A call for young people to dream and a desire to change the world
When Charlie Gardner was planning to study abroad during his junior year at the University of Notre Dame, he asked his professor if it might be possible to volunteer in a soup kitchen.
The professor told him about the Sant'Egidio Community, founded in Rome in 1968, in which community members gather for prayer and service to the poor.
"We have a group here in South Bend," she told him.
Gardner began his journey with the Sant'Egidio community in South Bend, Indiana, that October, visiting a nursing home. Then he went to Rome, where he became part of a vibrant community of prayer and service to the poor that goes beyond: It is the Sant'Egidio way to befriend the poor.
"I was looking for a way to connect my faith and my desire to serve," said Gardner, who, five years after graduation from Notre Dame, remains deeply involved in the Sant'Egidio community.
He's based in Washington, DC, and will be among the five members of the Sant'Egidio community who will visit the Diocese of Oakland from Nov. 13 to 17 at the invitation of Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ.
Bishop Barber met the Sant'Egidio community when he began studying and teaching in Rome in the late 1980s. "What so attracted me," Bishop Barber recalled, "was that the churches in Italy were pretty much empty, but here the church was full."
Not only full, but full of young people engaged in beautiful prayer, which was followed by social justice work.
The bishop said he visited the community in Rome again in September, and went to Sant'Egidio USA's New York headquarters to arrange for the visit to Berkeley to see if a community might establish roots in the diocese.
"This would be good for our diocese," he said, "given our desire to do something for the poor."
St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley, with its strong social justice tradition, the University of California nearby and proximity to BART, is hosting three evenings of prayer and talks.
"Sant'Egidio is rooted in the social teaching of the church," he said, noting that Pope Francis and his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II had endorsed the community's work.
The international movement, which now spans five continents and has 60,000 members, was founded by a high school student at the end of the Second Vatican Council. It takes its name from the church at which it was founded. Sant'Egidio, Italian for St. Giles, was a Greek who founded a rest stop on the Way of St. James, and the patron saint of hermits.
At its founding, said Paola Piscitelli, the president of Sant'Egidio USA, there was such a "desire to change the world."
"Today, it might be more difficult to see the future," said Piscitelli, who joined the movement when she was a high school student more than 40 years ago.
"We believe in the call for young people to dream," she said. Drawing their inspiration from the Gospel, community members believe, she said, "Each of us can have an impact. Being together can increase that impact."
That's why it's "so important to speak to high school students," she said. "At that age, they are open to life."
Members do not live together. "Being in community means coming together to serve and to pray," Piscitelli said. "We build the fabric of relationships," she said. In most U.S. communities, they gather once a week for prayer and once a week for service.
In Washington, DC, that night of service is at a time when many young professionals might be heading to happy hour.
At 6 p.m. Friday, young professionals — a core group of about a dozen — gather at a studio apartment near DuPont Circle that is the Washington community's headquarters. They prepare about 50 meals — soup, sandwiches and fruit — and then they hit the streets, moving through DuPont Circle, Foggy Bottom and Union Station.
About one-third of the people they'll meet that night are new to them, but strangers not for long. "We get to know their names," he said.
"We offer friendship and relationship," Gardner said. "We respond in a concrete gesture of mercy, with a little food."
And, as friends do, they have a Christmas party and a summer barbecue.
Young professionals, Gardner said, are drawn to service, but find themselves dissatisfied with ad-hoc service. "They want to be faithful to the people they meet," he said.
In Sant'Egidio, Gardner found "beautiful prayer and a commitment to life in the Gospel." Beyond that, he found "people in everyday life who felt 'I want to be holy.'"
The Gospel, he said, "is more than just the sayings of Jesus. We bring His presence, love and friendship. We bring the Gospel of friendship."
Piscitelli's community in New York spans all five boroughs. The community has befriended residents of a nursing home, in a poor area, for 20 years before it closed.
Among those friends was Commrny Clark, who was 96 when Piscitelli met her at the nursing home.
"She didn't want to be there, but she did not have family," Piscitelli said.
With a little help from her friends, "S. Clark" was able to move home, with help. "Being home has helped her to live longer and happier," Piscitelli said.
The sharecropper's daughter from Mississippi who became a nurse in New York City turned 103, in the company of friends.
For the past dozen years, the Sant'Egidio community has served soup and sandwiches to people who gather near Grand Central Station.
At the School of Peace, young community members tutor disadvantaged children and educate them in peace and solidarity, Piscitelli said.
Piscitelli looks forward to the community's visit to the Diocese of Oakland, where members will speak at St. Joseph the Worker and Newman Hall-Holy Spirit parishes in Berkeley and three Catholic high schools.
"I'm hoping this is not my only trip to Oakland," Piscitelli said. "I'm hoping people will be inspired."
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