The Sant'Egidio Community feeding the poor (and city officials) on Christmas Day in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
SANT'EGIDIO COMMUNITY/COURTESY PHOTO
The Sant'Egidio Community is coming to Oakland
Michael C. Barber, SJ
Some of the happiest days of my life were when I was stationed in Italy from 1987-1992. I was studying and teaching in Rome, at the Jesuit Gregorian University.
I lived in a community of 120 young Jesuit priests from all over the world. It was an experience of the "Universal Church."
It was also in Rome that I had a unique spiritual experience. It was not at the Vatican, as stunningly beautiful as it is. It was in the rustic neighborhood of Trastevere, "on the other side of the river."
Taking my evening passeggiata (stroll) I wandered into the Basilica of Santa Maria. Roman basilicas are usually frequented by tourists in baseball caps, and a few elderly women clad in black praying and lighting candles. This was different.
As I entered, a young man in jeans and a tweed blazer offered me a leaflet and invited me to stay for Evening Prayers, which were about to begin.
The church began to fill up, not with old ladies, but young people. There followed a beautiful sung vesper service led by young adults. The young man who handed me the leaflet gave a short 'homily' — which was actually a testimony on what his Catholic faith meant to him.
I had been in a lot of churches in Rome and Italy, but I had NEVER seen one so full of young people. It was beautiful, reverent and refreshing.
It turns out the prayer service was conducted by "The Community of Sant'Egidio": a lay movement begun in Rome in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. They combine a strong spirituality with social justice.
A few days later I returned for the Sant'Egidio Saturday night vigil Mass. It was more crowded than the previous vesper service. The church was illuminated by hundreds of candles. The music was enchanting — Byzantine hymn tunes with Italian lyrics. The priest's homily was a deep instruction on Scripture.
The predominantly young crowd was really being fed. After Mass the congregation all stayed. Nobody left. They broke up into small groups to discuss the readings and plan their social justice projects for the week.
People noticed that I was a visitor, so a member of the community gave me a tour and explanation of what they were about. They are dedicated to the spiritual life with Christ — through the Mass and evening prayer services — but they also take seriously Christ's call to serve our neighbor.
They all participate in a corporal or spiritual work of mercy: visiting the sick, teaching Italian to immigrants, visiting prisons, helping the handicapped, feeding the poor. They are well known in the Diocese of Rome for sponsoring a full pranzo (lunch) on Christmas Day to anyone who wants to come — inside the basilica (they remove the Blessed Sacrament).
They also promote international peace and ecumenical initiatives. They have continued an annual interfaith prayer service first started by Pope John Paul II at Assisi in 1986. The community has since expanded to other countries, including a branch in New York City. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have all visited the Community and praised its spiritual and social justice efficacy.
Since I became Bishop of Oakland 2½ years ago, one of my dreams has been to establish the Community of Sant'Egidio in our diocese. I visited the Community while in Rome in September.
Again the basilica was full. Things have been "upgraded" since: they hand out headphones if you need to listen to a translation of the homily in English. Instead of leaflets with the hymns, they now have published prayer books.
In addition to feeding the poor, they have even opened a real restaurant, "Café degli Amici," (Friends Café), across the piazza (where the wait staff do an incredible job, even though each one suffers from a particular disability).
There over a delicious pizza, I was invited by Sant'Egidio leaders to discuss how we might start a branch in our diocese.
I'm happy to say they are sending a small group from New York to visit us Nov. 12-18. The Sant'Egidio members will conduct evening prayer services and give talks on various aspects of their ministry, all over the course of a few evenings. These will take place at St. Joseph the Worker church in Berkeley.
I have purchased ads in this paper where you can see the details. I will be there on Friday night, Nov. 13 to welcome them and join the service.
We chose Berkeley because of the beautiful church, and also the strong social justice tradition associated with St. Joseph's parish. It is also close to UC-Berkeley and thousands of young people who need to hear the message of Christ. All ages are welcome at Sant'Egidio.
I really believe this Ecclesial Movement will help and complement the mission of our diocese "To Know Christ Better, and Make Him Better Known." Hope to see you there.
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