Mission Land in Rome; Down on the Death Penalty

Street Missions in the Heart of Christendom

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, OCT. 28, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Many people tend to consider Rome as place where missionaries are trained and then sent out to evangelize other lands. But I discovered that Rome's needs are just as great as the rest of the world, when I encountered some people working in direct ministry to the Eternal City.

At a Vatican conference this week organized by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, a Roman challenged the widely held view that the problem of street children, for instance, is a phenomenon restricted to the Southern Hemisphere.

"When I decided to go and simply share the joy of the risen Lord with those around Termini Station," Rome's central train station, said Chiara Amirante of the Italian association New Horizons, "I never imagined to find such a broken people."

Amirante was addressing the group of experienced experts in street mission who were present -- according to the secretary of the pontifical council, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto -- in order "to learn from each other to better design pastoral programs in response to the desperate situation that is children without real homes and families."

In her presentation Amirante emphasized the horrific plight of the youth of Rome and other First World cities in Europe.

"How many marginalized, lonely youth I saw," she said. "How many, forced to sell their bodies to unscrupulous people, lose their total sense of dignity."

After describing what she called "the hell of the streets," complete with addictions, deviance, AIDS and crime, Amirante outlined her team's plan of action.

"We divide the city into sections and study each section from the schools, pubs or clubs," she explained. This helps her team better understand all circumstances surrounding the youth groups.

"Some surprisingly come from good families and are merely seduced by the 'promised pleasures' of life, while others have a history of being abused," she said.

Next, "we bombard these areas with the love of Christ," Amirante said. "Street Missions" -- groups of up to 100 volunteers at a time -- present a range of events, from musical performances, testimonies of faith, and moments of meditation and prayer, to information stalls and workshops.

"The enthusiasm and joy of the missionaries is an immense force ... that begins the journey of change for many youth," she said. "In this year alone, we have held five major Street Missions and reached out to at least 40,000 young people."

"Not all turn back from the brink, however," Amirante acknowledged. "Though I've witnessed many miracles, I have seen many deaths. This is an urgent situation and one solution can be found in forming new missionaries."

This is precisely what another outreach group is doing in Rome.

It is run by a Filipino priest who came to minister to needy immigrants in Rome. His apostolate, for which he is the main chaplain, is called Spirituality 118.

A Missionary of St. Charles, Father Alberto Gilvara is teaching a course that will accredit ethnic volunteers to assist in cases where foreigners are in hospitals, alone and confused and unfamiliar with the language. This priest knows firsthand how important such a mission is.

"I arrived in Rome, went from the airport to the hospital, and experienced an intense sense of loneliness and desolation," Father Gilvara remembers.

"The fact that I couldn't communicate my concerns properly to anyone was bad enough through the language barrier, but the worst aspect was not being able to feel the warmth of a loving family around me," he says.

Father Gilvara's team tries to provide just that. "As soon as a migrant belonging to a certain ethnic community is confined to hospital, the chaplain there would notify Spirituality 118 and a volunteer from that cultural group will go and look after the needs of that person."

While the apostolate is intended for migrants who are confined to hospitals, its scope doesn't stop there. Even more-established migrants suffer under the threat of losing their jobs and consequently their residence. And immigrants and foreigners in general can face bureaucratic challenges, the priest notes.

Hence, his group aims to provide a comprehensive service that will answer many of the problems surrounding immigration.

"The course they do, helps the volunteers to confront the realities of the sick person," Father Gilvara said. "The candidates should have some background from legislation [and] ecumenism, to medicine."

This allows them to become expert caregivers, "not only able to take care of their co-nationals but also of their local community, thus creating job opportunities for them."

Though the apostolate is open to all ethnic groups, it is currently most active with Filipinos, Africans and Latin Americans.

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Exonerated Men Walking

Ray Krone walked out of an Arizona prison in 2002, freed by DNA evidence after serving 10 years and facing the death penalty for a murder he didn't commit. He said that he initially felt abandoned by the Church during his years on death row.

Now, he is working with a Rome-based Catholic community to promote Church activities against the death penalty.

Standing on the terra-cotta terrazzo balcony of the Community of Sant'Egidio, in the center of the oldest living-zone in Rome, Krone told me why he and his group felt it was important to pass through this city on their European tour.

"It is a misconception that the Church in Rome is inactive and disconnected when it comes to the real world," Krone said. "There is nothing further from the truth. This Pope has shown the world through his teachings and personal witness, just what dignity for life means ... even if that life is about to be exterminated."

Those working to abolish the death sentence in the United States feel support not only from John Paul II. They also get a helping hand from the Sant'Egidio Community, which believes that its work in this field is just a part of its charism or duty to defend the rights of the downtrodden.

"We have placed the plight of the innocent and the non-innocent victims of justice systems among our list of priorities," Sant'Egidio spokesman Mario Marizziti told me following a meeting his group hosted this week.

The encounter allowed for members of an awareness program entitled From Death Row to Freedom, who are trying to change the U.S. justice system, to tell their disturbing stories of being falsely accused and waiting, physically and mentally tortured daily, to die in prison.

I put it to Marizziti, whose community has also worked on projects with the likes of Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," that there is still a division in the Church on the topic of the death penalty. To clarify my point, I used the example of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

When the revised version was released, people from both stances hailed it as being pro and against the imposition of capital punishment.

It speaks of opting for the use of "bloodless means" (No. 2267) when it comes to punishing malefactors as such means are "more in conformity to the dignity of the human person." It also notes that the "traditional teaching of the Catholic Church has acknowledged" that penalties can "commensurate with gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (No. 2266).

Marizziti responded by saying that he believes these lines were "merely put in so as not to entirely contradict the Church's history where it approved of the penalty."

As a case against capital punishment, he added: "We can see by the example of this Pope, through his various direct appeals for the sparing of lives of death row victims, that it is not seen as 'OK' by the Church."

This interpretation was supported by the comments made by the president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, during the presentation of the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church last Monday.

"The Pope has said that it is useless to apply the death penalty, because society has already got other means to defend itself against criminals," he said.

Given that the death penalty is still very much accepted in many parts of the world, what can the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio do about it?

"It is a case of solidarity," Marizziti told me. "If we are trying to defend the right to life of all people at every stage of development, then we can't stop at babies, the poor and the elderly" -- for whom the Sant'Egidio Community already has many projects.

"We begin by promoting awareness regarding the issue, as we are doing today," he said. "We then encourage much prayer for the intention of abolishing the death penalty."

Marizziti said that his community goes so far as to set up pen pals for inmates on death row so they don't feel lonely.

Another former inmate from the United States, Nick Yarris, spent nearly 22 years on death row before being exonerated in January. He told me how much he was looking forward to meeting his Roman friend "Chiara" in person.

"She just kept me going," Yarris said. "Though we had never met, it was exhilarating to know that someone on the other side of the world believed I had dignity."

Krone agrees that "this is the kind of faith-witness we need in those cells, whether we are falsely accused or not."

"Faith is the only thing that gets you through," he told me. "With the help of some great chaplains, I realized that I was suffering as Job and Jonah ... even Jesus ... suffered: innocently but with total trust in God's will.

"I know that I owe my strength, during that most horrifying time and in this mission, to prayers such as the ones coming straight from my friends in the Eternal City."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.