“We must be a Church to cure the cold inside, that many of us have, and the cold outside, that quite a lot also have,” said Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, in an exclusive interview with Zenit, on inaugurating the 24-hour open Church in Rome, an initiative called “Church always open.”
Last December 9, Father Angel (Asturias, Spain, 1937) celebrated in Rome the opening of the first church in Italy, which is open 24 hours a day — the church of the Most Holy Stigmata of Saint Francis, a project carried out by his Foundation “Messengers of Peace,” together with the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mary.
“It’s an open church, with the doors open, so that at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the morning, someone can come to pray, or, if it’s cold, to shelter,” explained the Spanish priest.
“More than 90% don’t sleep on the street because they want to,” said the parish priest of Saint Anton church in Madrid, which is also open 24 hours a day. “They do so because they have no place to go.” “Those who sleep on our streets or in our churches aren’t delinquents. They are poor, but there are those who want to confuse them with delinquents,” he lamented.
The Pope’s Letter
Father Angel received a letter from Pope Francis, in response to his invitation to inaugurate the initiative. In the text, one can read the Holy Father’s joy over this project in Rome.
“I want God’s House to always have open doors, because it walks among the peoples, in the history of men and women; on the contrary, churches with closed doors should be called museums,” wrote the Pontiff.
Francis wrote the following in the letter sent to the promoter of the “Church always open.” “According to the Gospel, the ecclesial community is a tent able to enlarge its space so that all can enter, an oasis of peace, of the love of God, a place of hospitality, reconciliation, and forgiveness.”
Here is a translation of Zenit’s exclusive interview with Father Angel Garcia.
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–Q: How did the initiative arise? Have you presented the idea to the Pope?
–Father Angel: Yes, we agreed with the Pope during the Holy Year of the Homeless. We came with homeless persons to take part in the Jubilee, to see the Pope, to talk to him a bit about this church, which is the church that he so many times says: Open the doors of the churches, so that sadness doesn’t take over and, especially, as he invites us to have churches with open doors be like a field hospital, to cure the wounds that exist, and we have already existed in Madrid, Spain, for 4 or 5 years. There is another <such church> in Barcelona, which we have opened, and there is another Mexico’s Federal District.
And we were hoping to open one in Rome, because there are many churches in Rome, and see if we could find one, and it was this one of the Missionary Fathers of Mary who, who ceded it to us with them, so to speak, because they continue to be there, as we are collaborating and opening so that breakfasts can be given in the morning, clothes, medical care, care of psychologists, showers, the most limited thing. We aren’t going to give great professional titles, but we will enable them to wash or urinate in a place without having to pay.
–Q: Pope Francis must be very happy with this project . . .
–Father Angel: The Pope has given us a lovely letter, which is published, saying that he loves open churches so that they don’t seem like museums. And he also said to us that when he can, he will go to be in our church. This Pope goes to orphanages, prisons, everywhere, which means that any day he might appear in this church as well. This Pope is a blessing of God, as are these churches and all the others. This church isn’t going to compete with any other; it’s one more church, but different.
Yesterday, when I went out at 2 o’clock in the morning, there were cafeterias and a lot of establishments open also; so, it’s no novelty that there is an open church as there are thousands of places open.
–Q: Whom do you invite to your church, open for 24 hours in Rome?
–Father Angel: Generally, those that come are the ones that have no place to sleep, to be, and then many of those that arrive in Rome, and arrive at untimely hours, if they want to pray for a while, have a place to pray a bit, even I did that day before yesterday. If it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and you have no place to sleep, well you could sit on a bench and wait for 8 o’clock in the morning.
We don’t want it to be a train station, but, well, airports and train stations aren’t bad either, no? It’s a church. A church always has something special, whatever those might say who believe or don’t believe. Churches have something, as the synagogues do or as the Congress of Deputies does or the Senate. They are institutions with a halo of something different, which also fills you.
We have already invited some of the “homeless” that sleep in the Vatican to sleep in the church where we are. However, Rome is one of the cities where there are more persons sleeping on the street.
–Q: Why do you think some persons prefer to sleep on the street?
–Father Angel: Well, first because sometimes the hostels or the institutions that are established aren’t the most adequate for immigrants or for a homeless person. They are not ready to follow the regulation to wash their hands before and after eating. And, sometimes, they prefer to sleep on the street rather than to be tied to a discipline, that on one hand. On the other hand, however, more than 90% don’t sleep on the street because they want to; they do so because they have no place to go, ugh? Those that sleep on our street or in our churches aren’t delinquents. They are poor, but some people want to confuse them with delinquents.
–Q: Are the Missionaries of Mary in charge of the project?
–Father Angel: Yes, the Missionaries of Mary are there, collaborating also with the Brothers of Saint John of God. There are many Religious in Rome! I think we are going to have many women and men volunteers to be able to collaborate and continue, because to keep a church open, besides the fact it is a nice idea, it must be maintained, there must be turns, volunteers; in sum, those things that sometimes aren’t simple. However, we are very excited, we really want to do it.
–Q: Are their members or volunteers of your Foundation, Messengers of Peace, working in this church?
–Father Angel: Yes, six of our people have gone there, of the Missionaries of Peace, who are in Rome, and we are also creating a team of volunteers there, with men and women religious who lend themselves to this collaborative work.
–Q: Tamara Falco took part in the inauguration of this beautiful project. What relationship does she have with you?
–Father Angel: I have known her for many years — since she was a girl. I married some members of her family, and I was a friend of her Father and her Mother, of Isabel, so that it wasn’t a priority or something for the first time. She is a supportive, good girl who wants to do good to others. She took part in the inauguration because she won the Master Chef prize; she gave it to us and with it, we began to function.