the carnival of food and drink has shoved aside the place cherished as “Rome for Romans.”

On the face of it, Trastevere is a postreligious place, too. Churches are everywhere, and the trasteverini regard St. Francis of Assisi (who stayed there while in Rome) and Raphael (who called on his mistress, the Fornarina, there) as native sons. And yet most churches are closed most days, so that they strike you not as destinations or even as buildings but as outcroppings on the landscape.

But there’s a significant exception. In early evening, crowds of people converge on the piazza fronting on the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, whose bell tower is the neighborhood landmark. They are on their way to eat at one of the four hundred local restaurants, to smoke a cigarette or lick a gelato near the old stone fountain, to watch mimes and acrobats perform in the piazza. Or they are bound for the basilica, where, at 8:30 on weeknights, Sant’Egidio holds the nightly service known as la preghiera.

I have been to the service perhaps a dozen times. You pick up a book and a headset and find a seat on a long bench below the ancient mosaics of Christ, a tallish proto-modern Mary, and the earliest Roman saints. The church—it must hold a thousand people—seems full. The crowd is mixed: young and old, stylish and not, lay and clerical, Italian and German and African. An organ note is struck and the call and response begins. There’s a recitation of the litany of the saints and a Scripture reading. A member of the community gives a homily, which can be heard in translation on the headset. Then comes the Padre Nostro. This is not a Mass (that is on Saturday night). There is no Communion, and, generally, no priest presiding, and so it ends abruptly, with people spilling out of the basilica.

They aren’t leaving, though. They are in the middle of things. Many of them have come to la preghiera from one of the Sant’Egidio projects scattered through Trastevere. Behind a plain door on a steep hill, the community’s pantry feeds twelve hundred poor people a three-course meal, with Sant’Egidio members acting as waiters. A flat nearby is the office of the community’s adoption service, which makes matches between European couples and children from Cambodia, Burkina Faso, and other countries. A back street near where Francis of Assisi worshiped among lepers is a welcome center for Gypsies, who find hot showers, clean clothes, help in avoiding deportation, leads on jobs, or just a place to sit down and be known by name. On the Piazza Sant’Egidio is the Trattoria gli Amici, which employs mentally disabled men and women as maitres’d, waiters, cooks, and sommeliers—and so has created new jobs for people with special talents at a time when, in Italy, a good job is hard to come by. Every Christmas Day, the community makes the Basilica of Santa Maria itself a space of welcome for several thousand of Rome’s poor people, who are invited to eat a holiday meal on red-draped tables set up on the priceless Cosmati tiles.

It’s a paradox: this most ancient of Rome’s still-standing basilicas is also the least museum-like of them all. It’s a hothouse of conviviality, where strangers become friends and friends become more than friends.

 

ONE EVENING A few years ago I met Mario Marazziti in the rear of Santa Maria after la preghiera and we set out for supper at a favorite place of his. An early member of the community, Mario gradually stepped into the role of its volunteer portavoce, or spokesman. When I first met him, in 1998, he was employed as a TV producer and manager for RAI, Italy’s state media company. I’m not sure what I expected in a humanitarian from RAI, but I didn’t expect Mario, whose dark suit, straight black hair, and big smile seemed to suggest an Italian ex-Beatle.

If Trastevere embodies the paradox of Europe—emphatically old but with pockets of exceptional vitality—Mario Marazziti embodies the paradox of Sant’Egidio. He is no stranger to high society: through an old friend at the prominent wine journal Gambero Rosso, he and his friends put together Vino per Vita, an initiative where Italian wineries run by Mario’s contacts give the proceeds from certain bottlings to Sant’Egidio’s campaign for AIDS relief in Africa. He can be irreverent, relishing the story of a cleric friend whose poor Italian led him to open the church’s millennial ceremonies in 1999 with a crude profanity. Yet he is selfless and tireless on behalf of Sant’Egidio—on behalf, he says, of “the Gospel and friendship.” I had learned of him through a Sant’Egidio group at St. Malachy’s Church near Times Square led by the author Thomas Cahill. The group was small, but Mario sustained us with calls and e-mails. I later asked him how he kept up contact with his countless friends worldwide. “Friendship is not proportionate,” he said matter-of-factly.

Over soup and wine that night, Mario explained that he was just back in Rome from Mozambique, the base of Sant’Egidio’s anti-AIDS program, DREAM, which is overseen by his wife, Cristina, a medical doctor. “From Mozambique and Texas,” he corrected himself—and added, “The culture of life, and the culture of death.” In Texas he had visited his friends on death row. And he had made a strange discovery. “The former execution chamber at the prison in Huntsville is now a museum of the death penalty,” he said in amazement. “A museum which has an actual curator! Where the old death chair is kept on display!”

As he refilled our glasses from the bottle—a robust red wine from the Sicilian vintner Planeta, the neck of it stickered with an image of a dove crossing a rainbow, Sant’Egidio’s logo, indicating a Wine for Life—I tried to picture him at a Motel 6 in Huntsville, Texas, and to imagine what his friendship might mean to a man sentenced to death.               

What it would mean, in the months to follow, was this. Mario would make a documentary for RAI about Texas’s death row, called Thou Shalt Not Kill. He and Tom Cahill would join his friends on death row in a “book group” with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose book No Future Without Forgiveness Cahill had published during his years at Doubleday. Mario would describe life in the prison at conferences across Europe. As the date drew near for the execution of Dominique Green, whose conviction and sentence of death seemed especially dubious, he would take part in a vigil in Rome, so that in the hours before Green was executed, several dozen members of Sant’Egidio were in prayer at Santa Maria in Trastevere, keeping Green in their minds and hearts. He would get the actor John Turturro to narrate an English-language version of the film about Green, called Dominique’s Story. He would present 3.2 million signatures calling for a moratorium on executions to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—and would be written up by Peter Steinfels in the New York Times as a man “who has used up all his vacation time traveling for the death penalty moratorium.” After Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from Italy’s premiership for the last time, Mario would enter electoral politics—one of the leaders of the 1968 generation whom the center-left drafted to run for office in the hope of repairing Italian politics, run by Berlusconi for most of their adult lives. He would be elected to the lower House of Parliament, the Camera dei Deputati. Now when he came to New York, it would be as the head of Camera dei Deputati’s Human Rights Committee.

And he would write (in English) 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, out of the conviction that the place where the death penalty is most vulnerable just now is the United States of America.

 

SANT’EGIDIO'S CHRISTMAS dinner is now offered in sixty countries to some 150,000 guests. Its annual Prayer for Peace—held in recent years in Krakow, Munich, Sarajevo, and Antwerp—draws several thousand participants from the full spread of religious traditions. And lately these traditions, brilliant in their simplicity, have been joined by another: whenever a country—or, say, a U.S. state—rejects the death penalty, the Roman Colosseum, usually lit in white, is lit up in color. The event is covered by the press in Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English, and in five languages online, and the coverage, filed forever on the web, will serve to keep abolitionist countries from backsliding.

Some months after his election, Pope Francis came over from the Vatican and spent two hours at Santa Maria in Trastevere with the community and the poor. The streets of the neighborhood, always crowded, were absolutely jammed. The occasion was not a Mass, but a unique “communion event,” in which Francis’s words about the role of mercy and the value of friendship with the poor seemed naturally akin to the community’s own efforts and outlook.

In 2014 Francis followed John Paul II and Benedict XVI in denouncing the death penalty as a violation of civilized norms and our common humanity. It was the strongest statement against the death penalty the church has ever made.

Mario Marazziti turned sixty not long ago. His business cards identify him as a politician, but he remains a genius of friendship and an enthusiast for whatever it is the Community is doing to make the world a more humane and livable place. He’ll mention a plan to bring Wine for Life to the United States in the form of a tie-in with Newman’s Own salad dressing. Or he’ll hint at Sant’Egidio’s back-channel role in creating a “bridge” to help end the violence in Syria. As we step out into the Roman night, the flats dark above the thronged trattorie, he’ll talk about a program in which Sant’Egidio’s members in Rome reach out to the city’s elderly in the summertime, when the heat isolates them and puts them in danger. “One of our people goes to the top of the stairs with a bag of groceries or gives the doorman a few euros to do it,” he explains. Compared with lighting up the Colosseum or fighting AIDS—or bringing the death penalty to an end worldwide—it’s no big deal. But as he describes it, it seems not only simple but natural and necessary, one more way for people to be friends to one another.

 


An Excerpt from 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty
by Mario Marazziti

In ROME, WHERE I LIVE, the Colosseum is a symbol of our history, but it is also a symbol of the death penalty. There the early Christians were subjected to capital punishment by the imperial Roman authorities, left to the lions, reduced before the crowd to a bloody spectacle.

One night in 1999, the Colosseum was lit up. Albania had abolished the death penalty, and some of us in the Community of Sant’Egidio got the idea to mark this turn of events through the lighting of the landmark. Our idea (a joint venture with the mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, and a UN representative, Staffan de Mistura) was to use the lighting of the Colosseum as a tool in a worldwide campaign against the death penalty. Since that night the Colosseum has been lit up several dozen times more, including when the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of all the state’s death row prisoners in 2003, and when the states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico repealed their capital punishment laws.

It seems clear to us that capital punishment is a practice to be overcome in the history of mankind, as slavery has been largely overcome. Personal contact with prisoners, executioners, and the families of victims and executed convicts, both innocent and guilty, has led us to the conviction that the death penalty is not merely unnecessary in light of the alternative instruments of punishment and justice available. In truth, it is not itself an instrument of justice at all; it is a grave weakness in a system of justice that should preserve its rehabilitative intent, free of the primitive need for revenge and retribution. It winds up being not only a violation of human life, but a humiliation for everybody: a murder in circumstances in which the concept of legitimate defense cannot be invoked because of the disproportionate forces involved (the state on one side, a prisoner who is not in a position to harm others on the other), and because of the distance in time between the crime or presumed crime and the proposed execution. As a matter of fact, when the state kills a serial killer, it becomes a killer.

We hope that the Colosseum will keep on being lit up regularly until the death penalty is abolished everywhere. But for now there is the more modest effort of this book, which is meant to symbolize in a different way the world’s turning against the death penalty—and to suggest different ways for our society to move a little closer to the goal of a world where capital punishment is seen as the practice of an earlier, crueler time.

Published in the March 20, 2015 issue: 

Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

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