ROME – A lay Catholic movement dubbed the “UN of Trastevere” for the Roman neighborhood where it’s headquartered, signed a Memorandum of Understanding Monday with the American government’s primary overseas development agency, committing the two parties to join forces for peace, interreligious dialogue and anti-poverty efforts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

The Community of Sant’Egidio, a “new movement” in Catholicism with a history of conflict resolution efforts around the world, signed the agreement in a Washington ceremony with the United States Agency for International Development, an independent arm of the U.S. government with an annual budget of $27 billion.

The Memorandum of Understanding represents Sant’Egidio’s first formal agreement with the U.S. government.

Mark Green, a former Wisconsin congressman and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania tapped by U.S. President Donald Trump to lead the agency in 2017, signed the agreement on behalf of USAID, while Italian layman Mauro Garofalo, Sant’Egidio’s chief of international relations, signed for the community.

“For us, this is an important step,” Garofalo told Crux Monday, calling the accord “a recognition of 50 years of work alongside the poor and the least of the world.”

Garofalo said he hopes the memorandum will lead to specific cooperation in areas of pressing need, including the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Iraq and Myanmar, “where we’ve worked side by side for years with American cooperation, but without reciprocal support up to now.”

A Memorandum of Understanding is a standard instrument for USAID in cooperative efforts both with other governments and with NGOs and humanitarian organizations, including faith-based groups. Pointedly, it’s not a treaty and does not create any rights or obligations under international law, but it can be a prelude to USAID funding of development projects.

In 2018, for instance, USAID signed such memoranda with the Knights of Columbus to help victims of genocide and persecution in the Middle East, and with Malteser International Americas, a charitable arm of the Order of Malta, to promote development efforts in various parts of the world.

USAID also has long had similar agreements on various projects with Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas development agency of the U.S. bishops.

The agreement signed Monday commits USAID and Sant’Egidio to support “policies that promote interreligious dialogue to prevent and resolve conflict,” specifically in Africa and the Middle East.

The agreement identifies five concrete areas of possible collaboration:

  • Fostering peace as a fundamental basis for development
  • Improving responsiveness to crisis
  • Reducing poverty
  • Combating human trafficking
  • Children, youth and families

Sant’Egidio and USAID also agreed to “joint branding” for co-sponsored projects, to consult with one another on a regular basis both with U.S. officials in Washington and in USAID projects abroad, and to “co-create and co-sponsor regional gatherings and convening of key actors.”

The agreement does not, however, commit USAID to funding any specific Sant’Egidio projects.

Founded in 1968 in the poorer popular neighborhoods of Rome, Sant’Egidio enjoys the reputation of being Pope Francis’s favorite lay movement.

The group was launched in the immediate wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and amid the student upheavals of 1968, and it was intended to give idealistic Italian youth a way to express both the progressive social ideals of the time as well as the vision of Vatican II.  It was dubbed the “Community of Sant’Egidio” after the Roman parish in the Trastevere neighborhood where members would originally gather.

In the 1970s Sant’Egidio began to expand to other Italian cities, and in the 1980s it founded several communities abroad. In 1986, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity recognized Sant’Egidio as an “international association of faithful of pontifical right.”

Today, Sant’Egidio claims to be present in more than 70 countries around the world and to number some 80,000 volunteer members.

The group’s emblematic breakthrough came in 1992, when a treaty to end a 15-year civil war in Mozambique that had cost one million lives and left five million homeless was signed at its Rome headquarters. Sant’Egidio also helped negotiate a peace accord in Guatemala in 1996 and a deal to foster a transition to democracy in Guinea in 2010.

Sant’Egidio was also involved in organizing a 1986 summit of leaders of other religions in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, convened by St. John Paul II. Every year since, the group has organized an interfaith summit in various parts of the world, intended to carry on “the spirit of Assisi.”

In Trastevere, Sant’Egidio also operates a popular restaurant called the “Trattoria of Friends,” where mentally and physically disabled persons help make up the staff. The group has taken a lead role in anti-death penalty and pro-immigrant campaigns, and was asked by Francis to care for the Syrian refugees he brought back to Rome following a day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016.

While Sant’Egidio has enjoyed wide acclaim in many quarters, its activity has sometimes stirred ambivalence inside the Vatican, especially the Secretariat of State, where the idea of an independent lay movement conducting its own “parallel diplomacy” in the name of the Church hasn’t always been received well.

Founder Andrea Riccardi has said that John Paul once told him semi-jokingly that Sant’Egidio “was on the brink of being excommunicated” for its inter-religious gatherings, which often irk traditionalists worried about syncretism and sending the message that all religions are equal.

Veteran Italian writer Sandro Magister also has raised questions about the community’s internal practices, among other things accusing them of discouraging married members from having large families because “our children are the poor.”

Despite such criticism, the community is seen as enjoying the pontiff’s favor.

Francis knew Sant’Egidio in Argentina, encouraging them to work in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires, slums known as “villas of misery,” and he presided over awarding an honorary doctorate to Riccardi at the Catholic University of Argentina in 2006 – the first time the honor went to a lay person.

As pope, Francis visited the group’s Rome headquarters in 2014, telling a crowd that included immigrants, poor, homeless, gypsies, disabled persons and working-class families as well as Sant’Egidio members: “The world is suffocating from a lack of dialogue … You keep hope alive for peace.”

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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