Between January 22 and 23 the main Italian news agencies and blogs reported that the center-left parties had selected professor Andrea Riccardi as candidate for the presidency of the Republic. News that surprised many, because Riccardi’s name is of no great repute in the university world and his political experience is modest, having been minister for international cooperation in the Monti government from November 2011 to April 2013. Yet his influence is far greater than one might imagine, if one considers that Time magazine, back on April 21 1997, placed him at the top of the ten persons who matter most on our peninsula. His strength does not come from his academic or political merits, but from the powerful lobby he founded and directs: the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Riccardi, born in Rome in 1950, is a son of the Sixties. He was eighteen when, as leader of a group of students from the Virgilio high school in Rome affiliated with Gioventù Studentesca (the movement that would give birth to Communion and Liberation), he parted ways with Fr. Luigi Giussani to found his political-religious community. During those years the young Riccardi cut his teeth on Congar, Chenu, de Lubac, Rahner, as we read in the conversation with Jean-Dominique Durand and Régis Ladous in the book Sant’Egidio Roma e il mondo (Edizioni San Paolo, Rome 1997). His university mentor was the Catholic-communist historian Pietro Scoppola, who fast-tracked him into a career as a professor of contemporary history and the history of Christianity.
In September 1973 the group of young people led by Riccardi landed in Piazza Sant’Egidio in Trastevere, occupying an abandoned Carmelite monastery and in 1974 becoming the “Community of Sant’Egidio,” with frequent visits by the rector of the Biblical Institute, Carlo Maria Martini, future cardinal archbishop of Milan and a protege of cardinal vicar of Rome Ugo Poletti. The spiritual assistant was Fr. Vincenzo Paglia, later pastor of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, bishop of Terni, and now president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The Mass of the Community of Sant’Egidio was celebrated on Saturday evenings behind closed doors in the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the sacrament of penance was replaced with public mea culpas. The homily was always given by Andrea Riccardi, dubbed the “undisputed abbot” of the community by vaticanista Sandro Magister, who has profiled him in numerous articles. “For two to marry, or even just to become engaged, they need official approval, starting at the very top with Andrea Riccardi. In Sant’Egidio not only are all marriages between members of the community, but the members must also be on the same level. If someone high up in the internal hierarchy falls in love with someone in the rank and file, the community intervenes, breaks it up and imposes penalties. Children? Very few, or rather none. Either abstinence or contraceptives: ‘In the face of so many abandoned adults and children, there is not only paternity of blood. Our children are the poor.’ But only long-term members adhere to the zero birth rate. The second generation of Sant’Egidio, especially the rank and file, is more prolific. The only disobedience allowed within this totalitarian little world” (L’Espresso, April 9 1998).
It is again Magister who informs us about what was happening in matters of family and marriage, behind the glowing facade of the Community of Sant’Egidio. “In 2003 the diocesan tribunal of Rome received a request for annulment from a man who had been a member of the Community for 25 years and had married a woman also of the Community. To the request for annulment he attached a memoir in which he documented not only how he had married ‘by compulsion,’ but also how his case was part of a more general authoritarian system that governed the Community of Sant’Egidio and managed the engagements and marriages of its members of various levels” (cf. www.chiesa: > Venticinque anni nella Comunità d Sant’Egidio. Un memoriale).
John Paul II, in his search for groups and movements that could act as a counterbalance to his powerful secretariat of state, protected the Community of Sant’Egidio, perhaps ignoring the close ties it had with the future cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who at the Secretariat of State was the “dominus.” In 1986, the year in which it was recognized as a “public association of the faithful,” the Community of Sant’Egidio organized the interreligious meeting in Assisi with Pope John Paul II in prayer side by side with the Dalai Lama, with Orthodox metropolitans, Protestant pastors, Buddhist monks, Jewish rabbis, Muslim muftis, gurus and shamans of all creeds.
Marco Impagliazzo, current president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, links the Assisi event with the document Pope Francis signed in Abu Dhabi on February 4 2019, together with the imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. “The Abu Dhabi document,” Impagliazzo states, “is perhaps the conclusion of a rough and dramatic journey that has posed a tough test for the spirit of Assisi since September 11 2001. There is certainly a common thread that binds the two events” (Il Fatto quotidiano, February 28 2021). On a visit to Cairo in 2012, Riccardi held a conference on November 26 at the University of Al-Azhar in which he praised the triumphant democracy in Egypt, stating that “thanks to the Arab Spring, the Mediterranean has become an entirely democratic sea.” The Muslim university of Al-Azhar, he added, “over the centuries has not only kept the faith, but has also kept the culture alive with humanism.”
Along these lines, on October 7 2021 “Vatican events rose to new heights of theatricality, in Rome, against the backdrop of the Colosseum, with a collective appeal for peace between peoples and religions launched by Pope Francis and major world religious leaders, at center stage ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and grand imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, all joined in an embrace of likemindedness on none other than the anniversary of the battle of Lepanto. At the key ceremony there were two inaugural speeches: by Andrea Riccardi (in the photo), founder and absolute monarch of the community of Sant’Egidio and in effect the promoter of the event, as master of the house, and by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as pampered guest” (http://magister.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/2021/10/12/conclave-in-sight-operation-sant%e2%80%99egidio/).
It matters little at this point that Andrea Riccardi was not elected president of the Republic. What counts is that the left wing has recognized itself in his name, even if only as a coalition candidate. This confirms the role of this pan-ecumenist professor with boundless ambitions. In his latest book La Chiesa brucia (Laterza 2021), Riccardi glimpses “a world without the Church,” in which he nonetheless knows how to operate, showing himself to be ever more inclusive in the transversal relations he holds with left and the right, just like Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, a member of Sant’Egidio with whom for years he has worked in tandem. Mozambique has granted both of them honorary citizenship for having contributed to the realization of the peace treaty signed in Rome on October 4 1992 between the government and the Marxist-Maoist rebels. The progressive Catholic magazine Golias in1996 identified Sant’Egidio as a lobby that could be decisive in the selection of the next Pope (Sant’Egidio: les souterrains du Vatican,” Golias no. 50, September 1996). More than twenty-five years have gone by, and today Sant’Egidio can count on an international network of contacts that outstrips that of any other cardinal, and above all on a cardinal the likes of Matteo Zuppi, whom some would like to see in pole position in the succession to Pope Francis. If the doors of the Quirinale have closed for Riccardi, those of the Apostolic Palaces are still open for Zuppi, and the Sant’Egidio game is yet to be played.