ROME – Some call it an example of informal or “subsidiary” diplomacy, others an additional (albeit informal) section of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, but European, Italian and Holy See officials on Thursday all agreed that the Community of Sant’Egidio is peacemaking done right.
The diplomacy of this “new movement” of the Catholic Church emphasizes “the evolution of the entire process of making peace,” said British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, during a conference March 7.
The highly-attended event took place in Rome and was centered around the presentation of “Making Peace: the diplomacy of Sant’Egidio,” a collection of essays detailing the various fields of expertise and intervention of the community in the past 50 years.
The book, the archbishop said, tells a story of “faith, perseverance and resistance” where “sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil in an effort to make peace.”
Gallagher jokingly referenced a kind of “jealousy” on the part of the Holy See toward Sant’Egidio, because it’s free of the rigidities of the Vatican’s Secretary of State and therefore “lighter” and more “flexible,” capable of acting quickly.
“We don’t live in a world of great peace,” said the Vatican’s de facto Foreign Minister. “We live in a world of conflict” where, he added, the work of the Roman native community is more necessary than ever given its vocation for peace.
Asked whether Sant’Egidio’s flexible and open-to-compromise diplomacy could be adapted to the situation in Venezuela, which descended into chaos following a constitutional crisis, Gallagher said that “the Holy See is open to any horizon as long as it’s created by people of good will and places the good of the Venezuelan people at the center.”
The priority, he added, is to “double” and “accelerate our efforts to find a solution for this people.”
The community’s “subsidiary diplomacy,” capable of addressing people and lives directly, is not the only thing that places Sant’Egidio ahead of the pack, said Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament.
What distinguishes the groups is what Tajani called its “transcendent vision,” but could more easily be described as a Catholic vision, which treats peace as a mission and vocation.
Those same Christian roots, he added, are necessary for the strengthening of the European Union, which is currently struggling with its identity on the wave of global migrations and a shifting political balance.
“If we want to have a society that is not only regulated by economic and material interests, if we want a society that can truly get better, we must ensure that this society has values,” Tajani said.
He spoke briefly of the presence of crucifixes in public schools, a recurring debate at the European and national level, stating that in response to increasing migration flows, holding strong to one’s identity is a sign of strength that is capable of “welcome and confronting oneself with the other.”
Finally, the EU leader called for a “Marshall Plan for Africa,” which would involve European countries investing over 50 billion into the continent and would create a space for the diplomacy of the Holy See and Sant’Egidio, which will become “a great protagonist” of international relations.
The history of the community begins from humble origins, starting from a group of high school students amid the uprisings of 1968 wishing to have a positive impact on the community by helping to clothe and feed the poor in their Roman neighborhood.
Since then, its members have had an impact on national and global events – from Rwanda to Cuba – becoming a force to be reckoned with. Sant’Egidio’s climb from obscurity to fame is “truly something extraordinary,” according to former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
The reasons for its success, he added, can be found in the group’s adaptability, lack of a “hidden agenda,” association with the Catholic Church and Italian – if not quintessentially Roman – spirit of compromise and encounter.
Gentiloni described Sant’Egidio’s “informal diplomacy” as belonging more to “pacifiers [rather] than pacifists,” meaning centered around the art of compromise, flexibility and realism.
Carefully avoiding alarmist tones, the former Italian leader pointed to the challenges and obstacles that the world will soon have to face and asked participants at the conference whether they were “nightwalkers,” borrowing the term used to describe those who were blind to the warning signs of the First World War, or “pacifiers” such as the members of Sant’Egidio.
It was John Paul II who dubbed the nascent community of Sant’Egidio “the third section of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.” [That was before 2017, when Pope Francis actually created a third section to oversee the Vatican’s diplomatic missions around the world.]
This informal recognition has allowed Sant’Egidio to move independently and efficiently in global diplomacy legitimized by its closeness to the Catholic Church, which has grown under Francis’s pontificate.
Though the group is “allergic to models,” said Andrea Riccardi, its founder, its success stems from “an experience that turns into wisdom” and the willingness to spend a long time on dossiers and situations.
Citing Francis’s call for “artisans” of peace and dialogue when he was still a bishop in Argentina, Riccardi said the community wishes to be precisely that by patiently and expertly honing their craft to promote “no other interest if not that of making peace.”
“The craft of Sant’Egidio is to mend, fix and sow the world together,” he concluded.