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David S. ToolanFebruary 19, 2001

Is there a vocation crisis? That depends on your perspective. If you think of clergy, the answer is yes. But if you widen the horizon, the picture changes. Think of the number of laymen volunteering to become deacons or the extraordinary number of women presently acquiring advanced degrees in systematic and pastoral theology. Or look at the growth of vital lay movements in the churchfor instance, the Community of Sant’Egidio.

In late December I had a phone call from my old friend Tom Cahill (author of How the Irish Saved Civilization) asking if the editors at America would like to meet Mario Marazziti, the current president of the Sant’Egidio community, who was in town, along with Sister Helen Prejean, to deliver a three-million signature protest against the death penalty to United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan on Dec. 18. Would the next morning be convenient? Indeed it was, so Tom and Mr. Marazziti dropped by for a chat and lunch.

The Sant’Egidio Community was founded in an abandoned Carmelite convent (from which it takes its name) in the Trastevere district of central Rome in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi and his fellow students, who decided that rather than throw paving stones at the police, the most radical thing they could do was to take the New Testament seriously by praying together and tutoring poor kids in Rome’s outskirt shantytowns. Members of Sant’Egidio do not live together; they have normal jobs and normal lives. People are drawn to join by a few very simple, powerful realities - friendship, daily prayer, community and a spirit of volunteerism (there are only about 10 full-time, paid employees at the Rome headquarters) in service of the poor.

At first the group was spurned as Protestant. But very early on they attracted the support of the great theologian Yves Congar, O.P. And soon enough they drew the rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, the future Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, whom they showed how to roll up his sleeves, wash dishes and mop floors in the hovels of Rome’s suburban ghettoes, where this eminent biblical scholar also taught catechism and the rudiments of Hebrew to street kids.

One thing has led to another. The concerns of its friends - and the changing face of the poo - rhave determined where the community’s outreach extends. A cholera epidemic drew the community to work in Naples in 1973, just as the AIDS pandemic has recently led to intensified work in Africa. Today, the community numbers over 30,000 members in more than 40 countries, with two satellite communities in New York City and one in Boston. (The Society of Jesus I entered in 1958 numbered about 32,000, and today is down to about 22,000.)

In recent years Sant’Egidio has made headlines for negotiating a 1992 peace accord between warring factions in Mozambique. When the head of Mozambique’s guerrilla forces showed up at our Roman doorstep in 1991, Mr. Marazziti told us, we showed him a huge pile of letters from our friends in Mozambique, all begging for an end to the bitter civil war. The first letter he picked up from the top - I swear we didn’t plan this - was from the man’s own father, whom he hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10 years. The guerrilla leader broke down in tears. The community has taken on similar peacemaking projects in Albania, Kosovo, Angola, Lebanon, Guatemala, Somalia, Indonesia and Burundi. This February, UNESCO will award the group this year’s prize for peacemaking.

A personal note: Mr. Marazziti is one of those people whom three minutes after shaking his hand you feel you have known all your life - someone with whom you can be utterly at ease, comfortable and at home. To say that he makes friends easily would be a great understatement. He is also one of those people who make you think that the church has not been ethnocentric when it has enrolled a disproportionate number of Italians in the registry of saints. So long as he is in charge, the Sant’Egidio Community should have no trouble recruiting new members. I was ready to join up.

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