IN a historic square in the centre of Rome, Pope Francis urged Catholics to gather strength in prayer and then set out for the margins of society, bringing the Gospel and material aid to the poor, the elderly, the young and the excluded.
“Prayer saves the anonymous city dweller from a temptation that we, too, face: activism that believes everything revolves around us, indifference or self-pity,” he said on June 15 during an evening visit with members of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio.
The community, founded in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood and now active in 73 countries, combines prayer, Bible-reading and service to the poor, including through inter-religious dialogue and peacemaking.
Tens of thousands of Romans, tourists and community members braved repeated downpours to gather in the narrow streets and open squares of Trastevere to cheer the Pope, shake hands with him, ask for his blessing or pose for a “selfie”.
In the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where community members and others gather each night for evening prayer, Pope Francis listened to the stories of a 90-year-old woman who visits the elderly in nursing homes, a Syrian Orthodox bishop pleading for peace in his country, a refugee from Afghanistan, a Gypsy man and others talk about the friendship and assistance they received from community members.
Pope Francis told the community members their gatherings in the centre of Rome were not and could not be a way to forget the suffering communities on the outskirts of the city. “Listen to and welcome the Gospel of love here in order to go out and meet your brothers and sisters on the margins of the city and the world,” he said.
The Pope listened intensely to the remarks of Irma Lombardo, the 90-year-old woman who said she got involved with Sant’Egidio 20 years ago when she began feeling old and useless. Too many elderly were cut off from their families and friends, she said, and end up feeling they were being punished for something.
Pope Francis said it was “a horrible sign” of a lack of civility when a society or culture allowed the elderly to live in isolation and even die alone, but that was exactly what happened when money was an idol and profits were the only focus of the global economy.
“Anything that does not produce is thrown away,” the Pope said. Birthrates dropped and the aged were ignored to the point that they were subjected to a “hidden euthanasia”.
Looking specifically at Europe, Pope Francis said the focus on money alone – and the declining birthrates it brought – meant not only was the continent aging, but “Europe is tired. We must help it rejuvenate,” including through welcoming immigrants and helping them begin new lives.
The Pope also praised Sant’Egidio’s work in inter-religious dialogue and in mediating peace talks in several countries, particularly in Africa.
“In several countries suffering from war, you try to keep alive hopes for peace,” he said. “Working for peace doesn’t give rapid results, but is an activity for patient craftspeople, who look for what unites.
“More prayer and more dialogue are necessary. The world suffocates without dialogue.”
“Follow this path: prayer, the poor and peace,” the Pope told community members. “Walking this path you will increase compassion in the heart of society – that is the real revolution, the revolution of compassion and tenderness – to make friendship grow in the place of the phantoms of enmity and indifference.”