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 The Word From Rome

July 23, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 48

global perspective


"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."

Andrea Riccardi,
founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio

Conversation with Sant'Egidio founder Andrea Riccardi; Vatican gets serious on Africa; Catholic-Jewish dialogue; Vatican investigates Austrian seminary sex scandal; More reflections from Peru


The Community of Sant'Egidio, perhaps the most socially engaged and ecumenically minded of the "new movements" in the Catholic church, plans to stage a major inter-religious summit in the United States in 2006, with the most likely site being Washington, D.C.

The event will commemorate the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's storied inter-religious summit in Assisi in 1986, when leaders representing the world's major religious traditions came together to pray for peace. Each year Sant'Egidio organizes an international inter-religious event, known as the "Religions and Peace" conference, to keep alive the "spirit of Assisi."

Andrea Riccardi, founder of Sant'Egidio, discussed plans for the 2006 event during a July 15 interview with NCR at the community's headquarters in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere.

Sant'Egidio was created in Rome amid the activism of 1968, by young leftists who wanted to work for social change without losing their Catholic identity. It is known for its international mediation, such as the community's role as architect of the 1992 Mozambique peace accords. (The community is sometimes dubbed "the U.N. of Trastevere"). Sant'Egidio is involved in causes such as HIV/AIDS and abolition of the death penalty.

The community also enjoys a reputation for liturgical and spiritual depth. Evening vespers in Trastevere attract a wide cross-section of visitors and locals.

The choice of an American city for the 2006 summit remains open, though observers believe that Washington has the inside track, in part because Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is known as an admirer of Sant'Egidio. Riccardi will travel to Washington on Oct. 14 to receive an honorary degree from Georgetown University.

The decision to hold the high-profile 20th anniversary "Religions and Peace" summit in the United States represents, among other things, an opportunity to raise Sant'Egidio's American profile.

Its U.S. presence is limited. A group of young adults meets weekly at St. Joseph's in Greenwich Village, New York, and works with the elderly. Similar groups meet in Boston, Washington, Chicago, and at the University of Notre Dame. A prayer group called the "Friends of St. Giles" meets once a month at the Artists' Chapel on Broadway.

Riccardi said that Sant'Egidio is "not in a hurry" to expand.

"We don't feel the need to plant the flag of our presence in the whole world," he said. "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."

Each year, the "Religions and Peace" conference is one of the largest inter-religious gatherings in the world. The 2003 edition in Aachen, Germany, drew more than 500 religious leaders from 58 nations for a three-day session that ended with a joint appeal for peace.

The "Religions and Peace" summit is generally held in early September. The 2004 edition will take place in Milan, Italy, Sept. 5-7.

In English, "Sant'Egidio" is rendered as "St. Giles." Readers interested in more information on the community may consult

* * *

In much Western discussion, Africa is a question mark -- a blank space about which little is said, and even less is understood. In Samuel Huntington's famous The Clash of Civilizations, it's not even clear what cultural tradition Africa represents. It barely registers as a factor in world events.

The Community of Sant'Egidio has long been an exception to this neglect. From peacemaking to HIV/AIDS to sustainable development, few Catholic organizations are more committed to Africa. Riccardi and I talked about where this interest comes from, which he described as "in the chromosomes" of the community.

"In the 1960s, we had the idea of living as a community in Rome," Riccardi told me. "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]. … 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."

Riccardi said that when he travels in Africa, this sense is pervasive.

"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 what city they're close to. 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."

Sant'Egidio's African connection initially developed through its involvement in the negotiations in Mozambique that led to the 1992 peace accords.

"When I travel to Maputo in Mozambique, I always make a point of returning to the market of Maputo … it's my personal pilgrimage," Riccardi said. "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. Outside, there was a large crowd of people that waited for party members and Europeans to exit in the hope that they might toss an apple. These were horrible images. Thus, the interest in Africa was born in confrontation with hunger and misery."

Riccardi said two things today strike him about Africa. First, he said, is the violence.

"I have the sensation that the African society itself has become violent, especially where there are civil wars, as in Ivory Coast," he said. "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."

Riccardi's second impression concerned what he calls "neo-Protestant" churches.

"I think there's been an incredible spread," he said. "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."

"The diffusion of these churches corresponds to the desperation of Africa, to the need that Africans feel for help, for prayers of healing, for immediate personal assistance," Riccardi said.

Given that trend, Riccardi said he wonders if African religion in the future will have the same social consciousness and capital that the Anglican Church in South Africa, for example, displayed in the struggle against apartheid.

Riccardi called for a "new African mission."

"A new mission, for the Africans," he said. "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."

The full text of my interview with Riccardi can be found in the Speical Documents section of or click here: Riccardi Interview.

* * *

Sant'Egidio draws generally adoring press coverage, and it is hard to argue with their commitment and work ethic. That doesn't mean, however, the community is without its critics.

I have friends in religious orders, for example, who insist that orders such as the Combonis and the Saverians do equally impressive work in Africa, but don't have the same lust for self-promotion. One source of dyspepsia in this regard is what many consider Sant'Egidio's rather transparent lust to win the Noble Peace Prize. Members of religious orders also sometimes complain that Sant'Egidio is weak on collaboration, preferring to do things under their banner. It threatens to become, according to this reasoning, a "church within a church."

Other observers, including some in the Vatican, say that there is a cult of personality around Riccardi. Others say the leadership of Sant'Egidio is too male, reproducing the worst aspects of clerical culture. Still others charge that Sant'Egidio is too liberal.

I asked Riccardi to respond to these criticisms in our July 15 interview, something he acknowledged that he rarely does.

On the church-within-a-church rap, Riccardi said he thinks there's space for everyone under the Catholic "big tent."

"The church is very articulated, and in our time it's becoming steadily more so," he said. "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 disunified. … Sant'Egidio wants to build community in the local church and with the local church."

Riccardi likewise downplayed concerns about Sant'Eigidio's desire for PR, rejecting, for example, speculation that he aspires to the Noble Prize.

"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," he said. "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 do their job, others live as candidates for their job, which is a way of staying unemployed!"

Riccardi also defended women's roles in Sant'Egidio.

"Within the community female leaders are more or less fifty-fifty," he said. "We have a problem in finding female leaders in Africa, where it's difficult. For example, our director in northern Mozambique is a woman, and it's tough for her. We're committed, however, to cultivating female leaders. In Europe, our directors in Belgium, Paris, Prague, Hungary, Madrid, Lisbon, the Piedmont, and Moscow are all women."

As far a "cult of personality" goes, Riccardi doesn't see it.

"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," Riccardi said. "We know each other too well."

Finally, what about being too far to the left?

"I'm a historian. I know that 'left' and 'right' can't be used in the church," he said. "Romolo Murri, for example, a great personality of Italian Catholicism, who was left-wing, progressive, even excommunicated, ended up with the fascists. Hence I'm afraid of these terms.

"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," he said.

"If this is what it means to be progressive, then we're very progressive."

* * *

Speaking of Africa, when I bumped into Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace earlier this month at a reception at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, he had just returned from a trip to Uganda. He seemed passionate about how moved he had been by what he saw, especially the plight of refugees and child soldiers.

It seems Martino wasn't just whistling Dixie.

In a July 20 meeting with officials of the Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Martino urged greater "inter-dicasterial" cooperation on humanitarian crises, the technical Vatican word for collaboration across departmental lines. He made a strong plea that the Holy See has to go beyond "business as usual" in response to overwhelming situations of need such as what he witnessed in Uganda.

Out of the July 20 session, Martino and Cardinal Stephen Hamao, who heads the Council for Migrants, decided to draft a letter to the Secretariat of State formally proposing a new instrument for inter-dicasterial cooperation. It would bring together representatives of these Vatican offices:

  • Secretariat of State
  • Council for Justice and Peace
  • Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples
  • Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican's missionary arm
  • Council for Health Pastoral Care
  • Cor Unum, the Vatican's charitable arm

What fate the proposal will have remains to be seen. Martino gives every indication, however, of being determined to press ahead.

* * *

Vatican officials are playing down a recent Catholic-Jewish statement that condemned "anti-Zionism," insisting that it does not mark a shift in Vatican policy towards Israel or the Middle East.

The statement, issued at the end of a Catholic-Jewish meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 5-8, was quickly hailed by Jewish leaders as marking a "historic" turn in official Catholic attitudes.

Vatican sources told NCR July 22 that the statement should be interpreted in light of a 1988 document of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which also discussed "anti-Zionism," but in a way that left room for criticism of the policies of the Israeli government.

The Buenos Aires meeting marked the 18th assembly of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, the most important vehicle for Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Twenty-five Catholic leaders took part, including senior Vatican officials such as Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, along with 25 Jewish representatives.

The joint declaration linked anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.

"We draw encouragement from the fruits of our collective strivings, which include the recognition of the unique and unbroken covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish People and the total rejection of anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism as a more recent manifestation of anti-Semitism," the declaration says.

Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, praised this language.

"With the imprimatur of the Vatican, the Catholic church is recognizing that anti-Zionism is an attack not only against Jews, but against the whole Jewish people," Steinberg said.

Vatican officials told NCR, however, that in the aftermath of the Buenos Aires meeting, Christian leaders in the Middle East expressed concern about whether the declaration marks a shift in Vatican policy on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and whether it will be perceived as such by others, especially Muslims.

A senior Vatican official told NCR July 22 that when the declaration was read out in Buenos Aires, a Catholic participant observed that the Holy See had already addressed anti-Zionism in a 1988 document of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace titled "The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society." The language in the Buenos Aires declaration, this official said, should be read in light of the earlier document. In paragraph 15, the 1988 document states:

"… As if some had nothing to learn from the crimes of the past, certain organizations, with branches in many countries, keep alive the anti-Semite racist myth, with the support of networks of publications. Terrorist acts which have Jewish persons or symbols as their target have multiplied in recent years and show the radicalism of such groups. Anti-Zionism - which is not of the same order, since it questions the State of Israel and its policies - serves at times as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it."

This text, the Vatican official said, makes it more clear that "anti-Zionism" is not identical with anti-Semitism, and that one can question the policies of Israel without automatically being guilty of prejudice.

Aside from the question of anti-Zionism, Catholic observers say that a less-noticed passage in the Buenos Aires declaration represents an important step in terms of Jewish attitudes towards the Roman Catholic church.

"The Jewish community has made strides in educational programming about Christianity," it reads, "the elimination of prejudice and the importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Additionally, the Jewish community has become aware of, and deplores, the phenomenon of anti-Catholicism in all its forms, manifesting itself in society at large."

Catholic observers say this is an especially telling point in Israel, where the presentation of Christianity in general, the Catholic church in particular, in schools and the press is often superficial.

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In recent years, Vatican officials told NCR, the Holy See's main objectives in the dialogue with Judaism have been two-fold. First, to expand the conversation beyond American Judaism to include exponents from other parts of the Jewish world, above all Israel; second, to ground the dialogue on religious and theological questions rather than the politics of the Middle East. Catholic participants told NCR they feel progress was made on both fronts in Buenos Aires.

Jewish participants likewise seemed satisfied.

"It demonstrated that the Catholic-Jewish Dialogue has moved beyond palaver to joint social action -- that is, from words to deeds," one Jewish participant told me.

* * *

In response to the widening sex abuse crisis in Austria's Sankt Pölten diocese, the Holy See appointed July 20 Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch as an apostolic investigator. His mandate will be to establish all the facts surrounding revelations that some 40,000 images of child pornography were discovered in the seminary in Sankt Pölten, along with explicit photos of seminarians and priests.

The man at the center of the storm is Bishop Kurt Krenn, 68, who faces calls for his resignation. So far, Krenn is refusing to give in, insisting that the pictures of priests and seminarians amount to a "prank."

Since Krenn is widely considered Austria's most conservative bishop, the choice of Küng, a member of Opus Dei, as the investigator is generally considered a way of ensuring that the results of his inquest cannot be dismissed as ideologically motivated.

In a sign that the Catholic church has absorbed at least some of the lessons of the recent sex abuse scandals, Küng is not wasting time. He received his appointment July 20, and arrived in Sankt Pölten to begin work the morning of July 21. He told Austrian television the night before that he intended to take a comprehensive look at the situation in the diocese, not just the recently discovered images.

Many observers believe that the handwriting is on the wall for Krenn. In one sign of eroding support, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said on Austrian television that the country's bishops have long warned Krenn that he should not accept seminary candidates rejected by other dioceses, but that he did not listen. Schönborn also expressed regret that Rome had not acted earlier against Krenn, since, he said, the Vatican had been "well informed" of the bishops' concerns.

Küng has not said how long he expects his investigation to take, but some Austrian sources have suggested that it could last three to four weeks.

A Gallup poll released July 22 found that 79 percent of Austrians find Krenn "untrustworthy" and 71 percent want him to resign.

* * *

Sometimes the most lasting impressions don't register right away.

For example, when I was recently in Peru, I met a young woman who teaches in a one-room schoolhouse in Chinchagoza, an isolated village perched at 4,000 meters in the Andes. I didn't note her name, but I find myself reflecting that she may have been one of the most impressive people I met during my week in the country.

This unmarried young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, told us that she lives in Lima and travels every weekend to get back and forth to several villages in the mountains where she teaches. She spends as much as four hours in the back of someone's car to get to her dilapidated school buildings, almost double that if she has to go by foot, which she told me happens fairly routinely.

She's an employee of the state, not a member of any Catholic group. Yet without her deep Catholic faith, it was hard to see what would motivate this young woman to keep going.

We accompanied the local pastor to Mass in Chinchagoza on July 9. As we shuffled into the ramshackle church, I noticed that it only seemed one-quarter full. I wondered where the other children were, because I had seen many more running to greet our car as we arrived.

The teacher explained that they were hiding.

"From what?" I asked.

"From you."

She told us that last year a couple of white-skinned men, either Americans or Europeans, had showed up during the annual village festival and tried to make off with a couple of children. The kids were rescued at the last minute, but the fear of outsiders remained. People in town presume the men wanted the children either for sexual exploitation or to sell them into the adoption black market.

It's difficult to tell whether such anecdotes represent real experiences or oral legend, but in a way it didn't matter. These children saw me and my Spanish translator as representatives of an outside world marked, at best, by neglect of their lives, and at worst by exploitation.

Two things stayed with me from the experience. First, shame that my presence frightened the children of Chinchagoza; second, gratitude that they have this young woman as their teacher and friend.

* * *

On the subject of Peru, last week I wrote about a plot against Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima involving faked letters. In an ironic twist, the rest of the week "Word from Rome" was the object of its own faked letter campaign, in this case involving rogue e-mails that purported to be from me or "The Word from Rome" and in many cases carried suspicious-looking attachments.

Dennis Coday, NCR web coordinator, sends along this note:

Monday some readers of The Word From Rome Web column by John L. Allen Jr. received e-mails that appeared to be coming from National Catholic Reporter. But, as many of you know, these e-mails did not come from NCR. I am very sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused.

E-mail can fairly easily be "spoofed"; that is, someone malicious can configure their e-mail program to be someone else and send messages as if they were that person. This is what happened yesterday.

What is important to know is that the servers NCR uses to host its Web columns, including The Word From Rome, are secure and safe. No lists were stolen and nothing was infected with a virus. I regret to say that this sort of thing has happened before, however, this particular incident was more aggressive than typical.

We have talked with our hosting service to ensure all is well. We have also adjusted our protocols for all the Web columns, adding additional layers of security.

Anyone who receives e-mail should have her own set of safety precautions; most importantly, one should never open an e-mail attachment that comes unexpectedly or that looks "suspicious." Many readers of The Word from Rome who contacted me yesterday noticed that the e-mails they received Monday "did not look right" and they deleted them. Others remembered our earlier warning that NCR never sends attachments with its e-mail alerts, and these readers deleted the e-mails. These are good safety procedures.

Again, I regret the inconvenience this may have caused. I hope you continue to read The Word From Rome and NCR's other Web columns.

* * *

As I noted last week, my new book All the Pope's Men is out from Doubleday. Those interested may find it at:

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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