The Church’s great embrace of the most fragile, marginalized and poor, the people living on the street. It can be described as the final event of the Year of the Mercy, with the “last” Jubilee of the Year dedicated to Socially Excluded Persons. From 11 to 13 November, 6 thousand people from 20 different countries participated in an unprecedented pilgrimage organized by “Brother 2016”, an association that organizes and animates events with and for people suffering situations of social exclusion, in partnership with other associations that accompany them. “They returned home – said François Le Forestier, spokesman of “Brother” – with a unanimous feeling of deep joy, despite the fatigue, despite the crowds.”
Which was the most touching episode of these three days? It was the meeting with the Pope on Friday morning. The homeless often experience a painful feeling of loneliness caused by the absence of a mother and a father. Many of them grew up without ever knowing their parents and for them, finding themselves side by side with the Holy Father was like finding a father. That’s why many of them wanted to touch the Pope, speak to him, hold his hand.
Standing there beside the Pope was like finding a long-lost father.
His words of forgiveness during the Papal audience on behalf of all Christians, which were deeply welcomed and understood. The pilgrims kept on saying: “the Pope is asking us forgiveness.” Those words, we don’t know exactly how and when, prompted in-depth reflection in many of them. On Saturday night, during the vigil of Mercy at Saint Paul’s church Outside the Walls, many people went to confession as if the forgiveness donated by the Pope has turned into a request for forgiveness. They hadn’t gone to confession for many years and the priests who received them told us that they had given voice to the love of the Father and remitted also grave sins. Thus for many of them it was an opportunity to experience and receive the Mercy of the Lord.
How did they live the three-day pilgrimage in Rome?
The pilgrims told me they were moved by the fact of being welcomed in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and in Saint Peter’s church on Sunday morning. They realised that they felt at home inside the Church, and that the Church was welcoming them with open arms. This is very important. People living on the streets experience a feeling of deep shame, a strong feeling of guilt that makes they feel unworthy. It is no coincidence that the Pope spoke to them about dignity. I believe that this pilgrimage has given dignity to many pilgrims who had always felt they were worth nothing.
Can you tell us about some personal stories of the past days?
There’s the story of Robert, a man from Paris. He didn’t speak to anyone. Then he had the opportunity of meeting the Pope on Friday morning, and for him that handshake prompted a feeling of liberation. After that embrace he managed to open his heart. People living on the streets find it very hard to open up and express their feelings, to convey their desires. After the meeting with Pope Francis this man started speaking again, he started to express the joy he had felt, the suffering experienced throughout his life. It reminds us of the passage from the Gospel where Jesus makes the mute man speak. Indeed, also these days have been marked by miracles that occurred before our very eyes.
What remains of this Jubilee?
The poor are the richness of the Church. In the pilgrimage there were also people who share their apartments with extremely poor people. Others eat with destitute people distributing meals in soup kitchens or pray with the poor organizing liturgies for them in churches. The Pope invites us to advance along this path following the way of evangelization in a spirit of brotherhood with those living on the margins of society. The message of Christ was spread throughout the world at the time of the first Christians because it was a message of freedom from slavery. The Pope calls upon us to do the same: to free others from slavery and misery making ourselves the brothers and sisters of those who are slaves and destitute.