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Community of Sant’Egidio: Combining prayer and service

By Jim Lockwood
Posted: 2/26/2010

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Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley prays with members of the Community of Sant’Egidio at Our Lady of Lourdes in Jamaica Plain Feb. 23. Pilot photo/ Jim Lockwood

JAMAICA PLAIN -- Through a life of prayer and service, they come together to live the Gospel message and answer Jesus’ call of discipleship, and in doing so, strengthen the local, national, and even international community.

“Even outside of the immediate and concrete, there’s a larger sense of being part of a community that’s responding to the needs of the world and the community at large,” said Kendra Bradner, a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Boston.

The Community of Sant’Egidio, founded in Rome in the 1960s, is a worldwide community dedicated to a life of prayer, sharing the Gospel message, and many aspects of social justice. Worldwide, the group works with the poor and the marginalized, advocating for an end to the death penalty, combating the spread of AIDS and assisting AIDS victims in Africa, and promoting peace.

Dave Sulewski, another Boston member, said that at the local level, members of the community visit and pray with the elderly, mentor and provide homework help to local youth, visit inmates on death row, and raise awareness and money for AIDS victims. He also said some members have visited AIDS patients in Africa.

Kerri Marmol, another member, added that she had recently been approached about having the group launch an ESL program.

Marmol also discussed the group’s regular activities.

She said that on Monday, they visit and pray with the elderly in a Brighton housing development; on Tuesday they gather for prayer at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Jamaica Plain; on Thursday they visit and pray with the elderly in a Cambridge nursing home; on Saturday they mentor local youth; and on Sunday the group’s youth community visit and pray with elderly.

Local youth are introduced to the mission of the community through the community’s youth group and what is called the School of Peace.

In Boston, the School of Peace is held at the old Our Lady of Lourdes parish school in Jamaica Plain. Local youth in Grades 1 through 7 can receive mentoring and homework help.

Sulewski said that mentoring includes discussing issues of faith and peace, and talking with kids about the challenges they face in school.

Marmol said, “It’s more like a big brother, big sister thing -- helping them to grow up well.”

“I don’t think they come back because their grades are getting better. They come back because they like us,” she added.

Eliabeth Roman, 16, was a former participant in the School of Peace. She described it as an eye-opening experience because it helped her in school. She said her grades rose as part of the experience.

Formerly a student of an inner-city public school in Boston, she is now enrolled as a vocalist at the Boston Arts Academy.

She is a member of the community’s youth group and said that she wants to share the help she received with others.

“It has helped me grow as a person,” Roman said. “I’m learning many new things about the diverse community we have.”

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley visited the group on Feb. 23 at Our Lady of Lourdes, giving a homily at a prayer service there and attending a reception where he learned more about the recent activities of the group.

Speaking to The Pilot following the reception, Cardinal O’Malley said this group, and many others like it that formed after the Second Vatican Council are a “gift to the Church.”

“It helps people to live their baptismal commitment more deeply, to learn the teachings of the Church, experience the community of the Church, and have the tools to evangelize,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley compared the new ecclesial realities such as Sant’Egidio to the many religious orders that were formed in the previous times, saying both were responses to cultural challenges of their times.

According to the community’s literature, the Community of Sant’Egidio was started in 1968 by a group of high-school students in Rome. Today, it is present in 70 countries throughout the world. Other communities in the United States are found in New York City, Washington, D.C., South Bend, Ind., and Minneapolis, Minn.

Paula Piscitelli, who joined the community in Rome as a high-school student in 1975 and later helped establish communities in New York and Boston, recalled that there was a desire for reform at that time and restlessness among the youth.

“We were part of the many groups that started among students,” she said. “We wanted to change and renew ourselves.”

She also said that while many groups chose a political or social focus, the Community of Sant’Egidio wanted to be committed to the poor and a life of prayer.

It was this combination of prayer and service that attracted Bradner and Marmol to the group.

Bradner, a 2008 graduate of Boston College, said that she joined the group in 2003 after hearing about it in one of her classes. She learned the group needed volunteers to visit the elderly.

“I had always been very close to my grandparents,” she said. “It sounded like something interesting to do.”

Marmol also joined as a BC student. She has been involved with the group for over 10 years since it first came to Boston. At that time, she said, they met on the BC campus.

“When I was at BC, it was the first group that I heard of that prayed together and did service together,” she said. “There were groups that prayed or did service, but not both. I wanted to pray with the people I serve.”