- Sister Cristina, how do you view homeless people and what do they represent?
The homeless are people whom I profoundly care about. I care about each one of them, with their face and their story and their feelings. Each one of them is the Lord who comes to have an encounter with me. I, however, must allow this encounter to take place. The Lord looks at me with his eyes and speaks to me with his words. Each one of these individuals is the love of my life, unexpected, demanding, bothersome and at times, seemingly inhuman. These encounters always make me question myself. I have learned much from these men and women. I love to call them by name, to listen to them, to bring them to my prayer and to reflect upon them.
2. How long have you coordinated the day center for homeless persons that is located in Turin and called: “The Charity of Saint Louise – Charité”? Could you tell us something about this center: how it functions, how many people utilize it, who collaborates with you to make all of this possible, etc.
The Center has a strong roots and an admirable history. God’s blessing is evident because this Service that has gone through and overcome various difficulties and faces the current complex situation with courage and hope.
Almost a century ago, the Daughters of Charity began this service of welcome with simplicity and clarity. Volunteers, parishes and institutions soon became involved. The city’s population grew exponentially due to industrialization. First, many people came here from the surrounding countryside to look for work in Turin. Then came the great migration from southern Italy and soon in this city one could see the faces of people from all corners of the world. Adaptation to different times and changing needs has multiplied the creativity with regard to the assistance that we provide … an assistance that is never separated from human promotion. In 1972, a structured service center was created and designed in light of the service needs. We also have a group of volunteers dedicated exclusively to the homeless.
During the last sixteen years, I have been gifted with being able to serve at this center on a daily basis, and for the past four years I have also been responsible for coordinating the many volunteers and for developing relationships with public and private organizations. All of this is done in order to imagine and plan new activities or new ways to offer our activities to these “friends”, as we like to call them (men and women who are homeless).
We welcome hundreds of people (we listen to them and accompany them; we provide them with breakfast, showers, clothing, hairdressers/barbers, medical services, library…). At the end of the year, thousands of names and surnames of the welcomed Friends appear on the lists.
This work is still alive today thanks to the passion for the poorest that is shared by so many Daughters of Charity and the volunteers of the Association of Volunteers “La Caridad de Santa Luisa” known as “Charité”. Passion, time, commitment are realities that characterize the members of this rather young Association that was created in 2017. The Vincentian characteristics is witnessed in an open fraternity, which every day seeks to go further, improve (the “advantage” of Saint Vincent), build and conquer good, doing good and doing that which is good in the best possible manner. Doing good is understood as welcoming, loving, serving and sharing with each person, recognizing Jesus Christ in them, and looking at them as Jesus would look at them. Our formation is based on the relationship between Jesus, the “Friends” and the Volunteers. The face of Jesus becomes more and more the face of the “Friend” and the face of the Volunteer. We are all poor; we all want to overcome problems and suffering. More and more we are learning that we can only confront and overcome these problems “together”. From the beginning we have involved the “Friends” as protagonists of this project. Some of them, after achieving their goals, return to donate their time, energy and experience to the Service, and become full members of our Association. We seek to put into practice what Pope Francis says: “Jesus trusts in the best of the human spirit and with this parable he encourages us to persevere in love, to restore dignity to the suffering and to build a society worthy of the name” (Fratelli Tutti, #71).
3. Saint Vincent de Paul spoke about “affective and effective charity”; in light of your commitment at “Charité”, , what do those words mean to you?
I am a Daughter of Charity because I believe in the love of God, a love that is fully revealed in humanity (the true and deep humanity of Christ expressed in all). So, humankind must never be separated from action. Humankind must never be separated from the person who welcomes and is welcomed, must never be separated from the problem and from the search for its solution. We are made of dreams and needs, of feeling and of flesh … of “the same flesh” (Isaiah 58). We are fragile and yet have convictions and are able to engage in activity. We are able to open our hearts to God, able to touch one another’s hearts and while this can be a hard and painful journey… yet what a joy when we conclude the journey. Saint Vincent said that he could not love God if his neighbor did not also love him, which today could perhaps be translated for everyone: “No one can experience the true beauty of life with relating to others, without having real faces to love” (Fratelli Tutti, #87).
4. When did you experience the call to his vocation and when did you decide to enter the Company of the Daughters of Charity?
I am a Daughter of Charity thanks to music and thanks to silence … music discovered as service, silence lived as prayer; music accompanied by silence, a silence that allows us to listen to music; service animated by prayer, prayer that becomes service, in the harmony of the soul.
I was born in the silence of the countryside, at Bassa Parmense in Emilia. I grew up with music, studying and then playing as a professional – a beloved and very pleasant profession. With music I entered places that I only knew by name: the psychiatric hospital in my city, the nursing home, a family home for people with difficulties… I, who used to have few words, expressed myself with music. A relationship was born that was complemented with the silence of listening: listening to people wishing to speak, to tell of themselves, as if attracted and conquered by my music.
I discovered the joy that can only be given by being close to other, even in silence. I discovered how, by opening the door of my heart, that listening and those silences became a hug for the other person, even if those words were confusing, delusional… Then suddenly I heard a voice say, “When you listen to me, I feel good.”… And I also felt good.
Or, next to lonely and sick elderly people, sometimes listening to only their faint moans, gently holding them by the hand, and I heard a voice say: “But look, here you are taking care of me as if you were my loving granddaughter… Thank you!”. And I have also thanked. A journey of new discoveries began, continuous surprises, falls and recoveries. Enthusiasm grew, and more and more I was the instrument “to be played” while playing my violin. The Lord directed the music and settled in my silence, in the depths of my heart. Some encounters with men and women of God helped me perceive the melody that vibrated in me and that was going to harmonize with so many other voices… and I arrived at the Little Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent, in Turin.
5. What are the greatest challenges that you confront, especially during this time of pandemic?
At this time of confinement and social distancing, we have cultivated the unity as a result of and thanks to the modern media. A unity in prayer and affection between the Volunteers, a unity with our “Friends”… a strong union of love, lived in service. A union that has attracted more and more young people: workers, students, scouts, youth (and other family members) from parish communities. A union that has confirmed the support of large organizations such as the Fondazione Specchio dei Tempi – La Stampa, and other well-known companies from Turin, as well as the precious contributions of many individual benefactors.
Unity is important and we must treasure it. Feeling as though we are members of a group, a family and a fraternity has helped us resume our activities without being discouraged by the complications of protocols, procedures, devices, and limitations… We, who are used to crowds, even if we pay attention to each person, had to adapt to a service that involved one person at a time…
We have now understood that this “one by one” service has reinforced the joy of knowing and meeting “Friends”, and has rekindled our passion for caring for details.
The study of protocols has reassured us when it comes to guaranteeing simplicity and excellence in service … always with the aim of going further, being closer and more effective.
The use of protective devices, barriers, marked routes and appointments have not been limitations; on the contrary, they have made the “Charity of Saint Louise” an even safer place for our “Friends” who continually call upon us in their time of need.
For these “Friends” we want to be a quiet port, whose beacon is Christ… a bulwark of peace, welcome and appreciation of each sister and brother, a place where charity, compassion, the complementarity of diversity, the search for justice live… in cordiality, in mutual respect, in decency and dignity of being and acting.
And in this year that has just begun, still marked by fear of the pandemic, a challenge for us will be to continue to weave a network services for those who are in greatest difficulty, for the marginalized, the discarded. We know that we are not alone, starting with the Vincentian Family. We want to be many. Because we believe in “fraternal responsibility” (Fratelli Tutti, #40) which is the basis not only of the Christian community, and therefore, the Vincentian community, but of human civilization itself.
6. The day after Christmas you wrote: “our Center has experienced a way of providence and grace. We were surprised and amazed, but not overwhelmed … quite the opposite, thanks to God we have been able to move with the blowing of the wind, the blowing wind of the Holy Spirit.” Those are very meaningful words, words of encouragement during these complex times in which we live. Sister, would you share with us your hope, your dream for the year that has just begun?
My desire is that each of us will experience ourselves an integral part of a story that, in Christ, is always a story of salvation, (a story of salvation even when the story involves suffering and difficulties, injustice and outrages)
With hope, let us convince ourselves that we can always form ourselves and grow in charity. And I make mine the words of Pope Francis who stated: Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all (Fratelli Tutti, #8).
Report of: Elena Grazini