It was 1968 and in Italy, as in many other places around the world, social causes encouraged and inspired many to take to the streets to help those in need and create positive change in communities. Young and old felt called to serve their fellow countrymen and women. Some protested, others helped enact new laws, and some sought the guidelines for action in the Gospel.
Andrea Riccardi, a young Italian high school student only 18 years old, had the idea of "gathering people around the Gospel". He believed that "the Gospel can change our lives and the life of the world". As a result, he and many others who were called to form The Community, today known as the Community of Sant'Egidio, achieved their goal and continue to dedicate themselves to it.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were many movements in which one could participate. There was a desire for change and, of course, it was also a necessity. "But ours was different because it was Christian," says Paola Piscitelli, who joined the Community of Sant'Egidio in 1974, when she was a high school student in Rome. And, together with her husband Andrea Bartoli and their two children, Anna and Pietro, she serves New York's most vulnerable.
Around the Gospel
Paola speaks of the humble origins of the Community and of Andrea Riccardi's initiative. Andrea "had this idea of bringing people together around the Gospel". He and his friends would meet in an old convent in Trastevere (a Roman neighborhood), read the Gospel and pray. "Andrea was intrigued by those early meetings and the conversations they had about solitude and their reflections on the Gospel." Moreover, they felt "called to pray together." But not in the traditional sense, such as clergy and religious. It was something that was born of the Second Vatican Council and, from then on, they always saw the Community "as a fruit of the renewal of the Council".
Many Catholics, like the early members of the Community of Sant'Egidio, accepted that "invitation" of the Church to be active participants and to have a more significant and vital role within the Church. They understood what it means "to be called to mission". In short, the laity are Church and are co-responsible for the propagation of the message of Jesus Christ in the world. Therefore, the words, the People of God, had to be taken seriously. This form of empowerment inspired the first members of the Community of Sant'Egidio.
Paola recalls that "at the beginning they were inspired to pray, read the Bible together and live in fellowship with one another". There was also a desire to help the poor. Paola shares that "they couldn't refer to themselves as Christians without connecting with and serving the poor." She further points out that this "communal" aspect was and still is in the DNA of the Community. After all, no one can save themselves alone.
Perhaps these young men and women who met every day at 8:30 a.m. to pray and read the Gospel were unaware of the mission they had at that moment. God had given them a vocation before it was unveiled to them. But, in time, Paola realized that "it was much bigger than we had imagined and, before we could realize it, there was a plan for community in the Church."
Although there were a couple of names before it became the Community of Sant'Egidio, Paola recalls, "...we called ourselves 'Community of Friends' and 'Community of the Gospel.'" The desire to pray together and serve the poor was clear from the beginning. Paola continues, "But we needed to take the Gospel seriously in our lives, and we were not to separate ourselves from the world."
St. Egidio in New York
In his acclaimed book "How the Other Half Lives," Jacob Riis writes, "Half the world doesn't know how the other half lives." And for many of the original Sant'Egidio members, this was true. Paola recalls how "shocked" she was to discover a world so different from her own and yet it was "just around the corner." She recalls going to the outskirts of Rome to help children in need and witnessing a world very different from her own. That was in 1974, and Paola and her husband have remained steadfast in their faith and commitment to the Gospel.
The Bartoli family continued their work in Rome and participated in helping other communities in other parts of the world. Eventually they moved to the United States, had two children and founded a community in New York.
Upon their arrival, they did what they had always done: gather together, read the Word and wait for the guidance of Jesus Christ. Paola shares, "We felt the daily prayer because we always needed to receive the feelings and words of the Gospel."
The Community of Sant'Egidio of New York has heard the cries of countless lives in many ways. Each week, many of its forty volunteers prepare food, take to the streets of Manhattan and give those without shelter meals, hot drinks, blankets and other necessities. Five hundred meals are served each week. In addition, the Community of St. Egidio, N.Y., and Catholic Charities of New York, offer public showers in front of Our Savior's Church every Tuesday night for the homeless. The community also visits nursing homes in Brooklyn and engages in relationships with the people they encounter.
Some of their other programs are: "School of Peace", which tries to help educate children to live together peacefully; "English With Friends", which is online, and some of the volunteers write letters to prisoners, among other things. Paola talks about the informality of the relationship between those in need and the volunteers. "Our functions are informal, which allows us to form friendships...it's relational."
They befriend those they meet, creating a relationship that builds trust and allows for true companionship. They are the Good Samaritans of New York.
Paola concludes: "We don't aim to solve all the problems... because we understand that we are small, but I believe that something can always be done".
Prayer was and remains paramount among the "disciples" of the Community of Sant'Egidio, which has multiplied and serves those in need in more than seventy countries around the world. Their website states, "Prayer, based on listening to the Word of Godis the first action of the Community: it accompanies and guides life".