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RGOD2: The courage to hope

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series running daily through Saturday, Oct. 5.)

Sant Egido Community returns to Rome for their annual conference where religions and cultures dialogue

In 1968, Andrea Riccardi had a dream to create a lay community of dedicated Christians and other people of goodwill to bring peace and justice on the Earth. The community began on the edge of the Vatican feeding the poor and needy of Rome and has since expanded its shared life of prayer and work to many places around the world.

The latest impact of this vision was a conference that attracted 3,000 people over this past weekend. The opening Mass of the Conference was held at the Basilica of St Paul (where the remains of our patron, St. Paul are venerated) had 25,000 people and was nationally televised. Every major religion was represented and received with all the warmth and graciousness of Roman hospitality. Four of us from the St. Paul’s Foundation, two Africans and two Americans, were invited to share in the public discussions and presentations, as well as the grand opening Assembly.

On Sunday evening, the 2,000-seat Auditorium Conciliziazione was so full that people began sitting (against all standard fire regulations) on the tiered steps! The opening addresses came from dignitaries like the Mayor of Rome and Italy’s Prime Minister, Enrico Letta. This home-grown activist community is highly respected within Rome and an increasingly secular Italian society as well as all over the world.

For example, in Malawi where they have been developing an HIV program for children, the community has been growing over the past five years. President Joyce Banda was supposed to give an opening address but had duties at the U.N. that weekend, so our good friend the Rev. MacDonald Semberenka, her advisor for civil society organizations, was hosted by the Foundation to attend and represent her. Other notable opening speakers included Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. It was quite a gathering.

Being in Rome with such an eclectic group of people from every professional background and constantly surrounded by hundreds of young people who participated fully in all the discussions, was an inspiration. High school and university students took an active part in the conference and their numbers proved this community was way beyond tokenism. They are mentoring leaders for the 21st century. The energy was high.

The Eternal City is abuzz with the freshness of a new papal culture and, this week, the Pope is meeting with his eight hand-picked religious advisers, international bishops and cardinals who will recommend reforms of the papacy and undoubtedly will prepare the way for Pope Francis’s successor. Everyone here is talking about him. So the theme, “The Courage to Hope,” was an appropriate springboard for exploration of a variety of topics.

Enrico Letta, having just returned from the U.N. General Assembly, spoke of the two miracles that moved the world closer to a more peaceful track – the successful diplomacy over Syria and the presidents of the U.S. and Iran ending their cold war on a telephone. He was quite explicit in sharing the deep relief felt by his European colleagues who were literally at the brink of an international conflict and diplomacy found a way to avoid it. There were also several poignant moments when the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X (the equivalent of an Eastern Pope) talked about Syria where his brother is also a bishop in the church. There was a prayer service for peace in Syria last Friday evening just before the conference started and the community’s mother church of Santa Maria in Trastevere was packed to the doors.

The neighborhood came out to pray for peace and show him solidarity. Being a lay community, ordinary people, married, single, old and young make a vow to pray at least twice a week in community and engage in some community service project. The prayer part is also about reflecting on the work they are doing. So the secret of the community is this balance between activism and reflection. Both need each other if a community is to remain healthy.

Prayers for the victims of recent sectarian violence from Nigeria, Kenya and Pakistan were offered throughout the conference so the discussions were grounded in the reality of a divided and violent modern world. This was no” Kum-Bye-Ya” religious escapism but was a very significant international gathering of leaders and experts in mediation, peace building, development, women’s rights and the St. Paul Foundation’s delegation was there to see how these intersections could help end the global persecution of LGBT people. We attended two workshops with this question in mind in an attempt to understand where these larger institutions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church were coming from. One workshop was on “The Imperative Need of Family” and the other on “Terror in the Name of Religion.”

We tried to get into “Religions Respond to Violence Against Women” chaired by our friend Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University, but it was so full they were turning people away. Gay issues were mentioned in both the sessions we attended and I am going to report on each of them as a tripartite article. Timing is everything, and the Pope’s recent comments about reframing engagement with LGBT people needs a lot more discussion and work.

If any community can begin this discussion in a practical and strategic way, I just saw it in action this weekend, but this is a new area for them. This extremely diverse and intelligent community and these processes they are using to affirm diversity are awesome. This is an emerged spiritual community that could take the not only the Catholic Church but significant sections of the global faith community in a new reparative direction. If LGBT navel gazing might just stop for a second or two to look up and out at the world beyond our own immediate issues, we may even want to be a part of these new opportunities for engagement.

SDGLN Contributor the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.