A Discussion with Mario Giro, Director for International Affairs, Community of Sant’Egidio
November 20, 2008
Background: Mario Giro began working as a youth-oriented community organizer for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay organization based in Rome, and is now the Director for International Affairs for the organization. Giro talked about the Community's central role in fostering peace to Mozambique, and how that experience informed the organization's approach to conflict resolution. The keys to the Community's success in this area, Giro said, are its patience and humility. He discussed Sant'Egidio's relationship with Pope John Paul IV, which spurred its continuing support for interfaith dialogue and the annual Prayer for Peace, a gathering of faith leaders from around the world.
The Community of Sant'Egidio is a unique fellowship and organization, and you play a unique role in the Community. What do you do with the Community and how is it part of your life?
I am Sant'Egidio's head of international relations. My responsibility is to coordinate the group within the Community that works on international relations issues and especially conflict resolution. There are roughly 20 people in the group, and we are involved at any time in many different situations and places. How many right now? Perhaps 15. Meanwhile, I have a regular job; all members of the Community work as volunteers. I am part of the life of Sant'Egidio, and it is part of my life. I belong, but it gives me freedom to live a life both inside and outside.
How did you get involved with the Community of Sant'Egidio?
I got involved with the Community of Sant'Egidio, which had started in 1968, in 1973. I was 15 years old, going to high school, in Rome. There was a small student community of Sant'Egidio at my school, and they invited me to come with them to the poor outskirts of the city to work with the poor. I was new to Rome, as I had lived and studied up until then in Brussels; my father was working in Brussels with the European Community, from its early years. He was then (in 1973) appointed to Rome and so we returned. I had never lived in Rome before, as we left when I was only one. I was pleased to find the community and even more with the work we did, which was especially with children. Many of the people in the poor suburbs were recent arrivals from the south of Italy, many of them illiterate and recent peasants. Their children had many difficulties and we were able to help them.
Not long after I had begun to work with the children, I joined the Community and began to share in a wider range of activities, centered on prayer and life together. We prayed each day at 7:30 before we went to the schools, at a small church nearby. There were afternoon meetings where we discussed intensely how to live the Gospel, and how to bring about change with the Gospel. The idea was that it was possible even for young people and students to live the Gospel.
Did you come to this experience with the Community with a strong religious background?
Not very much, really. My parents took me to church, and I went through confirmation, but there was little beyond that.
And then what happened?
I continued my studies, going to university in Rome after I finished high school. I studied mathematics and other subjects. At the university, I studied economic history, and wrote a thesis for my Masters Degree on how the fascist regime (which had dominated Italian politics for some 22 years) had approached economics and public works. I focused especially on the earthquakes of the 1930s.
Throughout my studies, until the middle of the 1980s, I continued to be part of the Community of Sant'Egidio and to work in poor areas of Rome. But I shifted my activities from working with children to working with adolescents and young adults, people around the age of 18-19, especially those making the transition to work life. In many respects I became what could you in the United States might call a community organizer, working still in the poorer outskirts of the city.
What was Community like at that time?
Throughout this early period, the Community was clearly Roman. A very first group outside Rome started in 1973 in Naples, but that was seen as quite exceptional and happened as a result of a serious Cholera epidemic there. The epidemic caused many deaths, and our Community's attention was caught by a letter in the newspaper from a young person who bore witness to the situation and cried out that Naples was an abandoned city. We went there, and helped to found a community. However, we had no notion that this would become a pattern nor any ambition to expand the community. Our efforts were all focused on staying together, bound together by our social work and by prayer. We led quite ordinary lives in many respects. We lived secular lives.
The Community was thus not born within the structure of the Catholic Church. We saw ourselves, and worked to stay that way, as an autonomous entity, within the Church but with our own identity. We considered ourselves part of the Church, but not of the institutional bodies of the Church.
What did you do when you finished university? Your first job?
I worked with the trade unions at the regional level (the Region of Rome), essentially as part of a consulting group. We worked above all on the question of job creation. I started to work 1984.
Were you or the Community involved in politics at that time (the 1980s)?
We were not involved in politics, and refused consciously to be drawn into it. There were pressures to draw us in, coming from different sides. That meant both the Christian Democrats and the Communists. The Christian Democrats wanted to involve us because we were Catholic, the Communists because they saw our work with the poor which they viewed as linked to left wing causes.
How did the Community's formal relationship with the Church evolve?
That's a long and interesting story. It began in 1974. The Cardinal of Rome called a meeting about the state of the city and we, together with several different Catholic groups, were part of the discussion. In fact that is when for the first time we made a public statement of what the Community was. In the early years, we simply called ourselves “the Community” but in 1973 we decided to take the name of Sant'Egidio, which was the church were we held our prayers each evening.
That was a period in the life of Rome still influenced by the troubled events of 1968. In response, a number of quite different kinds of community organizations and movements emerged. Many had Catholic backgrounds, and they worked in quite different ways. They were entirely independent of one another.
The 1974 meeting was the first time the official Church had organized something like this. We discussed and decided on how to present ourselves there, as a community with a name. At that time the Community was small, with a few hundred members, based in the major high schools and universities of Rome, and also in the poorer suburbs, centered around tiny chapels that the new immigrants build in their neighborhoods because there was no Church infrastructure there.
When did priests like Msgr. Paglia become involved with the Community?
Msgr. Paglia became involved very early on, in 1971. He was then a junior curate, assisting the parish priest at a church in a rich suburb. He decided to join community, and later went on to become the rector of the church of Sant'Egidio.
What was the Community's path from then on? And what was your role?
I continued to work as a community organizer, focused on youth. The Community, meanwhile, began to grow. It first became established in other cities in Italy. The pattern was that the Community never “founded” a community nor did it have aspirations to grow. Someone would come from another city, participate in our daily evening prayers at 8:30pm, and then would ask to join the Community. There were different patterns. For example, in Genoa a group already existed, but it was not clear on what it wished to do, so it asked the Community of Sant'Egidio to join with them. Step by step, community by community, the Community grew.
The Community was entirely in Italy then, again with no idea of becoming an international organization, when two young students, young women, came from Germany to do higher studies at the university. They joined the Community, and when they returned home they started a community in Germany. None could have imagined that the first non-Italian community would be in Germany. Then, the Community began to spread to other countries of Europe, especially Belgium and Spain. Today there are communities in nearly every country in Europe, some quite large and some rather small.
The first communities outside Europe date from the mid 1980s, with the first in El Salvador.
What brought us there was the events sparked when the Bishop, Oscar Romero, was assassinated by a death squad. We read the story, and, moved by it, invited his former secretary to Rome for an event commemorating his life and work. Father Jesus came to Rome, knowing nothing about the Community. From the friendship that developed with him then he was inspired to start working with young people back in El Salvador. Those young people started a community. Other countries in Latin America followed.
Sant'Egidio has a passionate commitment to and deep engagement in Africa. How did that begin?
The first community in Africa began in Mozambique. That country went through a terrible civil war, and as we read about it the Community in Rome decided to try to help. Mozambique was linked to Italy by a long history of cooperation, so it did not seem far-fetched to want to help that country; many groups were engaged there. In 1977, the Bishop of Beira, Jaime Gonzales, visited Rome and told of the difficult situation his church faced, pressured by the Marxist regime and almost helpless in the face of violence all around. The Community got involved, initially trying to help directly on the ground, but also trying to mediate with the Mozambican authorities, explaining that the Church truly was not against people. Slowly, slowly we came into contact with different groups and elements in Mozambique.
As we reflected on Mozambique's situation, we, in the Community, came to believe that nothing serious could be done to help people there unless we were willing to get involved in the war and conflict. This was the Community's first involvement in conflict resolution.
We found surprisingly little interest and few offers of help. In essence, everyone thought the situation was quite hopeless because Mozambique's war was a war by proxy. In the bipolar world at that time, and the Apartheid regime in neighboring South Africa, most people and officials thought that the only way to progress was to solve the problems of South Africa and end Apartheid.
With our first African community active in Mozambique, on the ground, we realized that these assumptions about the conflict were not entirely true. There were endogenous reasons for the war, grounded in Mozambique. We began working with the authorities and also with the guerillas. It was through the good offices of the bishop that we got in touch with guerrilla leaders and began an engagement aimed at addressing the Mozambican dimensions of the conflict.
Our first contacts were in 1986. In 1990, we convinced the guerilla leaders and the government to meet in Rome. That first meeting took place in Rome, 1990.
How did the Community find itself in a position to mediate the Mozambique conflict?
At first it was not clear at all that we could play a role as mediators. It was the first time a civil society group had become involved in conflict resolution in this manner. So it began step by step.
After the first meeting in Rome, we were asked to play a continuing role, and thus we began 27 months of negotiation, in 11 separate sessions. We did help in reaching the comprehensive peace agreement in October 1992, that brought an end to war in Mozambique, and the beginning of democracy.
What was your own role in the Mozambique negotiations? When did you first go to Mozambique?
I was working with Father Matteo and Andrea Riccardi throughout the 27 months of negotiations and 11 negotiating sessions in Rome; I did not go to Mozambique until after the war had ended.
The process involved very patient work, and it lasted a long time. We had to be very patient. What we did above all was to speak to people, and thus came to understand both the insides of the crisis and what was in their minds. This conflict in Mozambique involved people who were fighting with each other, but who knew each other very well. That made it very difficult to make peace. Conflicts among brothers who feel betrayed may be the most difficult to resolve.
What made this long, patient process possible for the Community was that our work took place while we continued our normal lives, as individuals and as the Community. While we were negotiating we went on with our daily prayers and our service in poor communities. The negotiations evolved also in tune with these ordinary routines of life and people on both sides became involved in it. Many strong friendships were born during this period. The current President of Mozambique, for example, Armando Guebuza was at that time the leader of the Frelimo delegation and became close to us.
The Community of Sant'Egidio was not presented and we did not present ourselves as specialists or professionals, but simply as people of good will who became specialized through the process of engagement. It was and remains our strength that we do not depend on our conflict resolution work, but have other things to do. This gives us a freedom from becoming bureaucratized. We are not faced by the absolute necessity of having a success. That helps us to bring to people who seek our help certain serenity. We are not seen as demanding or imposing anything. We can offer a space of peace and our own identity. We have strong views about peace, of course, but they do not lead us to depend on success or failure in a given negotiation.
After the peace agreement in Mozambique, what were the reflections within the Community about future conflict resolution roles and what form did those reflections take?
The success generated an energy of peace within the Community, and a sense that we could do the same kind of work and engage in a similar process in other places. We also came to see and understand profoundly that peace brought about the resurrection of the country in Mozambique. We saw that we, ordinary people coming from ordinary ways of life and communities, were able to work for peace. What made the difference was that we were very motivated, but also real people.
We also reflected on the formula that took shape during the Mozambique negotiations, which was a mix of institutional and non institutional approaches. We recognized that it was possible and feasible. This formula was stressed at that time by Boutros Boutros Ghali, then the Secretary General of the United Nations. He spoke about the “Italian formula”, which blended and brought together government and non-government peace making. What we could do was to cultivate contacts and bring different people in to the discussions. We did not need to exclude anyone who might contribute. We could work with informality and flexibility, but we also could always work with governments and international institutions. “Track 1” and “Track 2” diplomacy represented formulas that were known and recognized (government led and private led, respectively). We were in effect creating something different, “Track One and a Half”.
Those reflections centered around what Sant'Egidio and institutions like it can bring to the difficult world of politics, as a non institutional organization. After we had, early on, resisted the pressures in Italy for us to become involved in politics, we saw that in fact we could by this means find our involvement in the political process & not in the context of partisan politics, but the politics of working for peace.
And how did the Community, and you, become involved in the Annual Prayer for Peace meetings, that you organize and inspire?
The Community of Sant'Egidio's two major international engagements & conflict resolution and interfaith dialogue, were born at the same time, in the mid 1980s.
The 1986 interfaith meeting in Assisi was the idea of Pope John Paul II. It was truly his own idea, and he asked the Community of Sant'Egidio to help organize it.
The Community was already in touch with the Pope. We first came to know him directly in 1978, when he reached out to meet with young people. The Pope was looking for groups who were engaged in real action, in communities, and he came across the Community of Sant'Egidio. He was looking for something new, linked to his earlier experience with young people in Poland. In the world of institutions in Rome, with its formality, he was seeking something new, fresh, and authentic.
The first meeting was during his visit to a little kindergarten where we were working, and I remember him sitting in the kindergarten, on the children's tiny chairs. A second took place during a time of tension, as an immigrant from Somalia had just been killed in Rome, simply because he was a foreigner, a stranger. The Community wrote a letter to the Pope, asking him to come to a church near where the Somali was killed. The letter reminded Pope John Paul II of Pope Gregory the Great, who one day went out from the Cathedral and found a poor man, dead on the ground. He declared that day Good Friday. We urged Pope John Paul II to follow that example. He came. He asked us, have serious and half joking, whether we, a young group, wanted to teach him how to be a Pope? There were other meetings like this. From this emerged a strong friendship between Andrea Riccardi and the Pope.
So when he (the Pope) decided to organize the meeting in Assisi, he asked Andrea to help. Our primary role, and my own, at the meeting, was to accompany and take care for the Muslim delegation.
After the Assisi meeting, we, within the Community, decided to continue the tradition with a meeting each year. This was not an entirely smooth process. While the Pope himself supported our role, not all the Curia was happy with this. But we continued and with the November 2008 Cyprus meeting we concluded the 22nd annual event.
What was the nature of the opposition and how did you manage it?
With the help of the Pope. We explained wherever we could why such meetings were so necessary. We explained, explained, explained, explained.
The Pope's idea was to gather the world's great religions together so that they could help each other, not to be manipulated. He saw a large role for this community of religious leaders working for peace, at a time during which religions were rarely taken into account. And then the world changed, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and religion became far more visible in many ways. These changes showed how wise the Pope's vision truly was. His determination to reach out to other religious communities was affirmed.
So the Prayer for Peace has become a large forum that meets annually, a place or space where many leaders from different religions can meet, come to know each other, and engage in initiatives together. We in the Community are very proud of this. The Prayer for Peace is one of places in which one can find a real feeling of unity among different religions, without erasing their differences and distinct character.
What is your main work today? How do you come to be involved in new conflict situations?
Well, I continue to be involved in my regular job, but above all I am involved in many conflicts. People who are fighting ask us to do something. A special quality about Sant'Egidio is that we are non-threatening. Our mediation comes with no threats, no prior conditions. We do not impose anything except the quest for peace. If you decide to join together with Sant'Egidio, you know that the Community is deeply committed to finding peace. In the meantime, however, we have no military power and power politics is not part of our character or approach. We can share our friendship and our experience. At Sant'Egidio, all we ask and expect is that the different parties to the conflict will see themselves as partners in the search for peace.
The Mozambique model of negotiations was unique, but we have learned some lessons from working there that have proved very useful. We know what we can do. We are not looking for independent role, and we are not competing against other entities. Competition in the area of peacemaking, which unfortunately has become rather common among mediators, is a serious obstacle for building peace. We don't think our work has to be done against or outside official work and channels, but in synergy. That is our particular characteristic. The key word is synergy. We are very flexible, and can manage to work in a highly tailor made way. Most official institutions and conflict resolution specialists cannot do that. We can do what a minister of government cannot do.
Above all, we can wait for a long time. We can wait for the chief of a militia group to come out of bush. We can wait because we have other things to do, and do not depend on this work to exist. We do not depend on achieving success. So we can try, and try, and try again. Official and professional organizations need quick, tangible success to live. But, especially in these internal conflicts, one must be patient, and know how to wait and wait and wait. Patience is not only a virtue and a moral attribute: it becomes a tool.
The northern Uganda conflict and the efforts with the Lord's Resistance Army are an example. We had our first contact with them in 1996. The opportunity for real work with them came ten years later. Who can wait ten years? We can. We waited at least three years to work in Burundi.
This dimension of time is very important, and it is a quality of non institutionalized actors. We know what we are doing, but do not depend for our livelihoods on conflict resolution.
Besides this time dimension, we take our interlocutors very seriously, and we shuttle from one side to another. In the Balkans for example we were able to work with Milosevic and others to resolve problems in Kosovo without a war. It often takes months, even years, to get a first meeting. Professionals cannot afford such flexibility in time and the continuity and investment in people.
It is vital that we do not seek success at all costs. I have observed many meetings working for peace that failed because someone forced success with a threatening mediation. This simply does not work, especially in internal conflicts. There, you have to listen for a long time. You may hear the same story several times. But you can never lose patience, and you need to stay closely tuned to the reality of conflicts. You have to be humble, and not think or suggest that you already know and see the solution.
Another characteristic of the Community is that it has no hidden agenda, and is not suspected of having a hidden agenda.
So we have requests from many places. They are very different and come in very different ways. Some are direct and come from within our own Communities. Others come from local groups. Some are direct, some indirect. Sometimes we are asked by governments to get involved.
How do you find the resources to do this work?
In reality, this work is not really very expensive. It involves trips but there is not a lot of logistics. The meetings along the way are small. At the end of the process there may be large meetings but that generally happens when everything has already been more or less worked out. Our work is not a big circus, and in my experience most big circuses fail. We find support from other nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and sometimes governments like Switzerland or the EU.
The work is frustrating sometimes, but we can afford to wait, and we know that success will not be immediate.
How do you deal with the economic issues that so often fuel conflicts?
Most internal conflicts have personal dimensions. They start with people and are fueled by personalities and personal grudges and passions. One large asset of the Community of Sant'Egidio is that we have the same people linked to a conflict situation for years. It takes time to build the trust that is essential to overcome these personal tensions. It is rare to find someone ready to reach an agreement immediately.
Yes, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is fueled by competition for resources. We study those issues: Coltan, oil, diamonds and the like and they are important. But resources are rarely if ever the reason why conflicts start. You need to focus on the point at which people take arms and decide to start a war. That is a very human decision and it is the key. Resources allow groups to continue to fight, but they are not the first thing that we need to focus on when there is a conflict. Instead, what matters is the way people live, understanding issues of identity, their culture. So we find the idea that only resources are the key rather short-sighted. We focus on what is going on inside the people who fight, their real wounds. If you are a cruel and terrible warlord, something inside you has broken. The story of what happened is more important than the story of the immediate triggers of conflicts. Diamonds were important in the Liberia struggle and they did matter for Charles Taylor, but what we look for is what, in the very beginning, he told his men. That is more interesting and more important.