In 1971, when Dr Claudio Betti first encountered what is now the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, it had fewer than 50 members and no name.

Three years earlier, just after the Second Vatican Council, teenager Andrea Riccardi had brought together a small group of fellow high-school students to live out their Christian faith as ‘ordinary people’ in those parts of Rome where ‘there was no Church’. Committing themselves to daily prayer and to serving the poor and marginalised, the young community drew inspiration from both the Acts of the Apostles and the life of St Francis.

‘I was 15 years old, and I had just arrived from the United States,’ Dr Betti recalls, ‘and I was very lonely in my classrooms.’ When a member of the community invited him to start volunteering in a very poor neighbourhood of Rome, he welcomed the opportunity. More than 50 years later, he remains committed to the community, serving as director of special operations for a movement that has grown to around 100,000 members in more than 70 countries.

Dr Betti—who spoke recently at the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s annual clergy conference, and who is also director of the Australian Catholic University’s Rome campus—recalls that by 1973, the community had begun to base itself at a ‘very small convent in the heart of Rome’. The Carmelite convent of Sant’Egidio in Trastevere gave the community its name and has been its headquarters ever since. But while Sant’Egidio (or St Giles) is the patron saint of hermits, the lay community that bears his name has been anything but insular or withdrawn in its approach to the life of faith.

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Dr Claudio Betti.

The ‘three Ps’

The community’s early years, according to Dr Betti were ‘rather similar to the times of today.’ The Church ‘was limiting itself to the areas where it was already present’, he says, but in the places where it was not present, ‘it really struggled.’

‘So we started being a presence, an ecclesial presence … in areas where there was no church. We started creating chapels in the cellars of the poorest neighbourhoods of Rome, and at the same time, the work with the poor began to grow.’ To start with, the community was small, ‘but it grew very quickly, first among the students and then among the poor people we were working with.’

The best moments of the Church in history are the moments in which it forgot itself because it was looking at someone else.

From there, Dr Betti says, they expanded to other cities in Italy and, by the late 70s, to Germany and then Latin America, ‘thanks to the contacts we always had with the Archdiocese of San Salvador, where Archbishop Romero was one of our models.’ From there they spread to Africa, ‘where today the largest communities are present.’

Working in Africa in the early 80s, the community became more aware of the close connection between poverty and conflict, ‘so our work against poverty became very quickly a work for peace.’ Of the ‘three Ps’ that underpin the community’s mission to this day—‘prayer’, ‘poor’ and ‘peace’—peacebuilding is probably now what the community is best known for, although, as he points out, ‘it is not probably where most of our people are involved.’

A strong link between prayer and Scripture and service to the poor has been a distinctive feature of the community from the beginning. ‘The one without the other doesn’t work,’ Dr Betti says, warning against the tendency among some in the Church to see prayer and social justice movements as ‘opposing camps’.

A historian by training, he believes ‘everything needs to be read in historical perspective’, pointing out that in early Christianity, the connection between ‘prayer and being close to the marginalised was very clear’. Scripture tells us that ‘we will be recognised for how much we love the little ones. Think of the parables.’ In the community’s early years, ‘the power of the Good Samaritan was the centre of our spirituality,’ he says. ‘The judgement of Jesus is amazingly clear. It’s one of the few imperatives of the Gospel: you have to go and do the same.

‘I think it is true also for the Church. The best moments of the Church in history are the moments in which it forgot itself because it was looking at someone else.’

Similarly, to bear lasting fruit, the Church’s outreach must be firmly grounded in prayer and Scripture, he says, recalling that ‘the 70s were full of social justice groups’ that ‘disappeared because there was no foundation’. The Church’s service, by contrast, must be built ‘on the rock of the Gospel’. You can build a beautiful house, he says, but ‘once the winds of history, and once the rain of history comes down on the house, the most beautiful house will crumble down if it does not have a rock base.’

Venturing beyond the safe space

The ways that the Church connects the life of prayer with the life of service, he believes, can also play an important role in attracting younger generations who have little understanding or experience of the Church.

Dr Betti sometimes feels frustrated that conversation in the Church about young people is often framed ‘as if we were talking of an old generation’, rather than Generation Z or Generation Alpha.

‘We have a huge world outside that is not “us” anymore,’ he says. ‘Not everyone is inside. On the contrary, … the greatest majority are outside, are somewhere else. They are not anti-clerical. They are not anti-Catholic. They are not anti-Christian. They are just a-Christian. They have absolutely no idea what we are talking about.’

Christians are not men and women of safe spaces ... We must go where Jesus wants us to go, and that is not a safe space.

Noting the significant decline in Mass attendance in both Italy and Australia in the last decade, he says the temptation for the Church is to embrace ‘a culture of decline’ and to start thinking that we ‘have to somehow coexist with this new idea that we will be fewer in the future.

‘This is a very big issue for our Church, because any culture of decline—and not only in the Church, but in any organisation—has in itself the seed of disappearance’. The stakes are high, he says, because the Church ‘must not end. It is the only hope that the world has. So we need to change this culture of decline into a culture of outgoing.’

Another temptation for the Church ‘is to concentrate on ourselves and say, well, being a minority is not that bad … We can lock ourselves within our own churches, and we can weather the storm.’

‘I have a lot of problems with that idea,’ he says, ‘because I think that any form of creating an “us” against “them” is a big issue. On the contrary, I think that the Church must love everyone, especially those who do not love the Church.’

He also dismisses the idea that the Church should focus on creating ‘safe spaces’ to protect itself against a hostile culture. ‘Christians are not men and women of safe spaces,’ Dr Betti says. ‘The churches of Nigeria are the churches that are growing. The churches of Pakistan are the churches that are growing. The churches where there are no safe spaces are the churches that … are really doing the mission of the Church.’

You only need to look at the end of John’s Gospel, he says, where the disciples have locked themselves, literally, in the upper room out of fear. ‘Amazingly, that door was broken down not by the Jews or by the Romans. It was broken down by Jesus himself. He was the one to say, “Hey, guys, your safe space, the upper room, it’s a foolish thing. You must not live in safe spaces. You must open your door.”’

When the disciples leave Jerusalem and return to their old lives as fishermen, ‘even there, Jesus comes and he breaks the safe space, and he opens a perspective which is a universal perspective for them.’ We must go where Jesus wants us to go, Dr Betti says, ‘and that is not a safe space.’

A Church that attracts and serves

The real challenge for our churches today, he says, is discovering ‘how to be attractive in a world that doesn’t know about the Church at all.’ Rather than being ‘locked into theologising … about Jesus’, he says we should recount the story of the Gospel with freshness and immediacy, as though we were telling it to children.

It’s very clear that service is a way of attracting young people ... Young people are searching for a meaning. We need to interpret that search and try to give them a perspective.

He also thinks we should ‘make our churches more beautiful’, including liturgies that are both beautiful and interesting and not ‘purely intellectual’.

‘And then, of course, service is connected to it,’ he says. ‘In our community, it’s very clear that service is a way of attracting young people.’

Although he has some serious concerns about the direction and emphases of some recent protest movements—particularly those that have, through their lack of historical perspective, fed anti-Semitism—he is nevertheless struck by the sense of altruism and desire for justice that seem to motivate many of the young people who join these movements. Of course, he says, ‘they need to be educated, but still, there is something there. Young people are searching for a meaning. We need to interpret that search and try to give them a perspective.’

Building a culture of peace and hope

Reflecting on the difficulties that peacemakers face in a climate of escalating armed conflict and cultural polarisation, Dr Betti laments that ‘in the international arena, talking about peace has become a curse word.’ You can no longer talk about peace, he says, because of ‘the idea that when you talk about stopping the war, you’re talking about giving the victory to the strong ones, to those who attacked. Who says so? Where is it written? I think that this has to do with a culture of war that has become more and more present in our societies.’

That’s where Christians can play a role, he says, acting as ‘antibodies’ against the misleading idea ‘that we can “win” a war’, praying for peace and helping to create men and women who believe in its value. ‘We have to recreate a culture of peace that has been completely extinguished … And this is done by, again, serving the poor, serving migrants.’

In the end, Dr Betti says, the Church must embrace a culture of bold vision and hopeful encounter rather than decline, and of peace rather than war. It cannot stay in safe enclaves but must venture out, going boldly where Jesus sends it, including into the ‘unsafe spaces’ where it is most needed. Ultimately, it will grow not in opposition to others but in service to them. ‘The idea of culture wars is a terrible idea for the Church’, he says. ‘War in the Church is a curse word—any form of war.’

The Community of Sant’Egidio is a network of Christian communities in more than 70 countries, including Australia. It pays attention to the periphery and peripheral people, gathering men and women of all ages and conditions, united through listening to the Gospel and their voluntary commitment to the poor and peace.

For more information or to get involved, contact seinaustralia@gmail.com.

Banner image: Dr Claudio Betti.