ROME – Political categories are an inexact fit for religious realities, but if we’re going to use them anyway, it’s tough to spot a bigger winner in Catholicism under Pope Francis than the Community of Sant’Egidio, whose commitment to the poor, to inter-religious dialogue, and to peace seems an ideal fit.
Pope Francis visited the Rome headquarters of the renowned lay movement Sunday, greeted by some 10,000 people. The crowd that braved a stormy Roman evening included scores of immigrants, poor, homeless, gypsies, disabled persons and working-class families.
“You’ve learned to look to others, especially the poor,” Francis told members of Sant’Egidio Sunday night.
Perhaps sensing he was among friends, Francis also delivered another blast against forms of capitalism that he regards as insensitive to the human cost of financial decisions.
“At the center of today’s global economy aren’t men and women, but leaders and money,” Francis said. “What isn’t productive is thrown away.”
In truth, Sant’Egidio enjoyed the favor of John Paul II and Benedict XVI too. Both popes admired its service to the poor, as well as its palpable spirituality. (Sant’Egidio conducts an evening prayer service legendary for attracting even jaded secularists with beautiful music and compelling preaching.)
Yet Sant’Egidio’s center-left, social justice-oriented Catholicism was always a contrast with other forces that rose to prominence under those pontiffs – so much so that John Paul and Benedict’s support for Sant’Egidio was something admirers would cite to argue that they weren’t just stereotypically “conservative.”
Today, Sant’Egidio comes off not as a mildly surprising element of the pope’s agenda, but something close to its beating heart.
Francis complimented Sant’Egidio Sunday night for its commitment to the ideal of “solidarity,” a term in Catholic social teaching implying that nations and economies have a special responsibility to help the poor and others in need.
“Some people have tried to take the word ‘solidarity’ out of our vocabulary,” Francis said. “But solidarity is a Christian word!”
The pope seemed convinced he was speaking to a group that shared his language.
Originally Sant’Egidio was a vehicle for progressive-minded Roman youth who wanted to stay Catholic rather than drifting into Italy’s then-powerful Communist movement. It began by opening schools for the urban poor and quickly branched out into other forms of the social gospel.
Over time Sant’Egidio took up the cause of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. After Pope John Paul II held a major summit of religious leaders in Assisi in 1986, Sant’Egidio became the Polish pope’s semi-licensed carrier of the “Spirit of Assisi,” staging its own interfaith assemblies every year in cities around the world.
Reflecting that spirit, one of the dignitaries on hand to greet Francis Sunday was Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Jewish community of Rome, which has longstanding ties to the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The movement also has been nicknamed the “UN of Trastevere,” for the Roman neighborhood where its headquarters is located, because Sant’Egidio also acts as a diplomatic troubleshooter. Its emblematic success came in Mozambique, where Sant’Egidio negotiators brokered a peace accord in 1992 that brought a 15-year civil war to an end that had cost one million lives and left five million homeless.
“The world is suffocating from a lack of dialogue,” Francis said Sunday night. “You keep hope alive for peace.”
The movement’s commitment to those on the margins is nearly ubiquitous. In Trastevere, Sant’Egidio operates a popular restaurant called the “Trattoria of Friends,” where mentally and physical disabled persons help make up the staff.
Certainly, Sant’Egidio doesn’t lack for critics. Founder Andrea Riccardi says that John Paul once told him semi-jokingly that Sant’Egidio “was on the brink of being excommunicated” for its inter-religious gatherings, which often irk traditionalists worried about syncretism and sending the message that all religions are equal.
Veteran Italian writer Sandro Magister has raised questions about the community’s internal practices, accusing them of discouraging married members from having large families because “our children are the poor,” and also charging that its diplomatic activity is more of a “hindrance” than a help to the Vatican.
None of that, however, seems to have put a dent in Francis’ fondness.
Francis knew Sant’Egidio in Argentina. He encouraged them to work in the Villas Miserias of Buenos Aires, slums known as “villas of misery,” and he presided over awarding an honorary doctorate to Riccardi at the Catholic University of Argentina in 2006 – the first time the honor went to a lay person.
A Sant’Egidio event in Argentina was also one of the few times that former President Nestor Kirchner, seen as a foe of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, appeared in public with the future pope.
Francis seems equally enthused about the movement since he became pope. Back in October he spotted a banner from the movement in a crowd during one of his Sunday talks and exclaimed, “These people from Sant’Egidio are great!”
If Sant’Egidio were interested in expanding its global reach in the Catholic Church, there’s probably no time like the present, because they’re unlikely to get a better friend at the top than the one they have now.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.