ROME, MAY 11, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Among the institutions that have responded to John Paul II’s call to assist abused children is the Catholic association Heart’s Home, which opened in 1990.
This private association of faithful offers young people the possibility to live for 14 months or more in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the world, in order to offer consolation to abandoned children.
On Sunday, the Pope called for an end to the abuse of child labor, saying it impedes millions of children worldwide from receiving a primary education. The Holy Father’s words came on the eve of the Children’s World Congress Against Child Labor, being held this week in Florence, Italy.
To have a better understanding of Heart’s Home, ZENIT interviewed its founder, Father Thierry de Roucy.
Q: Why did you found Heart’s Home?
Father de Roucy: In January 1990, when I was superior general of my congregation, the Servants of Jesus and Mary, while praying the rosary with my brothers, I suddenly received the call to found a work of compassion and consolation, a work that is rather more contemplative in its way of looking at reality and aid, a work that is different from many of the NGOs that exist today.
From this perspective, I perceived several elements. This work would not be a “classic” religious congregation, but instead an association that would send young people for one or two years to places where children are in need of spiritual, emotional and psychological support, in a word, of “maternal” support.
I also felt that the mission of this work would be truly based on the life of prayer and adoration of the young people participating, and that their stay in Heart’s Home would be like a one- or two-year retreat for them.
In brief, I realized that our volunteers would take Mary’s place at the foot of all those who are crucified today, and look at, love and encourage them in their trials, and give meaning to their lives. A mission that might not seem very effective in the eyes of the world but that, in a word, would be Mary’s mission by the side of Jesus.
Q: How do young people react after spending some time in Heart’s Home?
Father de Roucy: After two or three weeks, many write me to tell me: “Father Thierry, I think I made a mistake. I thought I would give more than I could receive from our neighbors, but it is just the opposite. Our friends give us much more. This experience is enriching me as I never could have imagined.”
One of the important principles of Heart’s Home is St. Vincent de Paul’s phrase: “the poor are our teachers.” In contemporary civilization, the poor remind us that what is essential in human life are relations, that faith is not belief in an abstract principle, but that it is daily life with God, which is manifested in trust in him at every moment, and which invites us to walk on water without fear.
In these neighborhoods, in which there is so much suffering, one perceives almost in a sensible way that grace is a constant gift to support these persons. During these 15 years I have experienced in an amazing way the presence of divine grace.
It is impossible to live what our friends live in the “favelas” or in the slums if Someone doesn’t strengthen them hour after hour, day after day, and doesn’t enable them to overcome all the trials that afflict them, such as the successive deaths of their children in the case of mothers, the omnipresent violence, the insecurity, the fear of tomorrow.
If God wasn’t there to give so many people wounded by life the grace of a smile, the strength of hope, I don’t know how they could endure it.
In fact, on more than one occasion, I have had the happy opportunity to meet with persons who have been in prison for a long time because of their faith and they have told me: “The years I spent in prison are undoubtedly the best of my life.” Without God, how is it possible to explain these testimonies?
Q: What is a Heart’s Home?
Father de Roucy: A Heart’s Home is a small house in which lives a community of “friends of the children.” In each one of them, there is a small chapel with the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Even in places where there is no custom of entrusting the Real Presence to Catholic young people, the bishops have always given us their permission.
There are one or two rooms for the girls, on one side, and one or two rooms for the boys, on the other. Each Heart’s Home has, in addition, a room in which we simply receive the persons who come to see us.
The morning is dedicated especially to community life in the house — shopping, preparation of meals, washing of clothes — prayer and study. In the afternoon, the youths go out to meet people of the neighborhood; others stay to receive those who come to Heart’s House.
Q: Do they have special times of prayer?
Father de Roucy: Yes. In the morning, the “friends of the children” pray lauds, and at the end of the afternoon, vespers, and at night, compline, during which they mutually ask one another for forgiveness for the faults committed during the day.
They take part in the Mass of their parish church. They take turns every morning, spending one hour of prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament. Often, people of the neighborhood come to pray with them.
In the early afternoon they pray the rosary. It is the prayer in which most people of the neighborhood participate. Sometimes, the “friends of the children” take advantage of it to impart a little catechesis to our neighbors on the mysteries of the rosary.
Q: How does Heart’s Home help these people concretely?
Father de Roucy: I would say that the majority of services they offer are of a “maternal” character.
In the neighborhoods where we meet them, the fathers of the family are generally absent. The mothers have very much work and a mission that surpasses them. They concern themselves especially with the youngest child or youngest children, and the rest are left on their own.
In this way, frequently, there is no one to enroll them in school. There is no one who is concerned about their clothes or their state of health. There is no one who listens to them.
If they are very hungry, then they come to us, or if they are sick, or if they have a torn shirt. In Lebanon, the children often come to do their school homework, as they don’t have a table to work on at home or anyone to help them.
Often, these children simply come to tell us about their lives. We sit with the little ones so that they can tell us what they did that day, as all children in the world love to do. There are many tragic events in our neighborhoods that make us go out to help them — children who die when they are very little, in a brutal way. We go to console their family and friends. Mothers who give birth on their own. Elderly people who are in agony. Fights.
One day, during a fight between a father and a mother, they threw the television and a child was crushed by it. His older brother called us and we went to free him. There are a thousand services. Moreover, we try to put our friends in contact with other NGOs so that they can benefit from the assistance they offer.
Q: Aren’t you afraid to send young people to dangerous neighborhoods?
Father de Roucy: Yes, of course, at times I am very afraid, because in addition we feel very close to each one of the “friends of the children” that we send on mission.
But I have realized a thousand times that these young people, when they are faced with a particular situation, really have a grace to stay and complete their mission. They are mysteriously protected. Their parents at times regard them as grown-up children — which is normal — but we really consider them adults, as we seem them face the situations with a wisdom and generosity that astound us.
Moreover, there is something incredible: The population protects these young people. They really love the “friends of the children.”
On several occasions, their neighbors have said to me: “Don’t worry about your young people. We take care of them!” The world functions the opposite way.
In Haiti, for example, when the first acts of violence took place, the people of Cape Haitian followed very carefully what happened to Heart’s Home. When we decided to go, our friends felt calmer. They were too afraid that something would happen to the young people.
Q: When you arrive in a new neighborhood, how do you introduce yourselves to the population?
Father de Roucy: To tell the truth, we don’t introduced ourselves much.
In the countries of Latin America, where people live especially on the street, the people discover very rapidly the reason for our presence.
In the majority of cases, at the birth of a Heart’s Home there is a bishop, a missionary, or a diplomat who calls us, and then we must choose, as we receive at least one request a year.
If we think we can respond to the request to found a house in a neighborhood, I myself or a member of the association go to spend some time in that place.
The person who has invited us puts us in contact with some parishes in which we could establish ourselves, and we try to find the most appropriate house in the neighborhood.
Afterward, a small team of young people arrives with a more experienced person of the association. The parish priest, who in general has already alerted the parishioners about our arrival, is not slow in introducing us.
I remember, for example, what happened in Lebanon. Our parish priest organized a procession from the church to our house, with a large icon of the Virgin. Behind were the young people of Heart’s Home, and then all the population that accompanied us to our house.
All the people of the neighborhood were able to see that we formed part of the Catholic Church, and the parish priest explained why we were there.
Q: How many young people live in Heart’s Home at present?
Father de Roucy: Between 160 and 170. Since the foundation of the association, some 1,000 young people have committed themselves to this service for more than a year. Half, more or less, come from France, the rest from more than 20 various countries of Europe, but also of Latin America and Asia.
[Wednesday: Those who want to stay on]