The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was founded in 1908 by the Anglican Paul Watson. Over the last 100 years it has become a major feature of the church calendar around the world. Helen and I spent a couple of days of this year’s Week of Prayer in Naples as guests of the Sant’Egidio Community.
Sant’Egidio is a lay, Catholic community that was founded in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi. Its aims include peacebuilding, work with the poor, and ecumenical and inter-faith relations. The first, and still the biggest, community is in Rome. The second community is in Naples. I was encouraged to visit the Naples community by Monica Attias, who is the community’s ‘ambassador’ to the Anglican church.
Our flight from Brussels to Naples was particularly beautiful, as the sky was clear and the Alps covered in snow. We were met at the airport by Marco, the wonderfully hospitable community member who was to be our host. Naples is the kind of city where it is handy to have lots of good friends. One of Marco’s friends is in the hotel business, so we were able to stay at a rather lovely hotel in the centre of town. Well, it was lovely inside – the built architecture in that part of Naples is in the brutalist ‘fascist’ style – a standing reminder of a very difficult time in the city’s history.
After lunch with Marco and his wife Milana (pizza naturally), we were met by two burly Italians who drove us to our first engagement. Marcos was a retired bodyguard; Alfonso a driver for the military police. We were in safe hands! The driving in Naples is, of course, legendary, and Alfonso’s ability to drive exactly down the middle of two neighbouring motorway lanes in order to keep his options open was particularly exhilarating.
We were guests of the parish of Saint Morris in Frattaminore, on the edge of the city. The church adjoins a l’Arche community that is home to people with disabilities. I was invited to preach and to give the benediction. After the service everyone was very friendly and keen to have their photo taken with a visiting bishop.
In the evening, we had another memorable ride to the Sant’Egidio community’s church in the centre of the city. Tea and cakes had been prepared for the English guests. How lovely! We were particularly taken by the nativity scene, which featured the holy family in one part of the scene, and a Christmas dinner for poor people in another (Sant’Egidio feeds 500 people each Christmas in one of the bigger Neapolitan churches.) After our service of evening prayer, members of the community entertained us to dinner. Their priest shared some issues familiar to all Christian churches: how to involve more members in the ministry? How to reach young people?
The following morning, we had an audience with the Archbishop of Milan. It was fixed up rather hurriedly, by Marco, one of whose friends is the Archbishop’s secretary. It seemed to me there could be few more challenging episcopal roles than this one. Naples is a vast ecclesiastical heritage site with immense social issues. One of Cardinal Sepe’s first actions had been to invite the young people of Naples to hand over their knives anonymously in church.
Our schedule allowed a visit to the Cathedral, and in particular the opportunity to see the baptistery, which goes back to the second century and is reckoned to be the oldest baptistery in the Western Church. It is, of course, a pool intended for the total immersion of adults, because most baptism candidates in those days were adult. Probably a good number of those candidates suffered greatly for their allegiance to Christ.
A taxi ride across town gave us time to spend the afternoon and evening with Jon and Carole Backhouse at the Anglican church. Having ascended the Central Funicular with them, we enjoyed some remarkable views over Naples to the snow-capped Vesuvius.
My addresses and messages covered some themes that are common to Christians in many parts of Europe: a growing fear of the other which is leading to an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, and the various challenges associated with refugees and migration. It was a great personal pleasure to be with Sant’Egidio for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as they are doing so much in their community life to address these contemporary issues.
Marco, Milana, Cardinal Sepe, Bishop Robert, Helen