Sant'Egidio: Linking Friendship and Service in World-Changing Ways: Though Previously Little Known in the United States, a Catholic Lay Movement Started 40 Years Ago by High School Students in Rome Is Gaining Members in U.S. Cities

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The Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere is about as picturesque as you'd expect of any Roman piazza. There's a fountain in the middle, ringed by steps where Roman youth lounge and loiter. From inside the basilica that dominates the square, one can hear the teenagers outside, improbably singing Irish drinking songs to guitar accompaniment. And beneath the basilica's outer columns, as in many parks, piazzas and train stations throughout Rome tonight, a beggar huddles in the still-chilly March evening, beseeching passersby for pity and euros.

Dusk here sees the recommencement of a 40-year-old ritual as hundreds of worshipers filter into the basilica to pray together. Every evening, members of a Catholic lay organization, the Community of Sant'Egidio, sing prayers in unison, praying for peace, for the poor, for the sick. For most of the service, no one officiates--the congregation instead faces a Russian icon of Jesus' placid face.

Copies of this icon face community members worldwide, as versions of this scene play out on evenings in several languages in more than 70 countries. Community members--now numbering roughly 50,000--range in age from the very young to the very old, and represent a wide range of professions among their ranks, including students, professors, physicians and journalists. They pair prayer with public service, spirituality with day jobs. None of them are paid for work they do on the community's behalf; none pay membership dues. And yet members have marshaled resources from governments, philanthropic organizations and private individuals to broker peace accords in war-ravaged countries, pressure the United Nations to pass a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, and run one of the most successful anti-AIDS programs in subSaharan Africa.

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Although several small chapters have sprung up around the United States in recent years, often based on or near college campuses, it is probably safe to say that most Catholics in the United States know little about the movement, if they have even heard of it. You would have to have been paying close attention to have noticed it mentioned in an editorial in The New York Times in December, giving the movement much credit for the United Nations moratorium on the death penalty, or to have counted the times (three) the organization has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, or to have connected Sant'Egidio to a 1992 peace pact ending a civil war in Mozambique that had raged for more than a decade, or to have noticed that Pope Benedict XVI paid a special visit to the community April 7 to commemorate its 40th anniversary.

Such worldwide influence was hardly the goal or even the wild utopian dream when a small clutch of high school students led by the 18-year-old Andrea Riccardi began meeting to pray and read the Gospel together in Rome in 1968. The membership numbered about four in the first few meetings; the students shared the not-that-modest goal of puzzling out what Jesus could possibly want from them. The answer they settled upon was service, and they began seeking out the poor--not terribly difficult in Rome then or now--to ask how to help. It was the early days after Vatican II. Public service and liberal politics were in the air, and as word spread through Roman high schools of this curious attempt to live spirituality and service simultaneously, the group gathered more young members. It wasn't until five years later that they found a permanent place to pray in the abandoned Church of Sant'Egidio (Italian for St. Giles), from which they now take their name. By 1986, the Holy See had recognized them as an international public association of laypeople.

Seeing Rome with new eyes

In the intervening years, as the community's numbers have soared worldwide, often to the surprise of its early members, local chapters have maintained the focus on the poor and the marginalized from which all of their other initiatives have grown. …