ROME – Despite the fact that Rome has some 900 Catholic churches, finding one that is open for prayer at any given moment can be quite challenging. Some keep office hours, but most open only around Mass time.
Yet as of last December, there is a church that is open 24/7, with Eucharistic adoration and a team of 8 to 10 volunteers who, together with the parish priest, make sure there is always someone available to welcome those who need a helping hand.
“This project is not only for poor people,” said Roberta, a volunteer at the Church of the Stigmata of St. Francis, during an open house on Monday to show a recently inaugurated dorm for some 30 homeless people.
“If you come here at night one time, you’ll see that there’s always someone here, praying,” she told Crux. “And they are not homeless people. It’s often a young person, or a couple of them, who came in looking for God. I always hope that they find Him here. And if nothing else, if they need one, they will find a smiling face and the comfort of knowing that not only God is willing to listen to them.”
In addition to being open all day and providing the dormitory, the church offers restrooms, a laundry room and daily breakfast to some 200 people. When the initiative was inaugurated in late December, it was with the presence of the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo de Donatis, and Cardinal Carlos Osoro of Madrid.
Located in Rome’s historic center, just steps away from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, the project is run by the Spanish Catholic NGO Mensajeros de la Paz (Messengers of Peace). Founded in 1962 by Father Ángel García, the association today has several dozen homes for the elderly in Spain, as well as soup kitchens and formation centers.
Monday morning, before opening the sleeping quarters in Rome, García met with Pope Francis in Casa Santa Marta, the residence where the pope lives within the Vatican grounds, and attended the pontiff’s daily morning Mass.
“In a meeting with the pope, you sometimes get blocked because you know he is the representative ‘from above,’” he told reporters. “But since he is a pope with a lot of charisma, it was easy to share with him the project of the Church Open 24 Hours, what we do here and the people who knock on our door every day.”
Even though the project is too new to have received enough data and feedback to measure its success in Rome, García runs a similar church in downtown Madrid and knows that the people who approach a church that is open 24 hours come not only to ask for help or to rest, but to pray.
“Though people think these churches are only for the ‘materially poor,’ it’s not like this,” García said, echoing Roberta. “What happens is that sometimes, these are the only places that those who have nothing are allowed to enter without being judged.”
“Projects such as this one are a visible sign of society not being sick, as we so often hear,” he said. “On the contrary, it’s healthy and full of value. Whatever door you knock on, there is always someone who is willing to help, to be charitable with others.”
In Rome alone there’s an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 homeless people, many of whom live in the vicinity of the Vatican – with several tents often visible beneath Bernini’s famous colonnades. Late last year, the pope’s charitable point man, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, opened a new residence for the homeless on the doorstep of the Vatican, in a building historically known as the Palazzo Migliori.
Outside the Church of the Stigmata of St. Francis, there’s a sign that invites people in, with a quote from Francis that reads “churches must always have their doors open because this is the symbol of what a church is: Always open.”
A second poster, with a picture of the pontiff in a prayerful pose reads: “I apologize for all the times in which us Christians, when encountering a poor person or a person in a situation of poverty looked the other way.”
In December, when the doors of the parish were officially open 24 hours a day, the pontiff sent García a letter thanking him for the initiative “to offer a service of the Word of God that can help those who see this house of prayer as a common home to build together a port where everyone is welcome and from where they can leave again to face the marvelous adventure of their Christian vocation.”
“I wish that the House of God always has its doors open because it walks among the peoples, in the history of men and women,” he wrote. “If not, churches with closed doors should be called museums.”
The ecclesial community, Francis wrote in the letter, is a “tent” capable of growing so that “everyone can come in, find an oasis of peace in God’s love, a place of welcoming, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
“It’s all about mercy, mercy, mercy,” García told reporters on Monday. “Like Francis said at the beginning of his pontificate: We need a poor church for the poor, but never forgetting mercy, which we need to apply not only to the way we treat our neighbors, but also ourselves.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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