When it’s overcast in Tor Sapienza the sky looms ominously. It matches the large public housing projects, the sheds and the sketches of unfinished structures that translate into architecture the area’s sense of insecurity. We are in the eastern outskirts of Rome, just a few steps away from the Grande Raccordo Anulare (Great Ring Junction), in one of the capital’s roughest neighborhoods. The San Cirillo Alessandrino parish church contrasts with the rest: its new seat was inaugurated a year and a half ago, and its colors are still vivid, the garden is well looked after, and there are flower pots on the windowsills. Not far from there, 15 Italian families live in the deconsecrated church where the parish was previously located -- they occupied the building in October after losing their jobs and their homes. It is here that Pope Francis began the Advent. And it is here, with the holidays coming to an end, that we are returning to see what has changed.
“That visit turned on the lights, it generated sparks”, Don Marco Ridolfo, the parish priest at San Cirillo, tells us. He isn’t even forty, and he has a kind smile and bright eyes. “I can’t go into personal details, but what I can say is that, aside from the excitement of the moment, there have been changes in peoples’ intimate life, intentions become facts, the facts of life. Some people have rid themselves of their shame or resignation, and after many years returned to the confessional. Some have just asked to chat with me informally, walking around the parish. And some managed after many years to simply ask for help.”
Recalling the preparations still puts Don Marco in a cold sweat. “From the start we considered Pope Francis’ visit to be a gift. Because of shyness and discretion we hadn’t extended an invitation to him, so it came all of a sudden, as a surprise”. A big responsibility for Don Marco and his co-pilot Don Daniel, a 28 year old Maltese priest. “Everybody came together around us to help out. In the period leading up to the visit, and even after, many started seeing the parish as their home, and as such they took care of it. People came to clean, to decorate, to bring flowers, the way you do when you are expecting a welcome guest in your house”. Without altering the realities of the neighborhood, Don Marco specifies. “Pope Francis wanted to learn about our situation here, to get to know it, and that is what we showed him”.
“This is a tough area, yes, but it is also sincere”, he adds. “There aren’t a lot of superstructures, it’s one of those neighborhoods that is what it looks like. If somebody wants to tell you to go to hell, they’ll do it openly, but if somebody loves you, they will tell you in a thousand ways”. It’s with this kind of directness that a group of destitute families have made their home in the abandoned church, with the encouragement of the Metropolitan Housing Resistance group, an organization that has been fighting for the right to housing in Rome for a couple of years now. Pope Francis met with them as well, continuing a dialogue that had already started with the parish.
“It’s useless to discuss what is right and what is wrong, also because it’s not my responsibility to do so”, Don Marco continues. “But it is my responsibility to the extent that they belong to this community, and consequently they are still sheep, still children to care for and listen to. The Pope’s visit has strengthened our dialogue. On Christmas Eve and the following day they all came here. Compassion has to come before anything else, we cannot put anything before the human heart. That’s what concerns us: that people should be happy, and in approaching the parish find the loving and compassionate gaze that is due”.
“You can’t be a half priest”, Don Marco repeats. “When peoples’ intentions are sincere, ours first of all, a parish can become a school in which to learn patience and tolerance, which can be applied outside as well. Examples of enlightened people like Pope Francis help us do away with that cursed temptation to think that if you are a good person, you are alone. And then, because you are alone, you are weaker and you have to stay on guard, so it becomes easier to embrace all those things that hurt you, to let circumstances make you ugly. When you start to understand that there are other people that see things the way you do, who want to live, who want to believe in this kind of life even if it’s difficult, then it’s a completely different thing. Jesus said the same thing to his disciples: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves’, not ‘you will follow me and everything will be wonderful’, like being in a glass showcase. Absolutely not. Sometimes good can be more upsetting than evil, and that’s why it is often cast aside”.
“It’s touching when you see so many people opening up after all these years. They open up, and are finally able to ask for help. That’s the most important thing: asking for help. From there new opportunities are born, a new chance, and that’s what drives us towards a personal commitment. We have to pay attention, take care, and listen, without expecting to solve people’s problems, but always bearing a message of love. If you don’t like your situation, it’s not like it’s going to get better if you become colder and meaner. And now you have to excuse me — he says, looking at his watch — but I have to go”. Where? “To iron the Three Wise Men’s clothes” (they are three dads who, on the day of the Epiphany, are going to bust into San Cirillo, making the kids even happier than when the Pope visited).