When I spoke with the theologian Harvey Cox a few months ago, he told me enthusiastically about his experiences with Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic organization that he sees as representing the future of the Church and, in turn, of religion in what he calls the coming “age of spirit”:
I was over there in Rome this summer visiting those people. It was fantastic. They are all laypeople; they have no priestly leadership, though they’re approved by the Catholic Church as a lay association. They meet for prayer, for Bible study, and to share a meal. Part of their discipline is making friends with poor and lonely people in Rome. Then they spread out all over the world and help to negotiate major conflicts. I think they’re a model, and they’re not the only one.
Before talking with Cox, I had heard about Sant’Egidio’s remarkable work before—I walked by their church in Lucca, Italy, countless times, for one. They have been involved in peacemaking efforts in trouble spots around the world, in addition to working with the poor closer to home. But what he said made me eager to talk with Andrea Bartoli, Sant’Egidio’s representative in the U.S. and a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University. Our interview, “Religious peacemaking in a secular world,” appears today at The Immanent Frame. In his gracious way, Bartoli took some issue with Cox’s characterization that sets a grassroots lay group like Sant’Egidio in opposition with the hierarchy of the Church. After all, last December, Pope Benedict XVI dined with the poor at a Sant’Egidio house in Rome. Bartoli explains:
I admire Harvey Cox. His book The Secular City captured our attention when we were young, as did his later books that spoke about the liveliness of the spirit. But Benedict, I think, cannot be easily caricatured as a pope who is simply trying to reimpose an outdated kind of Christianity. Benedict is clearly aware that the Church doesn’t have control of the political machinery, especially through the papacy, as it once did. He also speaks about Christians as a creative minority, and Sant’Egidio exemplifies this for him. We have always been careful about being part of the Catholic Church—that is, not inventing a new church, but being an expression of a 2,000-year-old tradition. When Benedict XVI comes to eat at the soup kitchen the Community runs for the poor, he’s saying that the Church actually starts with the poor. In his encyclical Caritas and Veritas, there is a call for a global social policy that is far to the left of any progressive policy. This is something that is difficult to appreciate if you look at the world only from a U.S./Western perspective, but it’s much easier to understand if you’re in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, where the majority of the human family is. The Catholic Church, these days, is one of the most powerful forces for the representation of the poor in the world.
There is lots more about Sant’Egidio’s important work in the full interview.