How Sant'Egidio received its "papal blessing"
By Andrea Riccardi as told to Desmond O'Grady in a U.S. Catholic interview conducted by O'Grady.
It had been the custom in Rome that the diocesan pastoral visits were made by the pope's vicar rather than the pope himself. Pope Paul VI visited some parishes but did not reach us. John Paul II, younger and fitter, decided to visit all parishes himself.
In the first parish he visited we had a small day nursery, established because rats had bitten a baby in one of the unsanitary houses. When John Paul left the parish church, his car passed by our nursery and we called out to him to enter. He had the car stopped, came in, sat on a bench and asked who we were. Before leaving he said, "Come and see me."
A few months later he met all the Catholic lay associations in Rome. When he saw us, he recalled his visit.
Then he visited the nearby Santa Maria in Trastevere basilica, and we suggested he call in on our headquarters, which we were trying to make fit for use. "Why not?" was his response.
He was spontaneous and interested in everything, even though his minders were not happy with his improvised visit.
In the first summer of his pontificate we had a phone call inviting us to his villa in Castel Gandolfo. About 400 of us went and met him in the villa's gardens. We were invited other times. and a few times each year Father Vincenzo Paglia and I were invited to share a meal with him in the Vatican.
After the first Assisi meeting even the cardinals who had been in favor of it said it could not be repeated, but the following year we invited religious leaders to Trastevere. It was a continuation of Assisi, and John Paul II received all the participants in the Vatican. When he saw me, he called out, "Professor, you almost got excommunicated." But then, as always, he was positive, "Bravo, Assisi has to be continued."
He encouraged the Community of Sant'Egidio in various speeches.
Benedict XVI has continued to encourage us. Last December 27 he was the first pope to share a meal with 150 of Rome's needy at our soup kitchen. On that occasion he said that the place of honor went to the neediest. In response I thanked him but also thanked the poor. Our work with them has helped us put aside our egotism.
This is a web-only article that accompanies "Pax Romana ," which appeared in the July 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 7, pages 28-32).