Friday, July 13, 2012

New Church Movements in Old Rome

Situated not far from the ruins of the Roman forum, the basilica of St. Clement (San Clemente in Laterno) may well serve as an appropriate visual metaphor for the process and progress of the Christian faith in this city over the past two millenia. Continuously occupying the same site since Roman times, San Clemente has evolved, in turn, from an insula (residential apartment complex) under the rule of the Caesars, to a semi-clandestine house church in the early Christian era, to a public basilica/ worship space under Constantine starting in the fourth century, to a thriving urban parish and pilgrim destination today. Through multiple reconstruction and restoration efforts, the development of ‘church’ as both physical structure and faith community can be described in terms of layers: one level of identity and activity superimposed and pressing down upon its predecessors. One generation’s roof is another one’s cellar. I have to confess, the image of layering is not my own. The day I visited San Clemente, I met some students from a creative writing program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their assignment? You’ve got it. To spend an hour exploring the building’s various levels and then to write a poem on the subject of layers. I wish I could have read the results of their work.

“Layering” may be one way to describe the continuing transition within the contemporary Catholic community in Rome as a whole —most particularly as some groups and movements within the Church appear to approach their natural expiration date, while others crop up to take their place or to devise a new space in response to the needs of the times. In my all too brief stay in Rome, I happened to notice just signs of such new layers of activity. I can only offer a cursory observation; I do not have sufficient information to present any kind of in-depth analysis. That said, here are a few groups I experienced and observed:

The Tra Noi (“Among Us”) Movement. When I learned that the name of the hotel where our Franciscan study pilgrimage would stay during our first few days in Rome, I just assumed it would be one of a vast number of reasonably-priced pensiones which are the mainstay of Rome’s pilgrim and tourist trade. But, after a little digging, though, I learned that the Casa Tra Noi was not just another budget hotel, but really a very interesting project and outgrowth of a broad-based lay movement. Started in 1952 by Father Sebastiano Plutino, the Tra Noi movement developed in response to the needs of women who had come to Rome from poorer areas of Italy in order to find work in domestic service. Tra Noi emerged to protect women’s rights in this area, but also to give them meaningful material and spiritual support and accompaniment.
Over the past half-century, Tra Noi has grown into a thriving lay evangelization movement which offers prayer groups, retreats and ongoing spiritual direction for its members in both Italy and Brazil. Its range of involvement in recent years has broadened to include several “plans” or priority programs to serve young people, women, couples, and families. Not coincidentally, several members of the Casa Tra Noi hotel staff itself are also actively involved and committed members of the movement.

The Sant’Egidio Community. Increasingly international in both vision and scope, this lay-directed movement with its emphasis on prayer, common worship and service to the poor and marginalized has its roots among Italian students in post-Vatican II Italy. Founded in Rome in 1968, the Sant’Egidio (the name is translated as “ Saint Giles”— the close companion of St. Francis of Assisi)—the movement takes its name from the parish church in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood where it originated. Over the past forty-plus years, it has grown and transformed from a student/youth movement to an international organization with more than 60,000 members. In the United States, Sant’Egidio communities are active in urban areas from Boston to New York, to Washington, D.C. and South Bend, Indiana. Its range of commitments has also grown and now includes ecumenical dialogue, efforts to promote peace and justice (it was directly involved facilitating peace accords ending civil conflict in Mozambique), and initiatives to end capital punishment worldwide. Its founder, Mateo Riccardi, presently holds a brief as special minister to the Monti government in Italy.

Every evening at 8:30, members of the local group in Rome gather for evening prayer. Weekly liturgies are held on Saturday evening in the ancient church of Santa Maria in Trastevere , attracting numerous worshipers and guests. The Mass I attended was quite a moving experience for me: spoken prayers alternating with beautiful hymns offered by a fully engaged and focused congregation.

The Missionary Sisters of Charity. This is perhaps the oldest of the ‘new’ groups active in Rome, but in view of the Church’s long history, they are still something of neophytes. Founded in 1950, this community of religious sisters is so closely associated in the public mind with the charismatic figure of (now Blessed) Mother Teresa. In fact, it is difficult even to mention them without making reference to their founder’s commanding presence. Nevertheless, even after her death, the order presently includes some 4500 members worldwide. On several occasions, I saw sisters in their trademark blue-trimmed saris—walking about the city of Rome in pairs, rosaries ever in hand. One of the more poignant aspects of their life and presence is the dining room for homeless men they operate—literally on the edge of the St. Peter’s Basilica complex in the Vatican. Every evening at 6pm, indigent and homeless men from throughout the city gather and line up for a meal, clothing, medical referral, or perhaps just a word of comfort and acknowledgment from the sisters and their volunteers. In the course of a half-century, the sisters and their ministries have become fully woven into the fabric of this and other cities around the world.

The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and Mary. A more recent manifestation of the flowering and ongoing ‘layering’ of both religious life and lay associations in the Catholic world is the relatively recent emergence of a new religious community I heard about called the Piccoli Frati e Sorelle V.V. de Gesu e Maria (Little Brothers and Sisters V.V. of Jesus and Mary) . Presently based in Italy, its core group includes Fra’Antonio, who has been involved in the establishment of the Roman group over the past six years. Fra’Antonio represents a ‘new breed’ of young religious—educated, media-savvy, and eager to find new ways use their technical expertise—combined with personal asceticism and commitment to community-- in evangelization outreach. Trained as a graphic designer in his native Australia, Antonio left a potentially lucrative career in his homeland in order to pursue a ‘career’ as a modern-day mendicant friar in Rome.

The members of this emerging community, which accepts both male and female members who live in separate houses subscribes to a hybrid spirituality of Franciscan and Carmelite inspiration. They place a strong emphasis on prayer, community life, and evangelical poverty and their ‘take’ on religious life is both refreshing and fascinating in its idealism and creativity. For one thing, the group’s members do not possess, hold, accept, or otherwise handle money. Neither do they have a ready ‘home address’ or phone number: inquirers can contact them via email at the website hosted by lay supporters. They stress direct contact with people and so are engaged in street ministry as well as a ministry of hitchhiking (!) to spread the Word. And wherever they go, they are dressed in their trademark light brown habit—the men tonsured, and the women veiled. Facebook and Youtube are part of their ‘tools of the trade.’
Stay tuned; it will be very interesting to see how this community evolves and matures over time.

All of these groups—and I am sure I have just scratched the surface—represent some of the most recent ‘layers’ of contemporary Church participation and commitment in the city of Rome. They do not fit into easy categories of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. What they share is essential to their self-definition and survival: a deep and consistent prayer life (often involving ongoing Scripture study and faith sharing), direct service to the poor and marginalized, open and clear identification with the Roman Catholic church, and a willingness to engage in dialogue with ecclesiastical leadership. Although they often provide outreach to the marginalized, they are not themselves alienated or disaffected.

It will be very interesting to see how these and other groups survive and/or thrive. What is encouraging is that in the midst of such complex and often contentious times both in the Church and in the world, women and men continue to come forward to give a personal and collective witness to the Gospel in our times with their time-- and talents and with their very lives.
In doing so, they provide yet another layer to the already rich and living archaeology of faith expression both in Rome and in the Roman Catholic community at large.//

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