Easter Sunday 2014 I was in Rome, Italy. A great place for Catholics to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection second only to the Holy Land, I am sure. My fellow students and I gathered as if we were an American family and broke bread–like, a lot of bread–in preparation for this great meal (albeit assembled by American twenty-somethings with Italian ingredients). The meal was plentiful and took a lot of work to accomplish to feed 30 people. Biscuits, beans, ham, potatoes, salad, a little bit of vino, the menu went on. Towards the end of the meal one of my classmates stands to make an announcement. He says, “So, with the leftovers, I was thinking we could plate up some food and take it out to the streets to people who beg for money, food, and more money.”
Well, I am grateful for my community because I was being challenged. This was the end of April, the third month of my Rome experience and I was still struggling with understanding the great poverty and the desperate beggars in Rome. My housemates set a time and place to be back in the basement to plate food and to gain some sort of “Street Evangelization 101” and boy was I there and was I nervous.
I’m sorry, you think I could actually pretend to be Christ to these people? You think I could describe transubstantiation to another person, not to mention in Italian?!
But there I was, with another housemate by my side, two plates of leftovers in my hand, faux confidence leading me on, and a nervousness of perhaps being so bad at Italian that I accidentally drag people away from Christ. With full knowledge of having our pick of the beggars we pray and we hope that we would be able to offer food and prayer to someone who needed it.
Then we meet him. Robert. His leg was wrapped, hip to toe, and he had crutches close by. We walk up, offer him food, and he graciously accepts. Now comes the whole “Come to Jesus, tu oggi de via de italiana.” My friend and I immediately sit and I begin to speak. Soon we discovered that I could listen to Italian better than I could speak it, and he could listen to English better than he could speak it. We engaged in a bilingual discussion that felt better than any other experience I have been new to.
Who are you? Robert. Tu? Mi chiamo Leah, she is Hannah. Where are you from? Romania. Di dove sei? America. New York? No. LA? Nope. Oh.
He asked me how I was, what I was doing, where I was from, he spoke Italian, Romanian, and French, and I had Pig Latin and English under my belt. Then I asked–Why are you here?
He used to work with wood, back in Romania. Business slowed so he had to give it up and so he went to Rome in search of work. He was in a car accident where his leg was broken, and the driver drove away. So there he sat. Bandaged in what he could find. He had a daughter, he only had an infancy photo of her, right next to a glossy photo of what he accomplished while he was a craftsman. He asked for money very early our conversation and we said that we didn’t have any he didn’t ignore us as most beggars would have done. He didn’t have to tell us more. He didn’t have to patiently listen to me fumble with my Italian/English. But he did.
He promised to pray with and for me and my friend. I was evangelized more than I planned on affecting anyone else. I still struggle with understanding the poverty in Rome, but now it also is compassion for those who are homeless all across the world.
Looking back, I am not trying to romanticize that he ‘opened my eyes to poverty’ or that some wild study abroad experience that could only happen in Italy happened to me, because Robert was just as deserving of that meal as I was, or as the beggar on the next corner was or even the homeless in the cities in the US or in the world. Pope Francis repeatedly calls us to action in this way.
“Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.” -Pope Francis, Address to the Archbishop of Canterbury
I think of Robert often, maybe he is still sitting outside of the Basilica dei SS Ambrogio E. Carlo (Sts. Ambrose and Charles [Borromeo]) just by the Via del Corso. I pray for him often, too. I pray for his faith, his fatherhood, that he may regain his vocation to work and work well. I pray for his health, and for his hands to be doing the work he wants them to do that he desires to do.
During this Lenten journey I would ask that you join me in prayer, for Robert and all who are homeless.
“A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.” -Pope Francis, Address to the Food and Agricultural Organization