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Word of God among the cardboard: Easter journey of the poor at St. Peter’s

A community of Claretian Sisters in Rome organize a penitential service to help homeless people living near the Vatican to prepare for Easter, combining spirituality with tangible charity to meet their needs.

By Benedetta Capelli

Among the makeshift beds, the patched cardboard, and the dirt that can be seen at night in and around St. Peter’s Square, the power of the Resurrection of Jesus has arrived, His message of peace and hope that excludes no one but rather strengthens and revitalizes the most sorrowful hearts.

The Claretian Sisters carry out this mission under the Colonnade, animated by the charism of their founder, Antonio Maria Claret. On Tuesday night, March 26, they held a penitential service with the poor in preparation for Easter.

A journey that leads to communal prayer

Sister Elaine Lombardi, of the Missionaries of Saint Anthony Maria Claret, told Vatican News that several years ago, in the Roman parish dedicated to Saint Faustina Kowalska of Divine Mercy, some young people had begun an important journey starting from Lectio Divina and then culminating in a strong desire to help others, especially the most impoverished.

They began their experience by offering tea and a few biscuits. “It wasn’t so much what we were giving,” the Brazilian-born nun explained, “but it was our presence that made the difference.”

The pandemic halted all activities, yet online the group of young people participating in Lectio Divina grew to 100 attendees.

At the same time, the need to offer more than just tea to the poor increased, so they came up with the idea to offer a weekly meal.

Tuesday was chosen as the day, and food was brought for about 200 people. They also encouraged prayer, since the volunteers and sisters felt a growing need to bring the Word of Life to the most fragile.

“We started with the Christmas novena under the Colonnade,” Sister Elaine said. “At the end, many poor people living there asked us to continue, and the project of Lectio Divina with the homeless once a month was born. We share the Word of God, which actually becomes sharing of one’s life. The beautiful thing is that many tourists also stop and pray with us.”

A penitential service under the Colonnade of St. Peter's Square

A penitential service under the Colonnade of St. Peter’s Square

Using simple words

As the Church approaches Easter, Sister Elaine explained, the group has chosen to prepare more intense and intimate moments, culminating in Tuesday evening’s penitential prayer.

“We always start with the Word of God followed by a moment of prayer,” she said. “Usually, we take care not to use too many words, our choice is to go the path of simplicity because many homeless people who participate are foreigners; some do not know Italian well.”

The penitential service is a request for forgiveness for one’s sins. “The response of the poor,” she added, “is always very positive, many come to us to say that these moments do them good; they make them feel human. These are moments in which they can share life with those they do not know, they can feel important, feel free to speak. It’s a beautiful response.”

‘I can’t read the Bible…’

“There are some very beautiful stories that we have collected,” Sister Eliane related. “One of them, Francesco, who has a unique life story and lives on the streets, started participating in Lectio Divina. He was depressed because of the difficulties he faced every day. Once, at the end of the prayer, he approached me to ask for a Bible, and I gave him the one I had in my hand and that we had used for the Lectio; it was arranged on the small altar we make with one of the suitcases of the poor and the vestments we bring. He took it, but then the following week he came to talk to me to tell me that he didn’t know how to read.”

Francesco had found someone who pays attention to him, listens to him, and with whom he could enter into a Christian relationship, so he didn’t hesitate to tell the sister that the moments of prayer experienced and the Word of God nourished his desire to know the Gospel and therefore to learn to read.

“We immediately got busy and looked for a place where he could cultivate this desire. I think this is very, very beautiful and it touched me deeply,” Sr. Elaine recalled.

The Claretian missionary then told of listening to many other stories of life suffering that some bravely tell, explaining why they are on the streets but also how the Word of God helps them in their daily lives.

Another important moment for Sister Elaine was the meeting with the Pope on July 24, 2023, in which Francesco reiterated that “the Church and the world today urgently need the faithful and courageous testimony of consecrated lives.”

Words, the nun explained, that motivated everyone to continue on this journey of encounter around the Word of God.

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