I am one of that crazy bunch that suffers from a severe bout of scoutitis. I was a scout for a few years as a youngster, but got really hooked on as a grown-up, especially in the last 5 years. As a priest, and scout leader, it was an honour to be asked to address the Lambeth Scouts at our annual parade last Sunday. I chose to share about Italy’s Aquile Randagie. If you haven’t heard their story, well, you should!

It’s not exactly a transcript of what I said – I prefer to speak off the cuff – but the gist is certainly all there. So, here it comes!

When I was asked to give this address, I wasn’t terribly sure where to start. What can I say about the Scout Law and Promise, what can I say about St. George in a way that is relevant today? We have just paraded up Brixton Hill towards Streatham Hill, proudly in our uniform, with flags unfurled. We take for granted that we can because we live in a free country.

So, I thought that there is one story that I could well share, a story that is very dear to scouting in Italy. Here the meaning of the Law and Promise becomes much clearer, much stronger. I need to take you back to the eve of St George, 22 April 1928. Milano, Italy. It is not a happy place. Italy was not the free Italy we know today, but lived under a dictatorship, under a fascist regime. Benito Mussolini has just forced the scouts to join the fascist youth movement, or disband. The Pope – well, most Italian groups were Catholic, as they are today – choose that he rather disband Catholic scout groups himself, than let the leaders and young people be controlled by the regime, or face its brutality. Instead of the flags proudly displayed, the flags were brought in to the Archbishop, preferring to disband their groups than bow down to the dictatorship.

But one group resisted. Secretly, in the crypt of a church right across the square from a building of the regime, on 22 April 1928, one new scout made his Scout promise. The same promise that we renew today.

The Aquile Randagie (= “Wild/stray Eagles”) as this clandestine group of scouts came to be known, continued to meet secretly throughout the dark years of dictatorship, because they believe that the Law and Promise make as better people, make us people who are free to do what is right, people who stand up to be counted when the time comes. They found in Scouting what society could not offer then, a space to grow into better persons, who also want to build a better society. And they found this at a time when being discovered as a scout in Italy could mean getting targeted by fascist thugs, when scouts had to meet and communicate secretly, when wearing the scout uniform was illegal, and dangerous. When the moment came, these scouts also rose to the occasion to help Italy become the free country it is. They chose not to take up arms, but to help many who were persecuted by the Fascist and Nazi regime in north Italy – Jewish families, political prisoners, journalists, British and Allied military personnel – to escape to safety. At great risk they saved over 2000 lives.

I certainly feel proud of my brother and sisters scouts, who have helped make the world a better place. One good turn, some small, some much greater. And it doesn’t start somewhere else. The Aquile Randagie weren’t some superheroes. They were ordinary scouts, in extraordinary circumstances.

They too enjoyed the friendships and adventure, they too knew that anywhere in the world you end up talking to fellow scouts as if you’ve known each other a lifetime. They enjoyed they camps and advetures, the gorgeous countryside and woods. And they too believed when the campfire slowly dies down, we chose to make our groups, our countries, our world a slightly better place than the way we found them.