Mother Teresa's Rome

Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Teresa of Calcutta at a Mass in Rome Sept. 4, an event likely to draw many pilgrims to witness the final step in the sainthood process for the widely revered foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, who died in 1997.

Mother Teresa’s ministry to the dying in India’s slums brought her to the attention of popes and U.S. presidents. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and addressed Harvard’s graduating class of 1982, imploring the graduates to “go into the world with Jesus, to work for Jesus and to serve him in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

Those traveling to Rome might consider honoring Mother Teresa by making their pilgrimage more focused on service to the poor and marginalized. Our Sunday Visitor has prepared a guide to the various ministries in Rome where the corporal works of mercy are lived out daily. This work often goes unnoticed not far from locations where tourists flock.

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.


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1. Vatican showers

If your home is the street, taking a shower can be a big challenge. Given this, Rome’s homeless have received with gratitude the “gift” of Pope Francis: the renovation of the toilets under the right arm of the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica to include three showers, always open except Wednesdays (the day of the pope’s general audiences) and during special celebrations. The service was inaugurated Feb. 6, 2015. The “homeless pilgrims” also receive a complete change of underwear and towel, as well as soap, deodorant, toothpaste, razor and shaving cream, offered by different companies and benefactors. And on Mondays, volunteer barbers and graduating students of a school for hairdressers in Rome offer haircuts.

2. The ‘Gift of Mary’ house of the Missionaries of Charity

Missionaries of Charity - Rome
Pope Francis visits Missionaries of Charity at Gift of Mary house in 2013. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano

The Church has always taught that Jesus is hidden in the poor. Given this, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: “How could Jesus be kept outside, sad and cold, from the pope’s home?” The reference was to the poor who wandered near the Vatican. The Missionaries of Charity, dressed in their white saris bordered in blue, carry them their daily bread and soup.Then, when Pope St. John Paul II decided that the Vatican should build a shelter for the poor, he decided to entrust it to Mother Teresa’s sisters. It’s called “Gift of Mary” because it was inaugurated May 21, 1988, during a special “Marian Year.” Since then, the house distributes food every day to hundreds of poor and provides housing and medical care for women and a warm meal for about 60 men. The entrance is a few dozen meters from the colonnade of St. Peter’s. The foundation’s 20th and 25th anniversaries were honored with the visits by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, who were both greeted with a necklace of flowers, according to Indian tradition.

3. Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital

Pope Francis blessing child
Pope Francis visits Bambino Gesù in 2013. CNS photo by Alessandro Bianchi

The view of Rome from the Janiculum Hill is breathtaking. But sick children and their parents are not interested in the view, but rather Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital’s welcome and excellence in care. Since 1924, the children’s hospital has belonged to the Holy See. Many popes have since come to visit the young patients. Bambino Gesù, in fact, is the largest hospital and research center in Europe, the only one able to respond to all the transplant needs of children: heart, bone marrow, cornea, liver and kidneys.

The hospital, aided by a network of associations, foundations and hospitality organizations, also offers free accommodation in Rome for families who come from afar to treat children (serving 4,500 families and offering 100,000 nights annually). It’s also worth mentioning its collaboration with the children’s hospital of Bangui in the Central African Republic, the country where Pope Francis opened the first Holy Door of the Jubilee of Mercy last November.

4. Vatican dormitories

In this era of Expedia and Hotels.com, travel agencies are working less and less. Yet, the number of Italy’s poor continues to grow. This reality made it possible about a year ago for the Raptim travel agency, on Via dei Penitenzieri 17, a few steps from St. Peter’s Square, to be transformed into a dormitory with 34 beds for the homeless, who are used to sleeping in cardboard and blankets nearby.

The premises belong to the Society of Jesus. Like the “Gift of Mary” house, Missionaries of Charity staff the shelter. The Office of Papal Charities incurs its costs. The doors open at 6 p.m., and the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. There are strict rules for personal cleanliness, keeping beds and lockers in order and closing up of the house for cleaning after breakfast. Guests can stay up to 30 days. The dormitory is called “Gift of Mercy,” and Pope Francis made a surprise visit there last October, just 10 days after it opened.

5. Trattoria degli Amici

 Trattoria degli Amici in Trastevere
Trattoria degli Amici in Trastevere. Community of Sant’Egidio

An evening in Trastevere, a popular historic neighborhood of central Rome, offers everything: romantic strolls, fashionable pubs and even a restaurant called Cencio La Parolaccia, where the waiters are allowed to mistreat customers. Instead of being insulted, a much more pleasant way to spend the night lies across the street: Roman cuisine, fine wine and more. All is cooked and served by 16 disabled people from a cooperative organized and sponsored by Rome’s Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic volunteer organization.

In the Trattoria degli Amici (“Trattoria of the Friends”), many disabled people have learned how to work, greatly affirming their dignity. It also shows customers that people with disabilities know how to work with professionalism and productivity. Works of art by disabled artists adorn the walls. Customers can eat outdoors and indoors, for lunch and dinner. All profits go to finance the international solidarity projects of the community.

6. Lunch for the poor at Basilica di Sant’Eustachio

People eating lunch.
People gather for lunch at Basilica di Sant’Eustachio, a parish ministry to the neighborhood. Father Pietro Sigurani

For Romans and tourists, Sant’Eustachio means the best coffee in Rome. For the poor, rather, it means “warm and tasty lunch.” Piazza Sant’Eustachio, behind the Pantheon, takes its name not from the famous bar but from the church. Every day the parish priest, Father Pietro Sigurani, prepares a table for at least 100 people: “Anyone can come if they are hungry,” said Father Sigurani. “Even Muslims in Ramadan, we give them a bagged lunch to be consumed in the evening.”

When food is short, Father Sigurani, with his charisma and smile, visits restaurants near the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Senate building, visited by politicians and tourists, and convinces them to offer meals for free or at a discounted price. Often there is also coffee and dessert because, as Father Sigurani said, “pasta is for the stomach, but cake or granita is for the heart. And to warm someone’s heart too is a work of charity.”

7. Hostel and cafeteria at Caritas Termini

Pope Francis with homeless.
Pope Francis visits the Caritas center for the homeless (left) near the Termini station in Rome Dec. 18. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano/ handout

Buy chocolate bars, to be enjoyed while on the train, distributed by young volunteers. Or leave an offering when purchasing a ticket at the ticket machine. All travelers of the Italian railways have been able to contribute in recent months to the restructuring of the Caritas Hostel of Termini station.

Not only are the homeless housed, showered and able to change clothes there, but more than 500 dinners are distributed daily. Since Dec. 18 of last year, the cafeteria entrance has become the Door of Mercy, crossed first by Pope Francis. Essential for providing good service is also the presence of so many volunteers. “Now, I no longer think who is forcing me to this, when the alarm clock rings,” said a young man who once a week prepares breakfast for guests; “I like to spend a few euro each time to bake cookies and through this, make a poor person possibly feel a caress.”

8. Hospice Foundation Rome

Hospice Foundation Rome
Hospice Foundation Rome provides care to the sick and dying. Courtesy photo

For more than a century, thousands of impoverished Romans have been fed with “the soup of the pope”: that is, free meals referred to as such because they are distributed by the Circolo San Pietro, whose members, among their many activities, offer services to welcome pilgrims and personalities participating in the pope’s audiences and celebrations. But the charity of this historic association, established in 1869 at the time of Pope Pius IX, does not end there. Twenty years ago in Italy, palliative care centers were very few. Responding to this shortage, the Circolo established the Hospice Foundation Rome, in the elegant district of Monteverde located south of the Vatican, dedicated today to receiving cancer patients in their terminal stages, as well as patients with Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Along with the medical staff, members of the Circolo work as volunteers. Pope Benedict XVI visited this hospice on Dec. 13, 2009, and stressed the need to offer “practical gestures of love, nearness and Christian solidarity” to the suffering.

9. ELIS Center

At the time of Pope St. John XXIII, many people lived in shacks in Casal Bruciato, in the extreme outskirts of Rome. Therefore, the pope decided to build a large school there, entrusted to Opus Dei, to alleviate the neighborhood’s youth of their hardships and to prevent delinquency. Since then, this center has taught some 45,000 young men and women vocations, such as how to be mechanics, electricians, watchmakers and workers in restaurants and hotels.

“Zero unemployment” is the guarantee of Centro ELIS (which is the Italian acronym for “Education, Work, Culture, Sport”): All their students find a job. According to statistics, the percentage of the nation’s unemployed young people is 36 percent. “Often, children arrive full of problems, but their professors are not afraid to complicate their own lives, they do not ignore these situations,” said the headmaster, Pierluigi Bartolomei. “Thus, the school becomes their home.”

10. Casa di Cristian — Ragazze madri (‘Mothers in difficulty’) — Caritas Rome

A family
Casa di Cristian shelters women and children in crisis situations. Caritas Rome

In Italy, cases of domestic violence against women have become a phenomenon of alarming proportions in recent years, often appearing in the news. Since 2001, Caritas of Rome is dedicated to offering hospitality to mothers with children, Italian and foreign, in conditions of extreme need because they have either been evicted from their homes or forced to flee from violent partners.

The Casa di Cristian, on the outskirts of Rome along the ancient Appian Way, has become the home of women (some even found in the street at night by the Caritas volunteers) with small children and no place to go. Children find themselves in a serene environment and with educational support. The mothers are given help with reestablishing contact with family and friends. Many tasks in the management of the house are entrusted to volunteers: “The thing that strikes me is that every time the children greet you with a smile,” said one volunteer, “and to see a mom who ‘makes it,’ who leaves the Casa di Cristian because she has found a new path is a real joy.”