Strangers to Rome; Marriage as a Mission

Medical Clinic Reaches Out to the Undocumented

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, NOV. 24, 2005 ( Rome is trying to take more steps to deal with the ever-growing number of undocumented immigrants in its midst.

Often shunned, many of the new arrivals to the Eternal City find themselves in the worst of circumstances.

A few days ago I met one such newcomer. Eugene, who wouldn’t tell me his last name, has been coming to Rome periodically for the last few years to take jobs that no one else wants.

«I’ve been lucky,» he said. «I’ve cared for dying people and driven for people, for a couple of bucks an hour. Some of my friends have had to go so far as prostitution or working for criminal groups and some have disappeared through trafficking. … But even if it’s doing the dirty work and being paid so little, it usually pays more than what you’ll get at home.»

Home is in southern Romania. That is where Eugene’s wife and 6-year-old son wait for him to return with money.

«It’s a difficult life in Italy, it’s hard having no rights,» he said. «But though I want to go back to my land […] I’m here to help my son gain a decent education.»

Men like Eugene feel pressure to migrate because of the swelling gap between rich and poor in the ex-Communist country, explained a fellow Romanian, Cristina Loghin.

The new director of Caritas Europe, Loghin said that she will be especially turning her attention to service programs for immigrants.

«We have a good team at Caritas,» Cristina told me. «We provide policy papers to commissions of each state to raise awareness and promote the rights of these people as well as facilitating processes for their integration.»

Integration is the hardest part when, like in Rome, there is an enormous stigma attached to such groups. Romanians, for example, are often identified with Gypsies, who share some of their national heritage.

Here for the Caritas’ international executive committee meeting last week, Loghin told me how the Vatican agency and its co-workers try to overcome this prejudice through building support networks.

«The bishops’ conference of Romania helped by sending many Romanian priests into European countries to encourage community construction,» she explained.

The Church in Rome is also doing its part through a variety of new initiatives for the undocumented. One of the most recent of these is a new Aver Drom medical center, on the city’s outskirts.

Previously, if an undocumented immigrant had an illness or was about to give birth, they risked punishment if they approached medical personnel for help.

Now, these sufferers are welcomed and their problems are addressed free of charge by a general practitioner.

Project director Carlo Stasolla said: «The spirit is to welcome these brothers and sisters in Christ, to treat them like human beings rather than aliens and address their physical needs.»

Doctors at the Aver Drom work on a volunteer basis. Specialists also volunteer to be called upon if the center is unable to offer complete care in particular cases.

The medical center is open only every Wednesday afternoon, from 3 to 7. It relies on donations of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

Located near a train stop about 30 minutes from the center of Rome, the clinic is a branch of the Father Arrupe Center.

«If a person comes here they get the whole deal,» said Stasolla, who works in the center with his Romanian wife. «We like to include things like sports and scouts for the kids; ceramic courses; Italian school for adults; pediatric medical center for kids; awareness programs in high schools; secondhand markets; gardening, cinema and catechesis.» A reminder that souls need care as much as bodies.

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What the Pope Is Praying for

Benedict XVI’s prayer intention for the month of November has been «That married people may imitate the example of conjugal holiness shown by so many couples in the ordinary conditions of life.»

That might sound like a tall order. But it’s nothing new, at least for Rome, noted a visiting archbishop from Australia.

«With all the problems we face and all the ridicule that we’re held up to,» said Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, «we shouldn’t allow ourselves then to feel that somehow or other we’ve lost our ability to be able to influence.»

He put the challenge of conjugal and family-life morality in historical perspective for me.

«Sitting here in Rome and contemplating these things,» he said, «it’s really interesting when you think about what daily life was like in Rome when the Christians first came here presented with a state of intense immorality.»

«In the area down near the Colosseum, there were places where the pattern of sexuality was really quite awful and perverted,» the 55-year-old prelate said.

He continued: «The ancient Romans used to comment on the early Christian community, saying how they had one wife, were faithful to their wife and family, and […] that they didn’t ‘expose’ their children.»

About the concept of «exposing» children, Archbishop Wilson said: «Though once interpreted that Christians didn’t practice infanticide of their imperfect children [as the Romans did], there’s been research done that seems to indicate that what it was actually referring to was, when Romans didn’t feel they could look after their children, they would take them to the Forum and leave them there.

«This meant that the children were taken up by people who ran prostitution … forcing them to be held as slaves for the sexual pleasure of both Roman men and women. So, things were really crook [warped], and there were big problems but … the influence of Christianity was able to change that and turn things around.»

But what was it about these Christians that happened to change the perception and even form the conscience of Rome?

Archbishop Wilson refers to the Pope’s prayer when he speaks of the power of example.

«When you look at this massive explosion regarding our sexuality through the Internet, and other new forms still, you’ll find that it doesn’t accompany a major explosion in the happiness of people,» he said.

«In the long term, it’s our Church community who is in the business of bringing happiness and joy and we have to struggle to get there,» the prelate added.

He cautioned, though, that the example of Christians living their marriages well is not enough. We have to build support networks in our own parish communities, as our Christian forefathers did, the archbishop said.

«I think that the way in which we deal with the reality of marriage, and the way that we help people to be formed for marriage and support them then in marriage, will be crucial to the way that the Church is going to revivify itself in this century,» he said.

«I believe the Holy Father’s choice of prayer intention is highly significant because I’ve been convinced for a long time that the development and growth of the Church’s life during this third millennium is dependent upon the sacrament of matrimony.»

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Privileged Flock

Imagine having the Pope as the bishop of your diocese. That’s what the Romans have and it is a privilege that deserves appreciation, says Bishop Javier Echevarría.

During his visit last Sunday to St. John the Baptist Parish in Collatino, the Opus Dei prelate reminded the thousands present of their duty to be even closer to the Holy Father, not only with their heart and their prayers but in their physical proximity to him.

This call came on two occasions on the solemnity of Christ the King, during both the bishop’s homily and after the Mass.

The day also marked the 40th anniversary of the parish’s Elis Catholic Sports and Social Center, which has been visited by two Popes since its inauguration — Paul VI in 1965, and John Paul II in 1984.

Bishop Echevarría, 73, told the crowd: «The fact
that this work of the center and its parish exist in the Diocese of Rome places them in a very particular situation.

«Your Pastor, or Shepherd, is the successor of the Prince of the Apostles in the Roman seat and the Vicar of Christ to the universal Church — his representative on earth. You have a greater responsibility to support him and his intentions even more faithfully, with more commitment … as much as he serves you in a special way also.»

«We have already witnessed how Benedict XVI has so completely identified with his call since the first day of his pontificate,» the Opus Dei prelate said, «and how he presides over, not just the whole world, but his part of the Eternal City with the help from his vicariate and Cardinal Ruini.»

Drawing from Pope Benedict’s inaugural speech, Bishop Echevarría contemplated the holy restlessness of Christ that should always animate the pastor.

He spoke of those who find themselves living the «desert of life» at times and reflected on the fact that even in Rome, deserts exist. «Let us do, then, what the Holy Father asks of us — to collaborate until these deserts diminish, and to care for one another.»

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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