In Conversation with the Communita di Sant’Egidio

November 16, 2016

I’ve just returned from a wonderful time in Rome, where I was invited to participate in an ecumenical dialogue facilitated by the Communita di Sant’Egidio: a Catholic lay community that started nearly fifty years ago in Rome and is now in 74 countries.

Fourteen of us spent twelve hours in conversation; a mixture of Catholic bishops, university professors, leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance, World Vision and Samaritans Purse. And me.

Our aim was to look together at issues around the nature of church, the role of prayer and the place of the Gospel amongst those at the peripheries of our societies. I can’t hope to do justice to such a rich day, but there are three things that I am taking away with me particularly.

Firstly, the Community itself

I am returning home humbled and inspired by the little I have learnt of Sant’Egidio. As a community they are dedicated to Prayer, Peace and the Poor and my day with them gave me just a glimpse of the many ways by which they live out those emphases. We had lunch across the piazza from their main building, at the Trattoria de Gli Amici (the Restaurant of the Friends): a restaurant that they run cooperatively with people with disabilities. We heard of their soup kitchens that feed 800 people, of the individuals who they have befriended, and of their friendship with the Pope and of how they facilitated the end of the Mozambique civil war in the very room where we had our meeting.

We joined in their daily evening prayers, which they hold along the street in one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The large church was packed, with hundreds of people. The twelfth century mosaic was stunning to look at while the singing took place around me.

I have so much to learn from their way of life and their commitment.

Secondly, the place of the poor

We had a long and challenging conversation around poverty and spirituality. Echoes of Liberation Theology were reverberating around the walls loudly as we discussed God’s preferential option for the poor. I was constantly reminded that this was not a theoretical discussion: many people around the table spend much of their lives in the company of those who were poor and it is their lived experience that they see God’s face in the faces of the poor more than they see him anywhere else.

I was particularly challenged by the question: if we are not with people who are poor, does that mean we won’t see Jesus so clearly?

I was also struck by a reflection on the story of the rich man and Lazarus and how Jesus named the poor man Lazarus but did not name the rich man, in contrast to our societies which name rich people, but keep poor people anonymous. We must never let ‘the poor’, ‘refugees’ etc become social categories: they are people with names.

Thirdly, the strength of prayer

We had a beautiful discussion around prayer, its place in the work of poverty relief, and our own personal experiences. Here are some of the things that people said:

  • ‘Prayer is getting out from oneself in order to meet the Father who is waiting for his child to return’
  • ‘In prayer we say no to the ego and yes to “we”. No one prays alone: we’re in community with angels and saints, both on earth and in heaven’
  • ‘Prayer is a barrier to evil and is one of the engines of history’
  • Prayer is one thing God gives us to do that keeps us sane’ (in the context of finding ourselves hopeless in the midst of the world’s problems)
  • ‘Prayer prepares us. It broadens the walls of our heart to make us more receptive to God’.

Cara mici – dear friends – I’m sorry you couldn’t be round the table with me, but I hope this gives you a flavour of a special and memorable day.

(image: the ceiling of one of our meeting rooms in the community’s base, originally a closed Carmelite convent)

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  • Reply Catherine Shelton November 16, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Thank you for sharing. What an amazing experience! I like the thought that prayer is one thing God gives us to keep us sane in the midst of all the problems in the world.

    • Reply ruthvalerio November 17, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Yes I found that really helpful too and it made so much sense.

  • Reply Liza Cooke November 16, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Just wonderful, Ruth
    Thank you

  • Reply ruthvalerio November 16, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Thank you Liza x

  • Reply Jill Houlden November 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Great to read of your recent visit to Rome. I looked up the Community of St Egidio…..great work being done, evidently. We do need to talk of all the individuals and groups who reach out in Jesus’name….there is so much depressing stuff in the news, and people need encouragement to engage in positive things and to continue their efforts to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. Why should the Devil get all the headlines!!!!Thanks for all you do. God bless you.

    • Reply ruthvalerio November 17, 2016 at 9:27 am

      Yup, we need to focus on the positive don’t we, and get on with it ourselves. All the best to you Jill.

  • Reply Sharman Jeffries November 16, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience, impressions and insights from this special time Ruth. Ecumenical events can be very powerful.
    You really reminded me of the power that prayer has – I know it very well, but sometimes, well,… I get busy, and forget!
    Thanks again. God bless you in all your endeavours, Sharman

    • Reply ruthvalerio November 17, 2016 at 9:22 am

      Hi Sharman, thank you, I’m glad it’s been a good reminder

  • Reply Anthony Hereward November 18, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you. I will contemplate tomorrow on ‘one never prays alone’. 🙂

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