It was a pretty spontaneous decision: let us visit Rome over the bank holiday weekend and see what the Community there do. By ‘Community’, it means the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, the mother Community of many around the world.
In the beginning, I wasn’t totally sure of what to expect, how to behave, and what to get out of this trip. In the end, the trip inspired me, gave me plenty of food for thought and, essentially, totally ‘knocked me over’, as they say.
The reception on arrival was amazingly fraternal, warm and enthusiastic and Francesco and many other local hosts made us feel welcome and at ease without fail.
We visited several facilities and centres during our weekend trip, showcasing to us the many facets of the Community’s work in Rome. These include “San Gallicano”, a centre for the homeless converted from an old hospital; “Via Dandolo Mensa”, a ‘soup kitchen’; Palazzo Migliori, which is a home for the homeless in a former ‘palazzo’ right by the huge columns on St Peter’s Square; “Fonteiana”, a home for the elderly, and the Church of “Buon Pastore”, a shelter for our friends on the streets in an abandoned church which is still being done up. These were located in different parts of Rome and are run with the help of volunteers, some having served for decades, everyone one of them with a big smile under their masks and a warm heart.
A question often asked after events and visits is: ‘what are your takeaways?’ In my case, I can only say the trip was mind-blowing and eye-opening. Let me explain:
1. Dedication and focus
As I said, most facilities are run by volunteers. They keep the places running, everyone of them going about their work wholeheartedly and focused. I saw a retired cardiologist sitting at the entrance of the San Gallicano homeless centre helping to register visitors, going about it attentively, listening carefully and quietly. I saw another doctor, a young mother, helping in the kitchen of Palazzo Migliori, serving lunch to our homeless friends, with her newborn baby in a pram outside the kitchen door! I also saw other volunteers sitting with friends from the streets over lunch/dinner, spending time with them and responding to their needs. We often hear that long years of volunteering can zap your energy and empathy towards those you serve. Isn’t that what they call ‘compassion fatigue’? Not a sign of that in Rome, from what we saw. Instead, we experienced patience and care.
One thing that amazed me most was the patience everybody showed on our visits. The friends using the facilities would sit patiently waiting for their turns to get served. The volunteers would patiently go about cooking more pasta when we have run out but there were requests for more. At the home for the elderly, the first thing we saw was a volunteer sitting patiently playing card games with one of the oldest residents who could barely communicate verbally. I can’t help but conclude that it was this patience, this willingness to listen and share that brought such joy to all the places we visited.
3. Imagination and ingenuity
What do you do to find more places for those in need? People often scratch their heads in frustration. In Rome, the application of imagination and ingenuity solved the problems. Disused hospitals, abandoned churches, old apartment blocks… these were all put to good use. One of the last facilities we visited was the abandoned church Buon Pastore in the process of being done up for the homeless and that really inspired me. It was the usual story, I presume, in many parts of Italy. A disused convent, the main part having been taken over by some corporate project and the church becoming redundant. The old paint was still on the wall. The plaster was peeling off in places. There were only two toilets… And yet, the space was used to the full, divided up into functional cubicles for our homeless friends to spend the night in warmth. The homeless friends helped to introduce us to the services they received. It was tidying up day when we visited and we saw how orderly the changing of bed sheets was done! Oh, I forgot to mention: the walls of the cubicles were made from plywood boards, with triangles cut out of the same material as support on the floor to hold up the boards, all very neat and modern looking and designed by one of the volunteer team, we were told.
Everybody plays a part in all the places we visited
and the users of the services are no exception. That brings to mind Robert, a slightly greying gentleman about my age, who uses the facilities at the San Gallicano centre for the homeless. He just came in when we were already there. He has been settled with the help of the Community and yet comes back every so often. From what I can see, it was not so much for him to use the facilities but be part of it. He was full of joy and told us he just had a haircut to get ready for a wedding he’s been invited to attend. He was totally enthusiastic explaining to us how the centre was run and explaining to us the ethos and spirit of the place, and, most importantly, how he himself benefited. I instantly took to him and felt like a brother to him, perhaps due to our similar age; I said so to him and gave him a little hug when we said good-bye.
I don’t speak Italian, I have to own up, and that is why we have this little funny story. At the home for the homeless, Palazzo Migliori, we were introduced to a Polish lady relaxing in the sun on a terrace. I genuinely thought she was a volunteer. However, when lunch was served, everything became clear. She was a homeless friend using the service and yet, she helped prepare the tables, brought the pitchers of water and drinks and then helped clear up. This is just one of the examples of how everyone, including our friends using the services, took the responsibility to look after the place and ensure that everything is well-run. Everywhere was spotless and tidy. We looked into one of the rooms used by a gentleman who has been on the streets for many years. The bed was properly made. The bedside table had a neat pile of books on it, much better kept than my own at home!
5. Joy and devotion
Everywhere we visited, there were smiles, genuine smiles from the heart, not the corporate sort of handshake and welcome. We could often hear laughter, and jokes were cracked. Yet there was the serious and spiritual side as well. Before the lunch at the home, prayer was said to give thanks and ask for blessing. Announcements were made. Everyone joined in attentively. Were there grumbles and complaints? No. If there was an issue, it was discussed calmly and solutions found. All I can say is that this was a picture of a home, a community, a community sharing the same spirit.
So, what was this trip about for me? I can hnestly say it was not just about the utterly delicious gelato or the excitement of visiting an ex-palazzo right by the Bernini columns on St Peter’s Square that was turned into a home for the homeless. It was a discovery of how to be able to work together, in one spirit through prayer and sharing, to make use of limited resources in a creative manner to achieve the best for the marginalised, isolated and ignored and bring about a more harmonious world for everyone.
The trip was genuinely an eye-opener, in many senses of the word. The trip has shown me that where there is a will there is a way to achieve great things with the help of God. It also proved to me that genuine love and care can be transformative and can be the beginning of a journey to a better life for those in need.