COMUNITA DI SANT’EGIDIO

It would go too far to provide many further synopses of the ecclesial and political itineraries of additional Italian base communities which eventually entered the national vocabulary, even if in an incarnation which went beyond their initial calling as a base community. Brief mention, however, must be made of one such community whose transformation made it into one of the Catholic world’s most well-known organizations. The Comunita di Sant’- Egidio today claims a worldwide membership of roughly 50,000 members in more than seventy countries. And for some decades now, the Comunita di Sant’Egidio, involved in a range of activities including high-profile international peace initiatives, has been officially recognized by the Catholic church as a ‘Catholic public lay association’. It had not always been like this.

The core group at the origin of what later became known as the Comunita di Sant’Egidio, a group of students in a Roman high school, the Liceo Virgilio, first constituted itself as a community in February 1968. The indisputably key personality behind this project was from the very beginning Andrea Riccardi. Already a member of Gioventh Studentesca in Rimini where his family lived until he was 16, Riccardi spent the last two years of high school in the Liceo Virgilio. As were so many other young people who came of age in the late 1960s, Andrea Riccardi was deeply influenced by the Italian sessantotto which, one should recall, in Italy had already commenced one year earlier at the very least. In a remarkable series of interviews, Riccardi reminisced: ‘I was above all convinced that the world needed to change, that one must play an active role in shaping the future, that one must think about the way in which to effect this change, that one must change the rules of the game, and that one should outline the overall parameters of the developments to come.’ Andrea Riccardi further recalled: ‘The Church appeared to me rather distant. I did not like the parish very much, nor Catholic Action.’ And so he began to organize his high school classmates in the relatively upscale Liceo Virgilio.[1]

For a generation enthusiastically embarking to conquer and change the world, the first serious question was to determine the first target of their interventions. In Rome, secular and Catholic young people on the move almost automatically gravitated towards the sprawling complex of shanty towns circling the Eternal City, products of the desperation of poor Italians fleeing from their native villages and towns in the more underdeveloped parts of Italy, seeking survival and perhaps even fortune in Italy’s premier city. A journalist in a Catholic monthly explained in 1980: ‘Many more or less politicized groups in those days took an interest’ in the life and fate of Roman shanty-town dwellers. Groups hailing from the small universe of Italian New and Far Left milieux flocked to the makeshift working-class suburbs on the outskirts of Rome.[2] So did the young activists from the rather bourgeois Liceo Virgilio.

In Rome as elsewhere in Italy (and Europe), 1968 was ‘a year in which various New and Far Left groupings, and their Catholic versions, small communities of believers, sprang up like mushrooms in the rain. Most led a brief and ephemeral life.’ As was noted earlier in this chapter, groups which focused on a specific concrete project had a much better chance of surviving.

And for the high school rebels of the Liceo Virgilio, to improve the life of the borgatari became the anchor which allowed this group to prosper and persevere.[3] It was a worker priest who introduced Andrea Riccardi to the Quartiere Ostiense, and with the able assistance of this priest Andrea Riccardi embarked upon an intense crash course in Catholic theology—but of a certain kind. ‘I began to read Congar, Chenu, de Lubac, Rahner, a bit of post-conciliar theology. The moment had come for me to discover what Vatican II had been all about.’ Aided by another non-traditional priest, the group began to experiment with new forms of liturgy, though for the moment no priest became an actual member of their group.[4]

Eventually, the former high school activists, many of them commencing university studies, began to construct communities in a number of shanty towns on the outskirts of Rome, with blue-collar workers, women, and the unemployed of these borgate playing central roles. These communities provided the organizational and spiritual infrastructure for common liturgical reflections side-by-side with cultural and social functions. ‘Thus were born self-managed social assistance centres to serve the needs ofthe neighbourhood. There emerged social clubs for the elderly, where pensioners could meet to read newspapers, to chat, to pursue their hobbies, play cards or to read the Gospel.’[5] Children and adolescents were aided in the provision of a whole range of activities, including after-school coaching sessions for students, many of them with preciously few chances of succeeding in the traditional school system.

As Mario Marazziti highlights in a short survey of the Comunita di Sant’- Egidio published in 1988: ‘Initially, the group was characterized by the presence of young people from varying backgrounds, lay activists reflecting simultaneously the variegated and quickly evolving nature of the Church and the general outlines of youth culture characteristic of those years, without any real contact with classical Catholic associations or ecclesiastic institu- tions.’[6] The first priest to join the movement (in 1972), Vincenzo Praglia, put it like this in 1976: ‘Our communitarian project developed and matured therefore at the margins of the traditional forms of intervention by the Church amongst young people, and it evolved in the cultural climate typical of that milieu in recent years.’[7] Andrea Riccardi further specified the political and ecclesial context of their project: ‘In those years much attention was devoted to the problem of the shanty towns, especially amongst young people, in contrast to the distinct lack of serious attention to such issues by mainstream Catholic milieux. This movement brought with it, even if in an imprecise manner, the demand for a different Church, with firm roots amongst the poor. To attempt to make this different role of the Church a reality, to construct it along the lines of the ideas which we developed out of our own responsibility, those were the most prominent goals emerging during that period.’[8]

In the first years of the development of what eventually became the Comu- nita di Sant’Egidio, when the loose association was named either after the specific shanty town in which it operated, or just ‘Comunita’ for short, it wholly conformed to the broad outlines of other such communities in Rome and elsewhere. They were ‘small communities, of recent vintage, in general animated by lay activists; almost always the actual founders of the small communitarian nucleus emerging in various specific contexts of sociability (a school, a working class neighbourhood, etc.). With the increase in the number of such communitarian nuclei, the ties of friendship and spiritual affinity were supplemented by more articulated and stable frameworks, periodic gatherings that took the form of assemblies and councils.’[9]

In 1973, as the community had undergone a significant expansion, present in ten different borgate, the need for a central headquarters became increasingly evident. Several earlier attempts to establish such a social centre had failed, but then in 1973 the offer arrived to use an abandoned convent in a working-class neighbourhood in central Rome, Trastevere. The former convent and church of Sant’Egidio quickly bestowed its name on the group as a whole. ‘Many of our members did not live in that neighbourhood. But the central building there facilitated a sort of synthesis—not a showcase, at least that is what I hope—i.e. a location serving as a unifying mechanism and a place for interaction for that archipelago of individual groups dispersed throughout the city. At the beginning, Trastevere served us as an address of convenience.’ Only in subsequent years did the Comunita di Sant’Egidio develop firm roots in that neighbourhood, to the point where it has since become almost identified with the church of Sant’Egidio and Trastevere.[10]

The year 1973 also served as another landmark in the eventual growth and spread of the Comunita di Sant’Egidio. A cholera outbreak in Naples led to the dispatch of five members to the metropolis in Italy’s south, leading to the first de facto founding of a community outside Rome.[11] Only some years later did this rather accidental diffusion of the Comunita’s activity to Naples lead to a more concentrated and willed effort to expand its geographical reach. With its phenomenal success arrived the need for further structure. By 1979 nonbinding rules of conduct were compiled into the ‘Orientamenti della vita commune’. And in the course of the 1980s, serious efforts were under way to obtain official recognition on the part of the Catholic church.[12] The Comunita di Sant’Egidio, having arisen entirely outside the network of preexisting church organizations, was quickly becoming part of the church, though retaining essential autonomy over its internal life and external operations. A former grassroots base community had, once again, made it big.

  • [1] Jean-Dominique Durand and Regis Ladous, Andrea Riccardi, Sant’Egidio, Rome et lemonde (Paris: Beauchesne, 1996), citations on pp. 6 and 9. Riccardi’s GS membership in Riminiwas reported by Roberto Morozzo in a conversation with the author on 16 April 2012. I alsothank Roberto Morozzo for furnishing me with the relevant documentation referred to in thesubsequent pages.
  • [2] Giulio Cattozzo, ‘A S. Egidio continua a fiorire la speranza’, Messaggero di Sant’Antonio(June 1980), p. 67.
  • [3] Jean-Pierre Manique, ‘Sant’Egidio. L’Evangile vecu au creur de la ville’, L’Actualite reli-gieuse 8 (15 January 1984), p. 10.
  • [4] Durand and Ladous, Andrea Riccardi, pp. 10-11.
  • [5] Cattozzo, ‘Fiorire la speranza’, p. 68. The concentrated efforts on the part of the Comunitato develop an apostolate geared specifically towards these impoverished shanty-town dwellerscan be consulted in Comunita di Sant’Egidio, Vangelo in periferia (Brescia: Morcelliana, 1987).
  • [6] Mario Marazziti, ‘Sant’Egidio’, in Guerrino Pellicia and Giancarlo Rocca (eds), Dizionariodegli istituti di perfezione, Vol. VIII: Saba—Spiritualii (Rome: Paoline, 1988), p. 776.
  • [7] Vincenzo Praglia, ‘La comunita di S. Egidio: dalla contestazione alla teologia della citta’,Communio (1976), p. 70.
  • [8] Durand and Ladous, Andrea Riccardi, p. 18.
  • [9] Marazziti, ‘Sant’Egidio’, p. 778.
  • [10] Andrea Riccardi, in Durand and Ladous, Andrea Riccardi, pp. 23-30, describes the gradualand initially circumstantial establishment of links between the Comunita and the neighbourhood, Trastevere; citation on p. 26.
  • [11] Jacques Dupont, ‘Les Communautes de Sant’Egidio’, Lettre de Clerlande 15 (September1987), p. 8.
  • [12] Marazziti, ‘Sant’Egidio’, pp. 778-9.
 
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