Posted: July 23, 2004
Interview with Sant'Egidio founder Andrea Riccardi
July 15, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
Andrea Riccardi and his chief collaborator in Sant'Egidio, Mario Marazziti, have recently published a book on the European relationship with Africa titled Eurafrica. Riccardi had just returned from 15 days in Africa when he sat down with NCR in the Sant'Egidio headquarters in Trastevere.
NCR: How did the trip go?
Riccardi: I'm very interested, because I think the subject of Africa is very central for the Community of Sant'Egidio.
In the 1960s, we had the idea of living as a community in Rome, in the dimensions of the city. The idea was to hold our prayer at Sant'Egidio, but to work in the periphery [the poor zones on the outskirts of the city]. This was the initial idea. At that time, the periphery of the city was very different from what you see today. Rome was an unbalanced city analogous to those of the Third World, with rich neighborhoods but also shantytowns full of immigrants, who at the time were from southern Italy. It was a strange city that grew up in the post-war period. We worked in the periphery, among the poor. So how was our interest in Africa born? I would say that it was born because Africa is another periphery, the periphery of our contemporary world, a periphery that seems to have no value whatsoever. But our interest was also born in a history. Our history with Africa begins with the story of Mozambique. We met this country through a few of it representatives to a conference in Rome. That's another thing about Rome. It's not really a great city on the scale of New York or Moscow or Paris or London. It's a medium-sized city, but in a sense it's a city without walls, a very international city, for many reasons. One, of course, is being the heart of the Catholic church, a role it came to play in a new way after the Second Vatican Council, when not just Catholic bishops and other exponents of Catholicism but also the representatives of other Christian churches became regular visitors. Through Mozambique, therefore, we discovered this other world of great misery. When I travel to Maputo in Mozambique, I always make a point of returning to the market of Maputo … it's my personal pilgrimage. I saw there, exactly 10 years ago, in 1984, in this great market built by the Portuguese in the 1920s, a little bit of vegetables on the shelves and some dry fish. That was it. It was a very illuminating image of the famine that was going on at the time. Outside the markets that served the stores frequented by party members and Europeans, there was always a large crowd of people that waited for the customers to exit in the hope that they might toss out an apple. These were horrible images of famine. Thus, the interest in Africa was born in confrontation with hunger and misery, as well as a situation marked by the absence of liberty. In Mozambique under the Afro-Marxism of Samora Machel, there was no religious liberty and so forth. Hence our first commitment was in this country, a commitment of assistance, of development, and a passionate understanding of the African situation. This led us to conclude, for example, that the war in Mozambique was not a result of the Cold War but of internal problems.
When was the first time you went to Mozambique?
1984, twenty years ago.
Were you invited by someone?
No, I went on my own initiative. Afterwards I went many times, whether invited, uninvited, welcome, unwelcome … I always went to Mozambique. I have also been several times to Malawi, a country that seemingly doesn't count for anything. An English-speaking country, nice people, very beautiful, very green, but there really isn't anything that counts. It really doesn't have a function, in this sense. I've also been often to Tanzania, the Tanzania of [former president Julius] Nyerere, where I think you still feel the imprint of Nyerere. So, what impressions did I have of Africa? First of all, that of a world turned upside down by AIDS. This world of war. In Mozambique, there was something of a miracle after the war, because the peace was real and it was a peace of the people. People don't kill each other anymore, there was a true process of reconciliation. But in Malawi you have the sense of being at the periphery of the world. If you talk to an African from Malawi, or from Togo, they'll say, 'I'm from Malawi, which is a small country that borders Mozambique.' It's as if they come from a small provincial village and they're trying to tell you the city to which they're closest. They know they've been forgotten, and AIDS is the fundamental point of this neglect, along with the wars. These things really strike me, and not just me, but my friends of Sant'Egidio, because we're present in 22 African countries.
What does it mean for Sant'Egidio to be 'present'?
By the way, I'm talking about African members of Sant'Egidio, who form a community in many different ways and with precious little by way of structures. In some cases, the "headquarters" is a kind of hut. In Mozambique, on the other hand, we have somewhere between 90-100 communities, in cities and villages. What do they do? They meet, they pray, and often they create "schools of peace" for the kids, which is a place for kids in need of help. They go to the jails, visiting their people in jail. This is true across Africa. Children are a priority for our community. All of this arises from the discovery of the poor, because ironically in Africa one has to "discover" poverty. The poor are so ubiquitous that you don't see them. Here, you see somebody who's not dressed very well and you say, "poor guy." No one thinks about this, but in Africa you just don't see the poor because everyone is poor. You're never too poor to help the poor in Africa. So what do our communities do? They are quite a few in Mozambique, many in Malawi, and quite a few in Tanzania, especially in Dar es Salaam. They have different dimensions. This really isn't all that interesting. Two things, however, strike me about Africa. First, Africa is a continent of violence. You could say something similar about Latin America, but we're talking now about Africa. I have the sensation that the African society itself has become violent, especially where there are civil wars, as in Ivory Coast. This is an important place for Sant'Egidio, because we have many communities there. It's an important country because of its tradition of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians, which is in play right now. There's a risk in Ivory Coast of going the path of Lebanon. If Ivory Coast falls, there will be a crisis in the entire area. We were involved in the accords of Marcoussis, which you know about.
How were the African communities of Sant'Egidio born?
Mostly among Africans that somehow came to know us. In Mozambique, they got to know because we were there, and some of them came to Rome. In Guinea, a community was born because some people from Guinea came to Rome. Others were born in different ways, sometimes from an awareness of Sant'Egidio transmitted from one African group to another.
Sant'Egidio does not send people into Africa to open branches?
Sometimes we send people, sometimes people go of their own accord. You can't exclude any possibility. But normally, we send people to maintain contact with these communities and to accompany them. The leaders are Africans, all Africans. In all of Africa, we don't have a single leader of one of these communities who is a European.
So what happens is that a group forms and then later requests some kind of connection with Sant'Egidio?
A connection, or they start to know us, to read about us … plus the name of Sant'Egidio circulates quite a bit in Africa, because there it's sort of a name of peace. When the peace accord in Mozambique was signed in 1992, lots of people decided they wanted to somehow be part of Sant'Egidio.
But to get back to my impressions of Africa, the first thing was the violence. If you look at the missionaries, even the missionaries by now are afraid. It's a society that has become violent. Also in Tanzania, which has traditionally been a pacific country, the violence is beginning. This is a worrying fact. The second fact is what we can call 'neo-Protestantism.' This made a great impression on me. Neo-Protestantism, meaning for the most part "free churches." Not the historic free churches, but groups such as Church of the Kingdom, The Flock of the Kingdom, etc. … neo-Protestantism of either the North American or Latin American variety. I think there's been an incredible spread. My impression is that the Catholic church in Africa faces a profound challenge. People say that it's challenged by Islam, but in my view it's equally challenged, and perhaps more so, by neo-Protestantism. Why? At bottom, in the colonial and post-colonial world, the Catholic church or the traditional Protestant churches (Anglicans, etc.) were at the center of the horizon. Samora Machel persecuted the Catholic church, and for Samora Machel, "the church" meant the Catholic church. It was just the same for the Communist parties of the East. Today, things are different. There is a haze of churches, in a horizon that's no longer post-colonial. I would call it post-1989, or we could call it "American." This fact strikes me a great deal. The diffusion of these neo-Protestant churches corresponds to the desperation of Africa, to the need that Africans feel for help, for prayers of healing, for immediate assistance personally for me. This is a great African problem, a great African religious problem. Church history in Africa is such that the traditional churches often seem a bit pulverized, that is, aligned with the state. Obviously the churches could have a different profile, as the Anglicans did in the 1980s and 1990s with [Bishop Desmond] Tutu [in South Africa], or some Catholic bishops less famous but very well known by the Africans. This activity helped lead the way to democracy and peace. Today, I ask myself if the same thing would be possible. What will come of African religion? Hence, forgotten Africa, sick Africa …
Is the growth of neo-Protestantism necessarily a bad thing?
I don't know. There is certainly much to learn. But before we learn, we have to understand. My fear is that in our world of the church, we close our eyes and don't see beyond our own institutions. We don't see the problems as they are. I repeat: before we condemn, we have to understand. What's happening? Here, we talk about the challenge of Islam, and it's a clear challenge. It's a centuries-old historical problem. We know what it is. But in the last century, the galaxy of neo-Protestant, Pentecostal, charismatic movements, passed from zero followers to a half-billion. It's a fact. If you look at it, it's not that nobody noticed it. People talk about "the sects," etc. But it's a response to a profound need, and perhaps it's demanding a pastoral response from the Catholic church.
Do you feel prepared to explain this phenomenon?
No, but I do feel convinced of the need to deal with it.
I was just in Peru, and it seemed that everyone has their favorite explanation for the growth of the 'sects.'
Peru is an emblematic case, Guatemala all the more so. Probably all of the explanations carry an element of truth. But today, one thing to note is that this growth of neo-Protestantism, which is an imperfect term but just for the sake of discussion, is least noticeable in ancient Western Europe. Today, Western Europe, with respect to the rest of the world, presents itself as an island. It's a somewhat singular island, in terms of religion and in terms of civilization. If you think, for example, about Eastern Europe, you'll find the same neo-Protestant galaxy. It's in Kiev and so on. Sometimes I think that we Europeans don't understand anything. We don't understand the world. We have this idea of the piazza, of a certain kind of European urban civilization, which is still for the most part a mixed city. Trastevere is a neighborhood of rich and poor, as is Parioli, and so on. You can go out in the evening, if you can't get to sleep, you can go out and take a walk Monday at 1:00 a.m. if you want. It might not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but it won't be a bad experience. If you go out to take a walk at night in Maputo or Johannesburg or Kinshasa or Lima, it's your last night. The great cities of the world are actually developing into compounds, in the sense of division. I have the sensation that we Europeans are not well positioned to understand the dramas of the world, especially of the South of the world. I also believe this is true of the East, but especially of the South of the world. Hence we can call these groups "sects" if we want, but we have to understand them, especially those who are working in those places. I have the sensation that often the Catholic church … you know, we complain about the heavy structures of the German church, but perhaps the Catholic church has heavy structures also in Africa. There's a need for lighter structures, for articulation, for multiplicity. All this is a process that the church must undergo. Perhaps most importantly, I have the impression that there must be a new mission in Africa. This is the point. A new mission, for the Africans. They must regain for this continent its role as a protagonist among the other continents. It's an African problem, fundamentally, and a problem for the friends of Africa. I think this is fairly clear. Africa is obviously a huge black hole in international politics, and this is something everyone knows. If you take the book of Samuel Huntington, for example, it never says what civilization Africa belongs to. You see what civilization Morocco is in, Turkey, Italy, Canada, Bulgaria … but Congo? Nobody knows. So what's Africa? I believe that a special relationship between Europe and Africa is necessary, for reasons of language, history, colonialism, geographical proximity, and immigration. Clearly, the term "Eurafrica" is provocative. It's an old term, [Leopold] Senghor [president of Senegal from 1960 to 1980] used it. But I believe this is a great problem for Europe, and for Africa.
This is one of Sant'Egidio's priorities?
We have it in us, in our chromosomes. In the end, we're a very African community, and we can't help but feel these things. In fact, our efforts on the AIDS problem were born in this context, and they are growing. In Mozambique, in Malawi, a therapy was arrived at in an African fashion, and we have rate of adherence to the treatment that's almost better than it is in Europe. We simplified the therapy, reducing the number of treatments. Most importantly, what's the real point? The relationship with the family, with the nuclear family of the sick person. Thus the social activist says, "Are you taking the medicine?" "Why aren't you taking it?" It's a very direct relationship.
When I talk to American bishops, they often ask me why Sant'Egidio doesn't have a higher profile in the United States. How do you explain the fact that up to now the community's presence has been so limited in the States?
Look, this is an interesting question. I'm also grateful for the appreciation that's implicit in the question. I've always felt that the best compliments come not in the affirmations but in questions. Affirmations are too florid … "You guys are wonderful," that sort of thing, I don't like it. But as far as your question goes, I've posed this question to myself before. I'm not sure I can give you an explanation. To put it frankly, we've never had a plan of expansion or growth. It's all been natural, though this naturalness has of course caused us to emphasize certain lines. For example, beyond the United States, I think there's also space for Sant'Egidio in Canada. We have some other "holes" too. Brazil, for example, is another country that's important both for Catholic and historical reasons. We have a presence in Asia, but it too is limited. We're present in Pakistan, in Indonesia fairly strongly … it's a very interesting country. We're present in the Philippines, and we have some friends elsewhere. Our experience is one that's focused North/South, meaning Europe/Africa, with an irradiation in Latin America, especially Central America. You know that we're in Cuba, for example, an important presence. We're also in El Salvador, Guatemala, with something in Mexico, something in Colombia, something in Peru (though very little), plus Bolivia and Argentina. Still, your question is a fair one, and it's one that we have to put to ourselves. My response is this -- it will come with the naturalness of our development. Plus, we're not in a hurry. We don't feel the need to plant the flag of our presence in the whole world. Universality does not mean being present everywhere, but it means going to the bottom of things wherever you are, taking the world seriously wherever you are. This doesn't mean, of course, that we don't have a dialogue with American groups and cultures. This happens other places too. For example, Sant'Egidio is a name that has much more importance in France than our actual presence there would justify. We have an enormous dialogue with the French world, have long had this dialogue. Yet we have a very restricted presence in France, like in the United States. We have a community in Paris, etc. But, this doesn't mean that Sant'Egidio ignores either France or the United States. I understand your question, and think that we have to put to ourselves. It's not just that the United States is the capitol of the empire, and therefore influences the world, and influences Africa. Obviously, we already know this. We've worked since the 1990s with the Department of State on Mozambique, and the African situation in general. We have an important relationship with them, I would almost say a preferential relationship, on Africa. I'd like to add that I believe the United States, perhaps all of North America, and Brazil represent two very important challenges. In Brazil, perhaps we're a little more behind. We don't even really have a dialogue with Brazilian culture, which is something that I think is very important. For Sant'Egidio, dialogue with a culture, with a nation, doesn't always have to pass through the Community of Sant'Egidio. It's not that the United States is not on our horizon. Plus, there's a slow presence of Sant'Egidio in many countries. We've been in Spain for 20 years, and today there's a growing Spanish presence. I'm not in a hurry.
Have you thought about organizing one of the 'Religion and Peace' meetings in the States?
Yes. I'll tell you this, and it's somewhat new. For the 20th anniversary of Assisi, we've thought about organizing something in North America … 2006. We're thinking about organizing something in the United States for 2006. We've thought about it various times. In the near future, I'll be going to Georgetown, where they're giving me an award. They've published our book on the peace in Mozambique.
Do you think there's something about the culture of the United States that makes it uncongenial to Catholic movements: the spirit of individualism, the legacy of Calvinism, and so on?
That's all true, and it could be that the spirit of individualism makes the growth of Sant'Egidio more complicated. But the United States is not just a country of individualism, but also of communitarianism, of a thousand different aggregations. The United States is everything and the opposite of everything. I don't have to teach you that … even Kansas is the opposite of everything! So, yes, there could be cultural resistance. In the same way, it could be that the slow growth of Sant'Egidio in Poland is the result of a certain Polish culture, or that in France there are difficult aspects, such as that everything has to be born in France and nothing can come from the outside. Hence, it could be. But I would not emphasize it too much. For one thing, individualism may be strong in the United States, but by now it's really a globalized phenomenon. There's an Italian individualism, and an African individualism. It's a little more difficult, perhaps, to have a strong Asian individualism.
Let me give you a chance to respond to a couple criticisms of Sant'Egidio. Some say that Sant'Egidio is akin to a 'church within the church,' a bit closed in on itself.
I believe that the church is very articulated, and in our time it's becoming steadily more articulated. It's a very stratified church. If you pass on foot through Trastevere, you'll find a parish, a chapter, a confraternity. Historically the church has always been articulated, but that doesn't mean not unified. This is the great point, the point of communion. Communion fundamentally regards the diocesan dimension. You can't leave out the diocesan dimension of the church. Sant'Egidio wants to build community in the local church and with the local church. This explains also the slowness of the growth of Sant'Egidio, in the sense that things have to develop in the fabric of the local culture and society, and in the local church itself. When we talk about "movements," and that is a word that we could discuss at great length -- I find it a very generic term, which is used to refer to things that are quite diverse. People also often say "movements born after the Council," even though many of these groups were born before the Council. But for the sake of discussion we have to simplify, and anyway our time is one of horrible simplification. Hence my response is that Sant'Egidio is one of the many "movements," one of the many realities, in the church. Recently I went to a congress of religious orders. The superiors general invited me to speak, and I saw that some other representatives of movements spoke about "we new movements," "you religious," "you older groups." I didn't speak that way. I felt like saying, "You're older. We of Sant'Egidio are a little younger. Maybe one day we'll have your problems, and maybe our problems can be useful to you." For example, Sant'Egidio has had a great rapport with the religious for at least 30 years. Fr. [Pedro] Arrupe [former master general of the Jesuits] came here, he was a great friend of ours. Many others have done so. It's true that the religious are going through a crisis, but there's a need for everyone in the church. My idea is that the church is not monolithic, it's not just this room, but it's many rooms that have to be put in communication with one another. I abhor the messianic complex of the group. In other words, it's not like Sant'Egidio has the solution for the universal church in Peru, or in Rome, or in Africa or the United States. Anyway, if we had it, it would be an enormous responsibility that we wouldn't want. In this sense, I think that the council and the church in the post-conciliar period teaches us to live in complexity and unity. So, a church within a church? Sure, when you're an adolescent, you're an adolescent. When you're an adolescent, and you become a little bit obsessed with an experience or with a girl, it's the most beautiful thing in the world. When you arrive at 50 years old, you realize that this woman maybe isn't quite so beautiful anymore, but you're more affectionate. What you realize is that your experience isn't the only one.
Many people believe that Sant'Egidio is 'progressive,' meaning that in some sense it represents the left wing of the church. Is that true?
You know, I'm a historian. I know that "left" and "right" can't be used in the church. In the history of the church, I've found a number of figures who make this point. Romolo Murri, for example, a great personality of Italian Catholicism, who was left-wing, progressive, even excommunicated, and who ended up with the fascists. Hence I'm afraid of these terms. I would say two things. If you ask me, "Andrea, what's the line of Sant'Egidio?" I would say that we try to have a few points of reference: the Word of God; the liturgy; the poor; we try to stand with the people, to understand their reality, hence not closing ourselves off; and finally the horizon of the world. If this is what it means to be progressive, then we're very progressive. Because everything can become an ideology, you know? Also "Franciscanism" can become an ideology.
You didn't mention fidelity to the magisterium or closeness to the bishops among your points of reference.
Look, we're Catholics.
You're also seen as friends of this pope.
That gives me great pleasure, being seen as friends of the pope. We've known him for many years and he's always been very supportive of us. He came here [to Sant'Egidio]. I believe that this pope has given an enormous contribution to the church, to the recovery of the Catholic church in the last 25 years. Let's not forget, too, that the pope is our bishop. This tends to be forgotten, but he's our bishop for 25 years now. This pope wanted to be the Bishop of Rome. It could be that he hasn't completely succeeded because he's been distracted by other concerns, but he's been serious about it. He came to Rome and said, "Okay, what now?" Paul VI arrived after having worked in the Secretariat of State etc. John Paul got here and wanted to know, "Where do I go? Where are the young people?" That we are seen as friends of the people, I believe. At one time being seen as friends of the pope could have meant a position of power. John Paul II, however, has represented his ministry as a kind of friendship, not a position of power. Certainly, we try to be close to the pope. He knows what we do. Perhaps, he's also pushed us to pass from Rome to the rest of the world, not as an order, but a kind of stimulus.
Some people see Sant'Egidio as a way to embrace social activism while remaining anchored in the faith.
I remember in the 1970s when I went to Holland, everyone would ask me, "Are you an active community or a spiritual community?" We've always refused this definition. This is a firm point of Sant'Egidio. We're an active community, and we don't place limits on our activity. Put the fulcrum of our activity is our spirituality, our prayer and our liturgy. This is a central aspect. We believe in ora et labora. This is our synthesis. We wouldn't be to maintain certain fairly extreme commitments, for peace, for the poor, etc., if we didn't have these roots.
At the level of theory, this seems rather obvious.
But it's not the easiest thing to practice. It seems like the discovery of hot water, because if you just spell it out … that one should both pray and work … it seems as obvious as hot water. But, hot water scalds sometimes. It's actually difficult to find the correct measure with hot water. In the end, however, one's theological and spiritual options are connected to one's life, hence the difficulty here is not merely practical but also theological and spiritual. This is our great experience - great or little as the case may be - to read the Word of God in our lives and in history. In this sense, our spirituality is one of Dei Verbum, but it's also a geopolitical spirituality. Hence, yes, hot water seems a simple thing but it's difficult to live, and not just as a practical matter, but also in terms of theology and spirituality.
Some say there's a cult of personality around you as the founder of Sant'Egidio.
I often hear people talk about "the founder," but I think we need to let a few years pass. We can use this term if we want. You know, in Italy we're all "doctors." If you go to park the car, the guy in the parking lot will call you "doctor" as long as you're wearing a tie or glasses. In the same sense, we're all "founders" of something. I believe that through the years, we've found a charism that belongs to our reality. But this charism is not a man, or a woman. It's Jesus and the gospel, a way of reading the gospel. People write and talk about "the founder," but I'm never sure what that means. I've never felt the need to put all that weight on my shoulders. I remember once at a meeting of the founders of various movements, someone said that, "The truth about a movement reveals itself after the death of the founder." There were many reactions, including some Italian founders who went like this [Riccardi makes the "horns" gesture, suggesting a way of warding off a curse]. "The last minute possible," in other words.
Some would say that many of the movements, yours included, which started off as lay movements have reproduced clerical attitudes, including treating the founder as a kind of 'lay cardinal.'
Look, clericalism is a disease of all organizations. Not just Catholic organizations, but also Protestant, Orthodox, and Islamic ... and not just religious groups, but unions, political parties, and so on. Hence, it's possible. I think you have to see things as they are. I'm convinced that the category of "movement" is by now the prevailing one, which was used by the pope for the gathering of Pentecost in 1998. But when I speak of "movements," I'm not just talking about Sant'Egidio, the Focolarini, and so on. I'm also thinking about the movements of tomorrow. The open space the pope created for charisms, the charisms of the church, arent't just for the movements of today but also those that will be born tomorrow. We can't just claim this open space as our own, because we don't know where it's going. We don't know. I think we have to be concerned with the others and what will come after us, and not simply repeat that "We are the new thing." I don't believe in running around saying that "We're the new, we're the best, we're perfect," because the moment in which you claim to be the best, you're the worst. Certainly, this age of globalization and the media favor reducing everything to an image. When the newspapers call, they always want to talk to me or to Mario about whatever the problem is, for example the political crisis in Tanzania, and they refuse to speak with a friend here of Sant'Egidio who passed his entire life in Tanzania and knows the situation perfectly. I'm not taking that typical Catholic line, by the way, that everything is the fault of journalists, and that if it weren't for journalists everything would be perfect, which one hears a lot from Catholics. I don't like the kind of person who is always claiming that journalists didn't understand me. But as far as the movements go, I believe they're very different one from another, also in terms of their internal structures. For example, Comunione e Liberazione and the Focolarini were born a few years apart from another, in the same country and the same period. The Focolarini are quite structured in a compact fashion, while Comunione e Liberazione is really a movement, in the sense that it aims to launch messages and so on. Chiara Lubich is 84, but she still guides the movement in a strong sense, and she's actually the president. Fr. Guissiani, on the other hand, provides some impulses. Hence we're talking about two very different systems. What is a movement? The Franciscans are a movement, the religious are trying to become a movement. Is Opus Dei a movement? It doesn't seem so to me. Among us, we don't really use the word "founder." Is there a cult of personality? Maybe. To some extent it's the fault of the movements, to some extent it's also the fault of the media. Look, by nature I'm an intellectual and an academic. I'm not passionate about being the object of a personality cult. I like to look at problems. I suppose this is a problem we want to avoid, but our real problem is living and acting as Christians. How do we serve this objective? All the other problems are secondary. The other point is that we're all people who grew up together here in Rome, so it's a little difficult to generate a cult of personality about somebody you played with as a kid.
You know each other too well?
Some also object that the public image of Sant'Egidio tends to be exclusively male.
I see this as true as far as the inter-religious meetings go, but it's not the reality of the community. On the contrary, within the community I think female leaders are more or less fifty-fifty. We do have a problem in finding female leaders in Africa, where it's very difficult. For example, our director in northern Mozambique is a woman, and it's tough for her. I can see that. We're committed, however, to cultivating female leaders in Africa. In Europe, however … in Belgium our director is a woman; in Paris, a woman; in Prague, a woman; in Hungary, a woman; Madrid, a woman; Lisbon, a woman; the Piedmont, a woman; Moscow, a woman. Then we can pass to Latin America, or to Indonesia, where there are three women in charge. There is however, a public relations problem at the inter-religious meetings. We feel it. I don't work much on those meetings, but when I work on the programs, I always say, 'We're missing a woman here' and so on. The response, however, has to come from the religions. It's not really our fault. I know a terrific female Muslim theologian who I'd love to see at these meetings. In the end, however, it's the responsibility of the religions to decide who represents them. Our effort has always been to attract the real leaders of the religions, which is also a way of speaking to the people.
Many believe that Sant'Egidio dreams of winning the Nobel Prize.
No. We've been candidates for several years, and it's a candidacy that gives us great pleasure because it's a manifestation of affection and support. But it doesn't depend on us, and it's not on our "agenda." We're used to being candidates. As the saying goes, some live their profession, others live as candidates for their profession, which is a way of remaining unemployed.
Do you have some short-term program for future growth, of where you want to be in 10 years or 20 years?
I'll respond this way. You know that we're Mediterranean in origin, and we Mediterraneans often don't navigate with a compass but by the stars. Plus, Pope John taught us to say that to navigate means to read the signs of the times. Communism also made us a bit indifferent towards five-year plans of development. Man makes projects and God changes them. But, I would say that if we have to create an agenda, short-term, I would suggest the following. First, a deepening of our spirituality. I think that's necessary for all of us, in order to confront the other points. The second point would be the battle for Africa that's just begun, in all the senses we've already discussed … AIDS, peace, the development of a true African church, a real African church, of the people. Next, I would add continuing the struggle against the death penalty. I think we have to carry this message to certain countries in particular. Then, ecumenism. For me this is something fundamental. I would dream in the not too distant future of a meeting between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
What do you mean by 'meeting'?
It means a stronger dialogue of charity. It's necessary to dialogue on the basis of charity and to realize that we can't go forward divided. There's a commandment of the Lord that asks us to be united, and the exigencies of this globalized world also demand it of us. I believe that Orthodoxy needs Catholicism, and Catholicism needs Orthodoxy.
Many ecumenical observers believe that we have to reconsider what is meant by 'unity,' since if you mean 'full structural communion,' that seems more like an eschatological aim than anything likely to happen in the here and now.
Maybe, though perhaps it's also true that even in the Catholic church, true unity is an eschatological objective. The point is, we can't renounce the aim of being united. We have to realize the unity is not impossible or revolutionary. Unity means the clarification of certain theological points, and then accepting oneself in the structures of the church as they are. Metropolitan Nikodim of Moscow dreamed in the 1960s that we would be united in the year 2000. I'm convinced that unity is not something that can be put off or delayed. It's a fundamental note of the church. Also, the rise of neo-Protestant movements challenges the historical churches to be united. I don't believe that the structures have to be changed. I think there's a practical ecumenism, an ecumenism of real things, of solidarity, which is extremely difficult. As a medium-term objective, I'd like to see us celebrate on the same date the memory of the martyrs of the 20th century. For me this would be an important step. That is, to recall together the legacy of the martyrs of the 20th century, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. It would be a gesture of common reflection on the 20th century, this century of terrible divisions among Christians, but at the same time the discovery of our unity.
It seems that Sant'Egidio's ecumenical interests are more directed at the Orthodox than the churches of the Reformation.
Our interest is very directed at the Orthodox, it's very developed in this sense. In Germany, however, we have many contacts with the Lutheran world. We have many Lutheran friends in Germany. It's true, however, that for us the path to the East has always been important. It was important during the period of the Communist regimes. I went to Albania during the Soviet era, for example. I also think, however, there's a great ecumenical frontier with the "free churches" in Africa. It's very difficult. But for example, why not speak with the "Harrist" churches in the Ivory Coast? Some groups are losing part of their Christian identity, but this is also born of isolation. I think we have to speak with these people, I'm convinced. We've made some efforts with the Harrists.
National Catholic Reporter, July 23, 2004