With Francis, Progressive Lay Groups Hoping to Seize the Day

Beggar in the streets of Rome.

A beggar supplicates in the streets of Rome, where the rights of the homeless are not recognized. Jesse Marx / Religio.

ROME — The soup kitchen in this city’s trendy Trastevere neighborhood serves few bowls of soup. Instead the air was redolent on a recent night with the smell of zucchini-cream sauce, roasted chicken and Fontina cheese, a meal fit for a king. More than three years ago, in solidarity with the homeless and struggling immigrant population, Pope Benedict XVI had come here for lunch. In his spot sat a sad-eyed lady in a gray hoodie—an image that comes easily to mind when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio talks about helping “the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”

When he became pope in mid-March, Bergoglio took the name Francis in deference to that old icon of poverty, St. Francis of Assisi. This and many of his early actions were perceived by the faithful and the media alike as a new era in church history, one marked by simplicity, humility, openness and, above all, service  to the poor—principles that are cherished by Sant’Egidio, the Catholic lay community that runs this soup kitchen.

Worldwide, Sant’Egidio is made up of an estimated 50,000 Catholics who of their own volition organize and handle the grunt work of charity. Priests can become members of the lay community, but their collar affords them no special privileges. So long as each takes his faith just as seriously, the priest as well as the person in the pews is expected to have the same vocation of holiness and service.

The community formed in Rome in the late 1960s during a period of student protests. Members tend to fall on the progressive side of such divisive theological issues as the use of contraceptives and female ordination, putting them at odds with official church values. However, the community’s chief concern has always been helping immigrants and the homeless establish themselves in a country where moving up the economic and social ladder is particularly difficult. Rome, for example, does not recognize the rights of those who do not own or rent housing. Sant’Egidio offers up the address of its soup kitchen to more than 200 people so that they can vote and get access to healthcare and welfare.

The Church recognizes Sant’Egidio but does not financially support the community’s free services—and therefore doesn’t meddle in its affairs—including a medical station and the Italian-language courses. Funding comes mostly from Italian taxpayers and donations.

The dining hall in Trastevere functions more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen: volunteers act as waiters, while the homeless, many with tired and unwashed faces and alcohol on their breath, sit down as guests. “These people were not loved; they were the opposite,” said one of the organizers, Carlo Santoro, as if he could not bear to summon the word “hated.”

His remark was very much in the spirit of Pope Francis who, in his and homilies and on Twitter, has noted that “True power is service.” But how the pope will help the poor, and what that would mean for the relationship between laity and hierarchy, remain open questions. Will he attempt to engage ordinary Catholics through the local parishes, bringing them closer to the governance of the church? Or will he mobilize those who volunteer their time through lay communities such as Sant’Egidio?

Is it all talk?

Inside the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere, where members of Sant'Egidio pray together every night of the week. Jesse Marx / Religio

The Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere, also known as Santa Maria, where members of Sant’Egidio pray together every night of the week. Jesse Marx / Religio.

Mario Staderini, an Italian journalist and member of the Italy’s political Radical Party, is skeptical of conversations in Rome that Francis’ election means an expanded role in the day-to-day operations of the Church for Sant’Egidio, or any lay community, for that matter. On the contrary, he believes Sant’Egidio should tread cautiously in the years to come, lest they want to undermine the very reason that individuals are attracted to such a group in the first place: control.

“The church is a closed society and if you’re not a priest, if you are a woman, you have no possibility to be involved in church life,” he said.

The Rev. John Wauck, an American who teaches at the Opus Dei Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, disagreed with Staderini’s assessment. Power is not the key to understanding lay communities: their members are simply looking for a material way to express their faith in an increasingly secular world, he said.

Although theologically akin to his predecessor, Bergoglio has shown himself to be more engaged with “the normalcy of human existence,” which is the preoccupation of lay communities, Wauck said. During the conclave, for example, Bergoglio chose to stay in a guesthouse with priests rather than a papal apartment with other cardinals. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he chose to take public transportation rather than ride in a private car. Such things make Bergoglio relatable and will likely animate lay communities, Wauck said.

Despite the flood of optimism and wishful-thinking, Bergoglio’s rise does not suggest a swift break with tradition. All 115 of the cardinals eligible to elect Francis were picked by either Pope John Paul II or Benedict. What’s more, Bergoglio appears to be more receptive to traditionalist lay communities such as Opus Dei rather than progressive ones such as Sant’Egidio. The new pope’s first phone call was reportedly to the editors of Trenta Dias, a magazine run by the traditionalist lay community Communion and Liberation, for an interview.

Either way, Bergoglio has said the right things so far, at least according to those who have a stake in watching him, both on the left and right of church doctrine.

“Impressions matter,” Wauck said. “And certainly the impression that Francis is giving is (that) he’s very at home with God in the middle of the world.”

Sant’Egidio is one of many lay communities to come out the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and symbolized—by advocating for the primacy of one’s conscience over obedience to ecclesiastic authority—a more reciprocal, horizontal and dialectical governing model. However, before the 1980s, when John Paul encouraged re-evangelization of the church from below, many in the hierarchy viewed these communities with suspicion.

Headquarters of the Community of Sant'Egidio, in once-working class, now trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. Jesse Marx / Religio

Headquarters of the Community of Sant’Egidio, in the former working class, now trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. Jesse Marx / Religio.

“John Paul II changed the mind of many bishops and priests…because many priests thought if you work in the school, if you work in the university, it means you are not in the parish,” said Roberto Fontolan, the director of Communion and Liberation.

The hope, at least among many progressive laymen, is that Francis will bring about a return to the church’s roots—to the first few hundred years of history when bishops were elected and a network of communities spread and flourished with their own local rites. What mattered most then was that priest, prophet and participant stood side by side in the apostolic tradition. This was in part the mission of the Christian modernist movement of the 19th Century, whose leaders sought to reconcile the past and the present by ingesting the local culture while pruning its perceived excesses. Although Pope Pius X condemned modernism at that time as the “synthesis of all heresies,” its spirit certainly lives on in Sant’Egidio.

The soup kitchen in Trastevere is open three days of the week. On other nights, community members venture out into the local streets and train stations. They arm themselves with free food and a handbook showing immigrants and the homeless where to find free services courtesy of either other lay communities, official church charities or the government. Whoever and wherever “the poor, the weak, the vulnerable” get a hot meal from is irrelevant.

“We are not in competition,” Santoro said. “We try to make sure someone helps them every night.”

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