Blog Post by Ann Wilson
It was a 6.30am start for those of us going train from Assisi. How marvellous to have a 2-hour return journey for 20 euros instead of the £80+ for a trip of the same length from Manchester to London! We joined the commuters as we crammed into a carriage to the Coliseum, adding underground to our list of public transport ‘experiences’ on our pilgrimage.
We decided the few who had stayed behind in Assis had chosen the better part as we trudged through the rain sodden streets of the capital realising that ‘waterproof’ on our jackets was being economical with the truth. The rain had brought Rome to a standstill but, eventually, we, very cold and wet, pilgrims arrived at Saint Bartolomeo church. Francesco was waiting for us to explain the origins of the St Egidio community and his role in it for the last 20 years. It began in 1968 when a group of students decided to do something about the deprivation in their locality of Trastevere. Their enthusiasm reflected the energy of the time and, as they gathered round the Gospel, they asked how they could live out what they were reading? They decided to reach out to the poor and still do. This community of lay people with no rules and no hierarchical structure now numbers 60,000 people worldwide. Members do not live in community but with their own families or alone with each member doing what they can. They have a threefold focus of prayer, serving the poor and peace. There is mass and evening prayer each day to which members can attend if they wish and are able to, but it is not obligatory. They have communities overseas, for example, in Latin America, Ukraine, some Countries in Africa and the UK working with people in poverty. Their peace initiatives focus especially on conflict resolution.
They have no political power but use their Gospel authority to realise that nothing is impossible. With this notion, the Saint Egidio community has been involved in conflict resolution in Mozambique in 1992 and were part of the Rome General Peace Accord. They have since set up a ‘Humanitarian Corridor’ in Italy and, for the last 3 years, have enabled 1,000 refugees to have safe passage to Italy. Francesco spoke of all this in a gentle, understated manner and one which firmly believed that anything is, in fact, possible.
As for the church building, where we were hearing this extraordinary story of ordinary lay people, we could but be impressed by the icon of the new martyrs, dominating the sanctuary, depicting examples of those who have passed through great persecutions including Maximilian Kolbe and Oscar Romero, as well as scenes of persecution and poverty with images of people with leprosy, a train going to Auschwitz, barbed wire and soldiers with rifles. Pope John Paul II gave the church to the community which now houses the relics of martyrs from all over the world. These ‘relics’ not the usual bones of saints but items belonging to those who have died martyrs in the last and present century. Each altar is dedicated to ‘relics’ from different countries such as Nazi Germany, Latin America, the Communist era, the Middle East and it was very moving to see personal items of those people. I was especially struck by an exercise book which had belonged to an 8-year-old boy killed in Aleppo. The relics seemed very contemporary. Similarly, in Saint Egidio church, just a short walk away from Saint Bartolomeo, this small church has two side altars, one containing bibles in all different languages in the world and one with crosses from all over the world. These two churches were not places of sorrow but hope, the cross being the symbol of hope not death. Francesco reminded us that where there is sorrow, we can bring light and there was ample evidence that the Saint Egidio community are doing exactly that. There was a sense of a community alive to the world and one which reads the signs of the times and acts. It was an inspirational morning despite the inauspicious beginning….
After lunch in Trattoria de Gli Amici, a co-operative promoted by the Saint Egidio community, where people with disabilities work alongside professionals and volunteers, Fr August Zampini Davies joined some of us. We knew him from his role as theological advisor for CAFOD but he now works in the Vatican in the Dicastry for Promoting Integral Human Development. In his elucidating talk, we were
reminded of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si and its reference to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. This was beautifully illustrated as Augusto picked up his bowl of bread to emphasize the link between creation and the earth which grows the wheat and the people who create the bread. The interconnection and the interdependence of the two spoke to us. The faith we share between our sisters and brothers, who we are as people and our humanity is inextricably linked to the earth and all of creation. If we break that bond, we are all undone…
The evening saw us in the chapel at La Cittadella in Assisi where we appreciated the quiet of meeting for worship arranged by two of our Quaker friends on our pilgrimage. The quiet of the prayer was welcomed after the bustle of the day in Rome.