This coming Sunday (May 15th), Pope Francis will visit with the Community of Sant’Egidio at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastavere in Rome and will then walk a block to the Chapel of Sant’Egidio where the community is headquartered. The heart of this visit by the Bishop of Rome will be an encounter with the poor. Pope Francis’ friendship with and care for the poor is well known and is shared by the Community of Sant’Egidio. When Andrea Riccardi along with a group of his friends in 1968 (all young high school students) heeded the summons of the Second Vatican Council to pick up the Gospel and read they quickly discerned that to be a Christian meant to be friends with the poor. This realization led them to the slums of Rome where they began the first “School of Peace” – a daycare for the children of poor families. Since then the Community has continued to walk with the poor and forgotten around the world and continues to learn the lessons that only the poor can offer any disciple of Christ.
In one sense it is no wonder that Pope Francis and the Community of Sant’Egidio are having this encounter because it is the poor who are bringing them together. It is like a mutual friend saying, “Come, I really want you to meet someone!” The poor are the mutual friend bringing the two together. Truth be told, this is not the first encounter of Pope Francis with the community. Pope Francis has been a friend to the community since his days in Argentina. In his role as cardinal of Buenos Aires he was supportive and encouraging of the work of the community. But, even more so, he has himself been a friend of the poor throughout his own priesthood and life of faith. From his biography we learn that Cardinal Bergoglio was not adverse to the slums and, in fact, that he encountered his Lord and Savior in the faces of his poor friends, brothers and sisters. Pope Francis also walks with the poor and has learned the lessons that they alone have to offer.
Being brought together by their mutual friend the poor is the key, I believe, to this coming encounter between the Bishop of Rome and this particular community of disciples. Many people are talking about the “Francis effect” – meaning how Pope Francis has caught the attention and imagination of the world. A danger in such talk is to try to determine his “technique” or, maybe worse, create a narrative which proposes a technique which can then be learned and copied. I do not think Pope Francis has a technique in this regard; I think he just has friends and he loves his friends and wants to be with them. Pope Francis is authentic and authenticity always attracts.
As a diocesan priest and a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio I have found that my own priesthood and life of faith has been strengthened and often reinvigorated by my friendship with the poor. The key word is “friendship”. The poor are not clients, they are not a once or twice a year encounter (usually around the holidays), they are not a service project rather they are friends and this has implications. I want to be with my friends, I enjoy their company, I do not have to pretend I can solve their problems it is enough just to be together, I trust that they also have something to offer me. One of the greatest gifts that the poor have to give is the desire to just be together. “When are you coming back?” is a question often asked by my poor friends.
Currently, I am in a time of transition in my priesthood. I am returning to parish ministry after seven years in specialized ministry. A year ago I was also reassigned to a different part of my diocese (an area from which I am now moving). The gathering of Sant’Egidio that I had begun at a Newman Center in this new location was just beginning its service and friendship with the poor in a low-income residence when we had to cease for summer break. I find that my own priesthood and discipleship is not as strong and resilient and is easily turned inward when I do not have a continuing and faithful relationship with the poor. There is a lesson here, I believe, both for the priest and the parish and it is a lesson that I have heard both Pope Francis and the Community share. We can easily turn inward and become self-absorbed and stagnant in the life of faith and we therefore need something that continually turn us away from self and toward others and this means more than just our own particular circle of friends. The poor do this and it is not a technique, it is an encounter. It is friendship.
Once settled, I hope to begin a gathering of Sant’Egidio in my new assignment. I will do this both for the parish and for my own discipleship. As I look to my new assignment and as I look to this upcoming meeting of Pope Francis and the Community by their mutual friend I wonder how things in the parish might be different as we realize friendship with the poor. As Pope Francis has often said, “A Church of the poor and for the poor.” I do not have the full answer to this but I am willing to find out.
(If you are interested, the meeting of Pope Francis with the Community of Sant’Egidio will be live streamed on Sunday, May 15th, beginning around 3 p.m. Rome time. To watch, go to the community website at www.santegidio.org.)