Celebration of lay Catholics of Sant’Egidio highlights group’s growing influence

Members of the lay movement have been handpicked by Pope Francis to aid him at the Vatican.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, center left at podium, speaks during a Mass celebrating the 56th anniversary of the lay Catholic movement of Sant'Egidio, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome. (Video screen grab)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A crowd that included both Vatican dignitaries and the disabled and vulnerable gathered in Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Thursday (Feb. 8) to celebrate the 56th anniversary of the lay Catholic movement of Sant’Egidio, considered Pope Francis’ favorite movement and a key player in the pontiff’s foreign diplomacy efforts.

Beneath the massive gold ceiling above the basilica’s nave, numerous cardinals and other church officials, as well as foreign dignitaries, stood beside the more vulnerable people with disabilities, immigrant families and Roma children who have all benefitted from the support of Sant’Egidio.

Sant’Egidio, founded in 1968 by a small group of students led by Andrea Riccardi, eventually set up shop in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, where the community served the poor, the elderly and poor children. They were recognized as an international association of the faithful of pontifical right in 1986.

Their activities soon expanded to other parts of Italy and beyond the country’s borders to conflict areas. Their logo, a dove carrying an olive branch over a rainbow, clearly symbolizes the movement’s commitment to peace.

Their approach to peacemaking was “an artisanal effort,” said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the community, during a brief speech following the anniversary Mass. “The artisans of peace are men and women of fraternity, of volunteer work, of social responsibility, of relationships with others.” 

Francis has relied on the community throughout his pontificate, integrating it more closely with Vatican operations. In 2016, he appointed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who is close to the community, to head the Pontifical Academy for Life, a think-tank that advises the pope on bioethics questions, and in 2018 made Impagliazzo a member of the Vatican Department for Laity, Family and Life. In 2019, he selected Sant’Egidio member Matteo Bruni as Vatican spokesperson.

Pope Francis, seated center, attends a joint prayer at Rome's Colosseum, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, during the final day of the "Cry for Peace" international conference for peace organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis, seated center, attends a joint prayer at Rome’s Colosseum, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, during the final day of the “Cry for Peace” international conference for peace organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

But the community’s highest-profile role came in 2022, when the pope tapped Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, cardinal-priest of Sant’Egidio, to lead the pontiff’s peacemaking efforts in Ukraine. Zuppi, already president of the Italian bishops conference, has traveled to Moscow, Kyiv, Beijing and Washington and worked to free Ukrainian hostages and bring home children displaced by the war.

Zuppi had played a leading role in Sant’Egidio’s operation in Mozambique, which was instrumental in bringing peace in 1992, following a 16-year civil war.

Sant’Egidio has expanded its mediating efforts all over the world and today operates in more than 70 countries and while there is mo official membership numbers, the website states the organization counts over 50,000 volunteers. The group has taken the lead in fostering relations with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and was credited with arranging the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill at the airport of Havana, Cuba, in 2016.

In choosing Zuppi to go to Ukraine, Francis knew the cardinal had a direct channel to the typically guarded Orthodox Russian leadership. 

The appointment also meant that Sant’Egidio is now the recognized leader of Vatican diplomacy efforts, eclipsing the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which had historically handled foreign affairs.

Zuppi celebrated the anniversary Mass on Thursday, where he described Sant’Egidio as the “daughter of the Council,” referring to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which aimed to inject new zeal and modernity into the church. Zuppi remarked on how “the small seed” sowed in 1968 has grown and continues to bear fruit.

With the world in a seemingly rolling crisis of violence, the movement, Zuppi said, “seems to offer security to those who seek security, and the majority, lost and powerless, increasingly closes in on itself. It’s the affirmation of the ‘I’ without an ‘us’ and without God that leads inexorably toward ruin.”

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