In autumn 2017, 181 people from 12 dioceses from across Ireland took part in our special pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate 10 years of the Pope John Paul II Award. From Sunday, 29 October to Friday, 3 November 2017 the group took part in daily Mass, activities, talks, liturgical celebrations and tours while experiencing the wonderful city and culture of Rome.
To earn the Pope John Paul II Award, participants take part in Parish Involvement and Social Awareness activities in their parishes and communities. In keeping with these Award principles, during the pilgrimage, 10 pilgrims were given the opportunity to volunteer with the Comunità di Sant’Egidio night soup kitchen service.
One group went to the Tuscolana Station area, the other went to the Vatican City. This is their experience.
Community of Sant’Egidio – Comunità di Sant’Egidio Night Soup Kitchen Service
Vatican City, Tuesday, 31 Oct 2017 – 20:30 pm. JP2 Volunteers Niamh, Lucy, Cormac and Liam accompanied by Award coordinator Tony Brennan meet Dr Carlo Santoro – Comunità di Sant’Egidio.
Volunteer Lucy Nally – Dioceses of Elphin, Ireland
I have always wanted to volunteer with the poor and the homeless, but I’ve never had the chance. So, when Tony mentioned it in the email, I was all for it! I really did look forward to it, in the days leading up to the pilgrimage.
Tuesday the 31st of October soon came and to be totally honest with you, I was very nervous and a little scared, as to what this night volunteering would involve and what I would encounter. Our day started at 6:30 am, and when you’re not a morning person, this can be tough! But, the upside to this early start was the fact that we were going on a tour of the Vatican Museum which included the magnificent Sistine Chapel. This took my mind off the evenings later events. Just as I was about to set off for the soup kitchen, one lady said to me “Don’t be scared, just remember Lucy, you’re bringing the light of Christ into these peoples’ lives”. I realised then how privileged I was to be given this opportunity.
We arrived at the venue, just outside St. Peters’ Square, only to see the group of people gathering, waiting for the volunteers with the food. I was shocked at the amount of people there. There were easily 50 people. I really felt such sadness for these people, some just having their whole life in a bag on their back. We were soon greeted by Carlo Santoro, the leader of this programme. He welcomed us and thanked us for taking time out to volunteer. He told us a little about the service that they offer. He introduced us to José. Through Carlo’s help, José told us that he had visited Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and many more holy places. Carlo told us that José is one of the most knowledgeable men that he has ever met. We handed out plastic cups of tea, while others handed out bowels of soup and sandwiches. Everybody I saw there were so grateful for what they were receiving.
While handing out cups of tea, I couldn’t help but notice two ladies in particular. They were smiling and laughing together. You see, the joke they were sharing was irrelevant. It was the fact that these Ladies who live on the margins of society, their whole life in one shopping bag, were able to share a smile and a laugh. It made me realise that even when you have nothing at all, you can have something. Hope.
While it was great that five of us volunteered that night, I felt such an amount of guilt while I was there, and for the days after that. Even when I got back to the hotel and people were saying “Oh, weren’t you great to do that!” but, that was only an hour and a half of my time. That’s nothing and you know what? It was fine… Why? I’ll tell you why, because I knew I was going back to our Hotel. I knew I had a bed for the night in a safe place and I knew that I was going back to a loving family who cared about me. These poor people had nowhere to go that night. While it wasn’t too cold that night, I thought to myself, “What happens to these poor people, when it is really cold in the middle of winter?”. Carlo gave me a very simple answer, “It’s the same, no change, they remain on the streets”. He followed this on with a point that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since my experience in Rome. He said, “Nobody can say that these people aren’t their problem or that this issue has nothing to do with them, because it does, it has everything got to do with us”. This echoes the words of Saint John Paul himself when he said, “An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded”. This really went straight to my heart as I realised that we are all human beings, were all brothers and sisters and as Carlo said, this is OUR problem and we need to resolve this.
I know that there are people that will say “homelessness is everywhere, not just in Rome Lucy” and yes, I agree. My eyes were just opened to the problem while I was in Rome. To just think of it for one minute, that those people gathered just outside St. Peters Square, beside the heart of the Catholic Church. I think there is something to think about there…… We, the people, are the church. The Vatican has built special facilities including Toilets, showers etc., but that’s not going to resolve the problem, these people still have no home or no bed for the night. As the church, I whole heartedly believe that it is all of our responsibility to work together to resolve this awful problem.
I was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to “Bring the light of Christ” into those poor homeless peoples’ lives for just over an hour on that Tuesday night.
I’ve decided that that hour in Rome certainly won’t be my last hour volunteering with the poor and the homeless. But above all, I thank God for the opportunity that was given to me that night. This experience opened my eyes to the terrible scourge that is Homelessness. I hope that we, as a church, can “Bring the light of Christ” into more peoples’ lives and give people the right to a bed and a safe place to stay because at the end of the day we are all the same, we are all human beings – brothers and sisters in the eyes of the church and no one deserves to live like that and as St. John Paul II once said, “Wherever people are suffering make it your task to serve them”.
Volunteer Niamh Cahill – Dioceses of Kildare & Leighlin, Ireland
In preparation for our pilgrimage to Rome, we had a diocesan get together just so we could meet some of the people we would be traveling with. The opportunity to volunteer with Communità Sant’Egidio soup kitchen was mentioned that night and it stuck with me from that night. The places were limited so knew it would be a case of picking a name from a hat. On our first full day in Rome, our diocesan leader Trish came to me let me know that my name had been picked and I would get the opportunity to volunteer that evening. I was truly delighted and even a little nervous; this was something I’d never done before.
On Tuesday evening, I wrapped up well, probably expecting Irish weather and went to meet Tony, Lucy, Cormac and Liam. It was my first time meeting everyone except Tony but we all got chatting easily and I could feel the anticipation as we waited for our taxi.
We arrived around the area of St Peter’s Square just as it was getting dark. The weather was calm and still but there was lots of action going on around the Square as people were preparing the area for the Rome Marathon the following day. St Peter’s Basilica was lit up beautifully in the near distance.
We wandered for a little while trying to find the right location, all the while chatting about what to expect. Soon Tony received a phone call from Carlo Santoro who was our point of contact on the night and we found him in no time. Carlo was such an interesting man to listen to. He has been involved with the soup kitchen for a long time and really understands the situation the homeless people of Rome are dealing with. He talked to us about the lack of support and shelters for homeless people in Rome and the laws around homeless people being in public places at certain times. For example, many people sleep around St.Peter’s Square but they have to remove themselves by 5am every morning. One thing Carlo said really stuck with me. I may not remember word for word but he basically said, as volunteers for the soup kitchen they do not see themselves as people there to ‘assist’ the homeless. He said every human being is needy in some way or another and we all need help. Rather, he sees his role as being a friend to the people who use their services.
There was some confusion and delay with the arrival of the food but soon everything was ready to go and the volunteers lined up with hot food, a sandwich, a pre-packed pastry and a cup of warm tea. An orderly queue formed of about 30 homeless people. I noticed the smiles and the comradery along the queue; hugs and greeting being exchanged. I also noticed a huge sense of gratitude towards all the volunteers. I was inspired by the kindness and graciousness of the people I met that night.
As volunteers, we slipped between handing out food and meeting some of the people waiting for their food. Carlo introduced us to an 88 year old man, describing him as a good friend. He has spent his years travelling from country to country and even now only spends a few months a year in Rome. An incredible story that I’m sure we only heard a fraction of. We also met a lady, whose ‘home’ is the entrance of one of the gift shops on St. Peter’s Square. She greeted us with a hug and was grateful for the food.
I went back to the hotel that night, feeling I had been part of something special and truly touched by the volunteers and the queues of people who came for some nourishment.
Due to our early start the next day, the hotel supplied us with breakfast in a bag the following morning. We attended 7.30am mass in St.Peter’s Basilicia. I found it surreal to think I had been outside the previous night feeding the homeless. A sense of helplessness filled me that morning so I prayed for the people we met the previous night because I didn’t quite feel right. When we left the Basilicia, I was still holding my breakfast bag tight in the hope I would meet someone I had met the night before even though I knew the homeless people had to remove themselves from the area by 5am. Much to my delight, we came across the same lady who had greeted us with a hug the night before. She sat neatly on the same step she had slept on the night before, her sleeping bag folded up and put away. I approached her, told her I had met her the previous night and handed her my breakfast bag. She bowed her head in gratitude.
I don’t think I will ever forget that night and the interaction I had the next morning. It felt like a privilege to be part of and to meet such amazing people.
I’m so thankful to Carlo and the Communità Sant’Egidio soup kitchen for all that they do; a true example of people trying to good in their part of the world. I wish them all the best in their mission.
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Community of Sant’Egidio – Comunità di Sant’Egidio
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