Through evening prayer services, visits to classrooms at three diocesan high schools, and after-Mass announcements at three parishes, the Community of Sant'Egidio, a group dedicated to prayer and service, introduced itself to the Diocese of Oakland this month.
Five representatives, including USA community leader Paola Piscitelli, a longtime member of the community, led animated discussions and prayer.
What happens next is up to the Holy Spirit.
The most interested audience, said Steven Lewis, diocesan coordinator for young adult ministry and evangelization, was after the 5 p.m. Mass Nov. 15 at Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley, where several people asked how the community of prayer and service could begin.
Students in religion classes at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland had some thoughtful questions for the community representatives, said Rev. Jim Sullivan, school chaplain.
"Our students are pretty well versed in social justice and service," said Father Sullivan.
At its first evening prayer service and talk, Nov. 13 at St. Joseph the Worker Church, Berkeley, about 60 people gathered in the pews of the Berkeley parish, long a leader in social justice ministry in the diocese.
Beginning with the evening community prayer, which was sung and said over about 20 minutes, including a reflection by Piscitelli, the gathering got to know a little about the prayer life that enriches the Sant'Egidio community.
Seated close up was Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, who had invited Sant'Egidio to see if Berkeley might be a good fit for the work.
In his welcome, the bishop thanked the people who had come out and the Sant'Egidio people who had flown to Oakland from Washington, DC, and New York, to share their stories.
"When I first encountered the community in Rome in the 1980s," he said, "I was so impressed with what I saw."
With the combination of prayer, intercession for peace and social service, he said, "I think they capture great Catholic Spirit."
They brought with them a film of Pope Francis' visit to the Sant'Egidio community in Rome in 2014, to give the flavor of their work, particularly the community's dedication to not just serving, but befriending, the poor.
The Sant'Egidio community was founded in 1968 in Rome by high school students trying to live out Vatican II. Piscitelli herself joined as a high school student in 1974 and has spent more than 40 years in the community.
"Through the meeting with the poor," she said, "our lives began to change."
The community grew from fewer than 100 to more than 60,000 since its founding.
"The encounter with poor was redeeming," she said. "It helped shape my life. It helped me look at my life in a different way."
It is unlike traditional religious communities in this country in that members do not live together. A community that is just starting up, Piscitelli said, might meet once a week for prayer, followed by planning for service, or the service itself.
How a community grows is in the hands of the community, she said, noting that some meet for prayer for a while before discerning what service might be done.
The New York community, Piscitelli said, serves soup and sandwiches to people near Madison Square Garden one night a week.
"What they thank us for is their presence," she said.
Prayer is essential to the community experience, she said. "We are not just a bunch of doers," she said, "but feel the need to go back to the source."
"We were not heroes," she said. "Being in front of the Lord made us realize we were the least of the lot of people doing the work."
The work includes tutoring children, and it was through that work that the community began to grow. "The mothers of the children we were tutoring" were the first to join the high school students, she recalled.
The poor, too, have become part of the community.
"There is no one who is too old, too poor or too sick to do something for someone else," she said.
At the end of the first evening's session, Bishop Barber said he would "see if the Holy Spirit moves hearts."
Saying that he was moved by the prayer, he said, "I felt this would be something really good for us."
But that will be proved, he told the gathering, "if the Holy Spirit moves you."
By Most Rev. Michael C. Barber, SJ
excerpted from the Catholic Voice
Some of the happiest days of my life were when I was stationed in Italy from 1987-1992. I was studying and teaching in Rome, at the Jesuit Gregorian University.
I lived in a community of 120 young Jesuit priests from all over the world. It was an experience of the "Universal Church."
It was also in Rome that I had a unique spiritual experience. It was not at the Vatican, as stunningly beautiful as it is. It was in the rustic neighborhood of Trastevere, "on the other side of the river."
Taking my evening passeggiata (stroll) I wandered into the Basilica of Santa Maria. Roman basilicas are usually frequented by tourists in baseball caps, and a few elderly women clad in black praying and lighting candles. This was different.
As I entered, a young man in jeans and a tweed blazer offered me a leaflet and invited me to stay for Evening Prayers, which were about to begin.
The church began to fill up, not with old ladies, but young people. There followed a beautiful sung vesper service led by young adults. The young man who handed me the leaflet gave a short 'homily' — which was actually a testimony on what his Catholic faith meant to him.
I had been in a lot of churches in Rome and Italy, but I had NEVER seen one so full of young people. It was beautiful, reverent and refreshing.
It turns out the prayer service was conducted by "The Community of Sant'Egidio": a lay movement begun in Rome in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. They combine a strong spirituality with social justice.
A few days later I returned for the Sant'Egidio Saturday night vigil Mass. It was more crowded than the previous vesper service. The church was illuminated by hundreds of candles. The music was enchanting — Byzantine hymn tunes with Italian lyrics. The priest's homily was a deep instruction on Scripture.
The predominantly young crowd was really being fed. After Mass the congregation all stayed. Nobody left. They broke up into small groups to discuss the readings and plan their social justice projects for the week.
People noticed that I was a visitor, so a member of the community gave me a tour and explanation of what they were about. They are dedicated to the spiritual life with Christ — through the Mass and evening prayer services — but they also take seriously Christ's call to serve our neighbor.
They all participate in a corporal or spiritual work of mercy: visiting the sick, teaching Italian to immigrants, visiting prisons, helping the handicapped, feeding the poor. They are well known in the Diocese of Rome for sponsoring a full pranzo (lunch) on Christmas Day to anyone who wants to come — inside the basilica (they remove the Blessed Sacrament).
They also promote international peace and ecumenical initiatives. They have continued an annual interfaith prayer service first started by Pope John Paul II at Assisi in 1986. The community has since expanded to other countries, including a branch in New York City. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have all visited the Community and praised its spiritual and social justice efficacy.
Since I became Bishop of Oakland 2½ years ago, one of my dreams has been to establish the Community of Sant'Egidio in our diocese. I visited the Community while in Rome in September.
Again the basilica was full. Things have been "upgraded" since: they hand out headphones if you need to listen to a translation of the homily in English. Instead of leaflets with the hymns, they now have published prayer books.
In addition to feeding the poor, they have even opened a real restaurant, "Café degli Amici," (Friends Café), across the piazza (where the wait staff do an incredible job, even though each one suffers from a particular disability).
There over a delicious pizza, I was invited by Sant'Egidio leaders to discuss how we might start a branch in our diocese.
I'm happy to say they are sending a small group from New York to visit us Nov. 12-18. The Sant'Egidio members will conduct evening prayer services and give talks on various aspects of their ministry, all over the course of a few evenings. These will take place at St. Joseph the Worker church in Berkeley.
I have purchased ads in this paper where you can see the details. I will be there on Friday night, Nov. 13 to welcome them and join the service.
We chose Berkeley because of the beautiful church, and also the strong social justice tradition associated with St. Joseph's parish. It is also close to UC-Berkeley and thousands of young people who need to hear the message of Christ. All ages are welcome at Sant'Egidio.
I really believe this Ecclesial Movement will help and complement the mission of our diocese "To Know Christ Better, and Make Him Better Known." Hope to see you there.
By Michele Jurich, Staff writer, Catholic Voice
When Charlie Gardner was planning to study abroad during his junior year at the University of Notre Dame, he asked his professor if it might be possible to volunteer in a soup kitchen.
"I didn't want to be just another American tourist in Rome," he said.
The professor told him about the Sant'Egidio Community, founded in Rome in 1968, in which community members gather for prayer and service to the poor.
"We have a group here in South Bend," she told him.
Gardner began his journey with the Sant'Egidio community in South Bend, Indiana, that October, visiting a nursing home. Then he went to Rome, where he became part of a vibrant community of prayer and service to the poor that goes beyond: It is the Sant'Egidio way to befriend the poor.
"I was looking for a way to connect my faith and my desire to serve," said Gardner, who, five years after graduation from Notre Dame, remains deeply involved in the Sant'Egidio community.
He's based in Washington, DC, and will be among the five members of the Sant'Egidio community who will visit the Diocese of Oakland from Nov. 13 to 17 at the invitation of Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ.
Bishop Barber met the Sant'Egidio community when he began studying and teaching in Rome in the late 1980s. "What so attracted me," Bishop Barber recalled, "was that the churches in Italy were pretty much empty, but here the church was full."
Not only full, but full of young people engaged in beautiful prayer, which was followed by social justice work.
The bishop said he visited the community in Rome again in September, and went to Sant'Egidio USA's New York headquarters to arrange for the visit to Berkeley to see if a community might establish roots in the diocese.
"This would be good for our diocese," he said, "given our desire to do something for the poor."
St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley, with its strong social justice tradition, the University of California nearby and proximity to BART, is hosting three evenings of prayer and talks.
"Sant'Egidio is rooted in the social teaching of the church," he said, noting that Pope Francis and his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II had endorsed the community's work.
The international movement, which now spans five continents and has 60,000 members, was founded by a high school student at the end of the Second Vatican Council. It takes its name from the church at which it was founded. Sant'Egidio, Italian for St. Giles, was a Greek who founded a rest stop on the Way of St. James, and the patron saint of hermits.
At its founding, said Paola Piscitelli, the president of Sant'Egidio USA, there was such a "desire to change the world."
"Today, it might be more difficult to see the future," said Piscitelli, who joined the movement when she was a high school student more than 40 years ago.
"We believe in the call for young people to dream," she said. Drawing their inspiration from the Gospel, community members believe, she said, "Each of us can have an impact. Being together can increase that impact."
That's why it's "so important to speak to high school students," she said. "At that age, they are open to life."
Members do not live together. "Being in community means coming together to serve and to pray," Piscitelli said. "We build the fabric of relationships," she said. In most U.S. communities, they gather once a week for prayer and once a week for service.
In Washington, DC, that night of service is at a time when many young professionals might be heading to happy hour.
At 6 p.m. Friday, young professionals — a core group of about a dozen — gather at a studio apartment near DuPont Circle that is the Washington community's headquarters. They prepare about 50 meals — soup, sandwiches and fruit — and then they hit the streets, moving through DuPont Circle, Foggy Bottom and Union Station.
About one-third of the people they'll meet that night are new to them, but strangers not for long. "We get to know their names," he said.
"We offer friendship and relationship," Gardner said. "We respond in a concrete gesture of mercy, with a little food."
And, as friends do, they have a Christmas party and a summer barbecue.
Young professionals, Gardner said, are drawn to service, but find themselves dissatisfied with ad-hoc service. "They want to be faithful to the people they meet," he said.
In Sant'Egidio, Gardner found "beautiful prayer and a commitment to life in the Gospel." Beyond that, he found "people in everyday life who felt 'I want to be holy.'"
The Gospel, he said, "is more than just the sayings of Jesus. We bring His presence, love and friendship. We bring the Gospel of friendship."
Piscitelli's community in New York spans all five boroughs. The community has befriended residents of a nursing home, in a poor area, for 20 years before it closed.
Among those friends was Commrny Clark, who was 96 when Piscitelli met her at the nursing home.
"She didn't want to be there, but she did not have family," Piscitelli said.
With a little help from her friends, "S. Clark" was able to move home, with help. "Being home has helped her to live longer and happier," Piscitelli said.
The sharecropper's daughter from Mississippi who became a nurse in New York City turned 103, in the company of friends.
For the past dozen years, the Sant'Egidio community has served soup and sandwiches to people who gather near Grand Central Station.
At the School of Peace, young community members tutor disadvantaged children and educate them in peace and solidarity, Piscitelli said.
Piscitelli looks forward to the community's visit to the Diocese of Oakland, where members will speak at St. Joseph the Worker and Newman Hall-Holy Spirit parishes in Berkeley and three Catholic high schools.
"I'm hoping this is not my only trip to Oakland," Piscitelli said. "I'm hoping people will be inspired."