Many will remember the moment when Pope John Paul II, during his pastoral visit to St. Louis 15 years ago this month, asked then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, who was scheduled to be executed in the next few weeks.
To the surprise of many, Carnahan, who died in a plane crash the following year, complied with the Holy Father’s wishes. It later proved to be one of the many fruits of the pope’s visit.
It’s with that moment in mind that the Community of Sant’Egidio is establishing an annual lecture series to be held in St. Louis, focused on living the Gospel message and raising an awareness of respect for all life. The lay movement, founded in Rome in 1978, will hold its inaugural Spirit of St. Louis lecture on Sunday, Jan. 26 (the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s arrival in St. Louis), at St. Francis Xavier “College” Church in Midtown St. Louis. The first lecture will have a focus on abolition of the death penalty.
Charlie Gardner, a native St. Louisan who joined the Community of Sant’Egidio five years ago, said that the lecture series fits in with the mission of the community. The lay movement, founded in Rome in 1978, is committed to solidarity with the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. There are 60,000 members in 73 countries. In the United States, there are about 200 committed members in 10 locations. St. Louis currently does not have an established community here, but is looking toward the possibility of forming one here in the future, said Gardner, a 2006 graduate of De Smet Jesuit High School and grandson of well-known St. Louis pro-life activist Loretto Wagner.
“Members of this community believe that the Gospel can never be lived out far away from the poor,” he said. “Through this commitment of being closer to the poor, we take an approach in friendship.” Much like the first members of the community — high school students who worked with the poor in the outskirts of Rome — today’s members are people of all ages and backgrounds who make regular visits to the elderly in nursing homes, provide meals and companionship to the homeless, tutor children in poor neighborhoods and help immigrants learn English.
The community strives to promote a culture affirming of life through living out the Gospel and rejecting all forms of violence. Gardner said that the words of Pope John Paul II during his visit to St. Louis should not be forgotten, and that the community holds a certain responsibility in helping others know the late pontiff’s message to embrace the Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II first met members of the community shortly after his election in 1978 and established a friendship with them.
Gardner said that the pope, who is to be canonized this April, had a gift for travelling to cities, identifying the spirit of that city and calling its people to more fully embrace the spirit. That’s what he did in his visit to St. Louis, and what the Community of Sant’Egidio is working to carry on.
“Our hope is to continue to reflect upon these words (of the pope) and invite different people to reflect on what it means to live this Gospel message in the United States today,” said Gardner. “This is a way we want to be of service to the Church. There’s a crisis in America today — a lack of dignity of the poor. It’s a cultural battleground in many ways. We’re trying to articulate a voice that is positive and embraces the Gospel at all stages of life.”
*Article Published by St. Louis Archdiocesan paper January 8th 2014
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