Creating Peace In War Zones: The Roman Catholic Community Of Sant'Egidio

This week, more than 300 religious leaders -- cardinals, bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, rabbis, imams, sheikhs, monks and nuns -- met in Barcelona to preach a message of peace.
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Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey commented that the Community of Sant'Egidio is what we want the modern church to be. Jim Wolfensohn, when he was President of the World Bank, never missed a chance to meet and learn from its leaders. Georgetown University's president, John DeGioia, is a loyal ally. Sant'Egidio's gatherings attract a flock of Catholic cardinals and prominent religious leaders from across the world, as well as heads of state. But many are baffled by a group that doesn't seem to fit into any familiar category. What's it all about?

It's a movement more than an organization. It is clearly Catholic but is committed to a broad spirituality and to including people from many religions (and none) and lay. It is not monastic. It counts about 70,000 members in some 60 countries.

What's brought Sant'Egidio most vividly to international attention is their creative and dogged pursuit of peace in far flung corners of the world. Best known is the lasting peace agreement they brokered for Mozambique in 1992 after 30 years of brutal war. If there is a hot spot in the world, Sant'Egidio is probably involved somehow. Members of the community are, at any given moment, involved in dozens of secret negotiations, explorations with warring parties, and formal mediation and reconciliation work.

But the conflict work is only a piece of the story. The Community is one of the world's most passionate advocates for poor people and for the absolute, unmistakable and inescapable obligation on each and every one of us to fight poverty and to act for anyone who is pushed aside, despised and denigrated. That includes prisoners, the Roma (or Gypsys), migrants in Europe's cities and people on death row. Sant'Egidio has taken up the cause of HIV/AIDS, working to save lives with quality medical care. It works to give people the practical tool of a birth certificate, befriends and supports the old and the young, and fires youth with a hope that working together for a better future is not a dream but a real possibility.

They run what some see as the most important annual interreligious gathering. In 1986, at a dark moment in history when the Cold War still cast a dark shadow on the world, Pope John Paul invited leaders from the world's religions to Assisi, the city in Italy where St. Francis lived and inspired a new idea of peace. There, recognizing their common interest while respecting their differences and facing the real dangers in the world, the leaders promised to work for peace. Since Each year since then -- there have been 24 meetings so far -- in a pilgrimage of peace, the Community of Sant'Egidio organizes a stunning meeting that they call a prayer for peace. This week, the meeting was in Barcelona, Spain. More than 2,000 volunteers from the Community welcomed more than 300 religious leaders: Cardinals, bishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, rabbis, imams, Sheikhs, monks and nuns. Coming from the world's largest religious traditions, all preach a message of peace. Many others attend: heads of state, journalists, public intellectuals and activists. Some puzzled tourists observe and are caught in the spirit.

The meeting combines ritual, pageant, intellectual discourse, dialogue on leading issues and secret meetings. It culminates in an extraordinary ceremony on the final day. The different religious groups pray separately, thus symbolizing the understanding that dialogue means deepening, not watering down or combining different religious traditions. Then the leaders process towards the central square, meeting each other with embraces, laughter and applause. It's like a river, with different branches coming together. The leaders gather on a platform, all in their regalia, to listen to witnesses to peace and to a moving appeal. The leaders hand copies of the appeal (with an olive branch) to children who then give them to diplomats in the audience. The leaders light candles and sign the appeal. You can watch the ceremony and read about the meeting here.

The beauty of the sight (this year with Barcelona's spectacular Cathedral as the backdrop), its deep symbolism, powerful rhetoric and emotional call are reinforced by the enthusiastic audience. In a world where meetings about peace rarely stir media enthusiasm to a fraction of the interest of pretty much any violent act, the formula works its magic. For the moment, cynicism is banished. People return year after year both because of the truly inspiring people and messages and because the pageantry stirs the soul.

The annual gathering moves from city to city, taking inspiration from each place. Last year it was in Cracow where the memory of the Holocaust and the nearby Nazi death camp at Auschwitz loomed large. The year before in Cyprus, the ancient crossroads of the Mediterranean was vividly set in a divided, still-bitter conflict. I first attended the 2002 meeting in Palermo, Sicily, where the challenge of the mafia was close at hand.

The Barcelona meeting this week had a special significance because many vividly recalled the last time they had met in Barcelona: nine years earlier at the beginning of September 2001. The promises for peace were especially earnest, noting the new millennium and the new decade. Hope abounded, with the world's leaders committed both to peace and to ending poverty. The future seemed bright. But only days later the specter of terrorism and violence shattered that hope, and the decade since then has brought only glimmers of the promised new age of peace and justice. So there was both a sober reflection in Barcelona this week about shattered hopes, but also a call to a new dedication to peace. Even more, the message was that peace simply cannot achieved if we do not, as a world community, address the world's inequalities and the injustice that keeps so many millions trapped in poverty.

So where did this community come from? And what has been its journey?

Sant'Egidio is a very modern phenomenon, born during the turbulent year 1968, as a small group of Roman high school students began to work together with immigrant communities in poor areas of the city. They stuck to their purpose, finding that their engagement kept opening new paths. They were invited to work in other European countries, then in African countries also. From working with children and immigrants, they were drawn to focus on prisons. And that -- plus their wide contacts and evident commitment -- took them into some of the nastiest conflicts in the world. They came to be trusted mediators, and an alchemy of patience and true commitment to listening, understanding and hope for the future helped them to achieve real results. They forged strong relationships with the Vatican and a treasure of a church in Trastevere, an old beautiful section of Rome. An old convent became their headquarters and gave them their name: Sant'Egidio means Saint Giles and is the name of the church where they meet.

Sant'Egidio's mantra is friendship and its members are eminently human, enjoying each other with dedication to the joys of life. They are not angels and have plenty of foibles, which they tend to savor. I press them constantly to take more seriously the challenges of gender and to fight against corruption, and they sort of agree. Amazingly, they all work as volunteers: no one takes a salary and they work separate full time jobs, with the Sant'Egidio work over and above their normal responsibilities. They come to prayers together at their church center each evening when they can.

What is most inspiring is the fact that their work starts and ends with a determination to work with the poor and to fight for their cause and their rights. Tutoring students, helping children and old people, and supporting those in prisons has led them into the thick of conflict and thus their work as peacemakers. But they also believe passionately that peace is about far more than killing, armies, and guns. While war is the mother of poverty, peace has to be built on hope and justice. Thus after the Mozambique peace accord was signed and life began to return to normal, they saw the ravages of HIV/AIDS and started to work, now as doctors and as advocates. They are as fierce in arguing that all Africans deserve the same standard of health care as people in Italy as they are in denouncing the evils of a certain dictator or in demanding attention to the forgotten conflicts in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.

What makes this unique group function? The Community is full of remarkable men and women but I give special credit to the tight-knit group of founders and leaders. They have become my treasured friends. Andrea Riccardi, the founder, is a historian. He told me he had to have a separate apartment to accommodate his books. He exemplifies the blend of inspiration, warmth, insight, fierce determination, passion and capacity for questioning that characterizes the movement and makes it tick. He talks of modern miracles, and he means that we can end poverty and make peace. Andrea's leadership is extraordinary in the best sense of that term.

Mario Giro never leaves his cell phone behind and may have in a 40-minute period calls from Sri Lanka, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Jerusalem. Marco Impagliazzo, Sant'Egidio's leader today, blends commitment and charm with an equal dose of determination. Claudio Betti is a larger than life character with a penetrating wit and stunning instinct for political trends. Leonardo Palombi is a brilliant physician who drives the work on HIV/AIDS, now active in some 14 countries. Scholar Andrea Bartoli leads the Community in the United States. There are many more -- Paola, Paolo, Gianni, Celestin, Massimo, and Kpakile -- who are all unforgettable characters who live a commitment to caring about poverty as people and never forgetting that commitment morning to night. Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, Sant'Egidio's sort of godfather in the Church, savors Saint Valentine's legacy, because his diocese is in the place where the Saint is said to have lived. Figures like Soeur Emmanuelle, the fabulous and legendary French nun who worked in Egypt's garbage dumps, are part of the family, too.

Andrea Riccardi's speeches always include some element of surprise, a barb to prompt reflection, an insight into the course of history. But always there is hope and a fierce and loving call to work for peace, to make dialogue something that is not blah blah and naïve, but deep and transformative. To end here's a snippet of Andrea's Barcelona call:

"We believe that the first decade of the 21st Century, which truly began on September the 11th, is about to end. We must take courage and press for a new era that can offer the spiritual foundation for a new chapter of peace. As we grapple with issues in the coming days, we bring a conviction that cuts across it all: we cannot disregard the spiritual foundation, because that is the foundation of peace. This foundation does not come from ourselves, because it comes from our faith. We believe that through what some might call the "weak force" of faith, we can build, with renewed courage, a world that is truly a family of peoples."

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