Rome's Beggars; Targeting the G-8

Learning From the City's Poor

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By Irene Lagan

ROME, MAY 10, 2007 (Zenit.org).- With summer just around the corner, the streets of Rome are increasingly packed with pilgrims -- and the city's poor.

The sheer number of beggars who take up regular posts outside churches, tourist spots and universities makes it impossible to ignore their often-distressing presence.

For Deacon Kim Schreck, a fourth-year seminarian at the Pontifical North American College, encountering the poor is at the very heart of the Roman experience and a significant part of his formation.

"There's a rub to it," he said. "You can't ignore the problem. I realized early on that I could either learn to love the poor or become bitter and hard in the end. Anyone who lives here faces this, but no one wants to hear that. There is no excuse for any Christian not to be generous, even if it's just giving someone a smile."

Deacon Schreck said that while charity does include almsgiving, it does not always mean emptying his pockets. Over the course of four years, he has developed relationships with many of the poor and has come to know their situations.

"Sometimes what people ask for is not really what they need, but when you get to know them you begin to understand what their real needs are," he said.

Time and again, Deacon Schreck said, the faith and generosity of the poor to him has been a lesson.

He credits the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome for helping him and other seminarians to serve the poor in the spirit of the Gospel.

Carlo Santoro, a member of the Rome-based community, agreed that the poor are indeed treated badly, and that they are viewed as the "lepers of old."

"People on the street are dehumanized and judged," he said. "Somehow people assume that the conditions they live in are their own fault and view them as menaces. But as Christians, we are told to serve the poor, not to judge them."

Santoro said it is good to give when possible, and that stories about charlatans who fake poverty are generally unfounded. He said that even then, as St. John Chrysostom had said, that if a person goes to the extreme of faking such need, it is the fault of other Christians who had failed to recognize his real poverty.

He said that the actual number of homeless is hard to estimate. In the 2001 Roman census, people without papers or fixed addresses were deemed nonexistent. Sant'Egidio estimates, however, that there are about 7,000 homeless in the city.

"In my experience, when you get to know people and find out what their real needs are, they appreciate opportunities and respond to being treated with dignity," Santoro said.

French seminarian Alexander Julien, a member of the Emmanuel Community, said that he has also learned from Sant'Egidio how to approach the poor. Initially, he was afraid of and even repulsed by the poor and sought to avoid them. In his home city of Quebec, he said people in such dire straits are not so publicly visible.

After passing a homeless man for the third time one winter day, he was moved to stop and see if he was in trouble. The man, wet and shivering, was in obvious need of help. The seminarian offered him warm clothing, and afterward the man asked only for prayer.

"This man taught me about Jesus," said Julien. "After I helped him he begged me to pray with me. We prayed an Our Father and Hail Mary. Now, whenever I see him, he asks me to pray."

Julien said that pattern has continued, and that the Lord has continued to shape him through his encounters with the poor: "I have come to realize that every great saint served the poor in some way, even if they are remembered for something else. It is a path to holiness.

"Poverty is a mystery. God wants us to see that his love is made perfect in weakness. I believe the renewal of the Church depends on our approach to poverty."

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Lobbying the G-8

The actual order of the world is determined by the reality of the rich and the poor, and not on geographical lines, says Archbishop John Onaiyekan from Abuja, Nigeria.

Archbishop Onaiyekan is one of 11 bishops who traveled to Rome last week to meet Benedict XVI as part of their tour to visit world leaders prior to the G-8 summit in Germany this June. The G-8 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The prelates, together with Caritas Italy and International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity, are lobbying governments to keep promises made in previous summits to increase aid to poor and developing nations.

World leaders have a keen interest in the bishops' visit, Archbishop Onaiyekan said. "Many have never seen such a group as ours and they are interested and inquisitive. Ours is a different kind of rhetoric than that of politicians."

He added: "Apart from what we know about the rich and poor, debt and credit, there is the knowledge that we have based on our Christian faith.

"Meeting the millennium goals will never eliminate world poverty. But we need to eliminate abject poverty. There cannot be world peace as long as there is abject poverty."

Citing the 40th anniversary of the Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Populorum Progressio" and the 16th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus," Archbishop Onaiyekan said that these letters in particular identify the problems stemming from globalization, and their antidotes.

He said that the radical message of Paul VI's encyclical is relevant especially today: "When any nation has an excess of goods over and above what is needed, it has no right to those goods and has an obligation to be generous to the poor.

"Globalization has made the world one. This is God's plan: We are one family. It is no longer possible to create an island of affluence."

Archbishop Onaiyekan said: "We must find new solutions to the cycle of debt and poverty that create more disparity between rich and poor nations.

"The systems in place now need to be corrected."

He added: "The problems of government and poverty in Africa are urgent.

"My country is rich in resources. This is true of many African nations. And yet many are living in abject poverty."

While the archbishop agreed that aid for underdeveloped nations does not always reach the poor due to government corruption, he said that rich nations and multinational corporations are complicit: "It is easier to bribe a corrupt government than to change the system."

"To be poor is not shameful," said Archbishop Onaiyekan. "But we are embarrassed by the corruption of our government."

The archbishop added: "The whole of Europe is integrating; this is for the good of all. But we need now to become one family, not just economically, but in justice and politically.

"When this happens, it will be a win-win situation for all."

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Teaching Youth Peace

The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome has been a hub recently for several key conferences on interreligious dialogue.

While many scholars and officials hone in on high-level discussions to address pressing issues, two women professors, one Christian and one Muslim, spoke last week about the education of young people as a key to establishing true dialogue and peace among cultures.

Jane McAuliffe, who has a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the University of Toronto, is a Christian who has dedicated her career to the study of Islam.

"In my generation, there was very little in education that exposed us to other religious and cultural traditions," she said. "But I was deeply impressed by Muslim piety and by Muslim understandings of the divine, and began to learn about Islamic tradition."

McAuliffe, who is the current dean of the college of arts and sciences at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said that in the space of a few decades the student population there has changed dramatically to one that is heterogeneous.

The professor of Islamic studies says that what was formerly a traditional Catholic campus is teeming with students from different faith traditions, including Islam.

"Interfaith conversations among students and faculty, in formal classroom settings and informally around campus, are preparation for more robust dialogue in the future," McAuliffe said.

The professor said that part of her role as an educator is "to push back against the prejudices that come into the lives of young people" through their upbringing, environment and the media.

Moreover, she said: "No single instance or experience of interreligious dialogue can be entirely satisfactory.

"Simple tolerance of another is not enough."

Instead, McAuliffe believes that exposure and learning, especially in universities, must touch a person at a deeper level: "One cannot remain untouched by contact with other religions."

Professor Amel Grami from Manouba University in Tunisia, a reformist Muslim and researcher in the field of Muslim-Christian relations, offered a more sobering perspective on current trends in education.

While she agreed that educating youth can open pathways to peace, Grami also warned that "cyber wars" that disseminate "jihadist ideology" and promote the culture of death are prevalent in some places.

In addition, Grami explained that a "transnational Muslim identity" is fostered in these same academic environments.

"Students learn that they belong to Islam itself. Islam is their homeland and must be protected from the corruption of the West," Grami said.

She said that some charismatic imams foster the idea among young people that violence is a justified means of protecting the "homeland."

Despite these trends, Grami said that the educational environments could form young people to engage in authentic interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

"Culture is a perception of individual and social identity and is driven by action," she said. "A culture of peace can be fostered by actions and environments that strengthen the connection between justice and solidarity."

Education, she said, must be rooted in true peace, and mass media must be harnessed to foster a culture of nonviolence, irrespective of religious background.

At the same time, Grami said that peace is also a personal struggle: "We need to teach people to choose life, to teach them to anchor their actions in peace."