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Catholic Voice
November 23, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA
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About 60 people gathered at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley to hear about the community of prayer and service.

Prayer, service group gets new start in East Bay

Paola Piscitelli and Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, watch the video of Pope Francis' visit.

Through evening prayer services, visits to classrooms at three diocesan high schools, and after-Mass announcements at three parishes, the Community of Sant'Egidio, a group dedicated to prayer and service, introduced itself to the Diocese of Oakland this month.

Five representatives, including USA community leader Paola Piscitelli, a longtime member of the community, led animated discussions and prayer.

What happens next is up to the Holy Spirit.

The most interested audience, said Steven Lewis, diocesan coordinator for young adult ministry and evangelization, was after the 5 p.m. Mass Nov. 15 at Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley, where several people asked how the community of prayer and service could begin.

Students in religion classes at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland had some thoughtful questions for the community representatives, said Rev. Jim Sullivan, school chaplain.

"Our students are pretty well versed in social justice and service," said Father Sullivan.

At its first evening prayer service and talk, Nov. 13 at St. Joseph the Worker Church, Berkeley, about 60 people gathered in the pews of the Berkeley parish, long a leader in social justice ministry in the diocese.

Beginning with the evening community prayer, which was sung and said over about 20 minutes, including a reflection by Piscitelli, the gathering got to know a little about the prayer life that enriches the Sant'Egidio community.

Seated close up was Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, who had invited Sant'Egidio to see if Berkeley might be a good fit for the work.

In his welcome, the bishop thanked the people who had come out and the Sant'Egidio people who had flown to Oakland from Washington, DC, and New York, to share their stories.

"When I first encountered the community in Rome in the 1980s," he said, "I was so impressed with what I saw."

With the combination of prayer, intercession for peace and social service, he said, "I think they capture great Catholic Spirit."

They brought with them a film of Pope Francis' visit to the Sant'Egidio community in Rome in 2014, to give the flavor of their work, particularly the community's dedication to not just serving, but befriending, the poor.

The Sant'Egidio community was founded in 1968 in Rome by high school students trying to live out Vatican II. Piscitelli herself joined as a high school student in 1974 and has spent more than 40 years in the community.

"Through the meeting with the poor," she said, "our lives began to change."

The community grew from fewer than 100 to more than 60,000 since its founding.

"The encounter with poor was redeeming," she said. "It helped shape my life. It helped me look at my life in a different way."

It is unlike traditional religious communities in this country in that members do not live together. A community that is just starting up, Piscitelli said, might meet once a week for prayer, followed by planning for service, or the service itself.

How a community grows is in the hands of the community, she said, noting that some meet for prayer for a while before discerning what service might be done.

The New York community, Piscitelli said, serves soup and sandwiches to people near Madison Square Garden one night a week.

"What they thank us for is their presence," she said.

Prayer is essential to the community experience, she said. "We are not just a bunch of doers," she said, "but feel the need to go back to the source."

"We were not heroes," she said. "Being in front of the Lord made us realize we were the least of the lot of people doing the work."

The work includes tutoring children, and it was through that work that the community began to grow. "The mothers of the children we were tutoring" were the first to join the high school students, she recalled.

The poor, too, have become part of the community.

"There is no one who is too old, too poor or too sick to do something for someone else," she said.

At the end of the first evening's session, Bishop Barber said he would "see if the Holy Spirit moves hearts."

Saying that he was moved by the prayer, he said, "I felt this would be something really good for us."

But that will be proved, he told the gathering, "if the Holy Spirit moves you."

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