Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Last Day and Beyond

After finishing their finals, the Catholic University of America (CUA) students went on the last Homeless Food Run of the semester and what might have been their last ever Homeless Food Run in Rome. A group of thirteen students from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) who had recently arrived in Rome joined the Food Run that night, and the CUA students felt as if they were passing the torch to future students at the Rome center. It was reassuring to see that the service was to continue in the CUA Rome campus for many generations to come, for it was indispensable to a unique and experience of Rome. Of course, it was already obvious that service must be an integral part of any college campus, but the experience of going on the Food Runs made its importance ever clearer.

Homeless Food Runs are a way to meet people. However, what separates them from other opportunities to meet people is that the interaction is concretely one of service. This is the way that every relationship must fundamentally be, for service to another communicates true love and an acknowledgement of dignity. In this way, a great bond between people forms when service is carried out. The students said a heartfelt goodbye to the homeless friends that they had made.

Later, they returned to San Bartolomeo's Church for a prayer service among volunteers with a reflection on a passage of the gospel of Matthew. Then, the Italian volunteers prepared a farewell party for the CUA students who came to the Homeless Food Runs every week. They cooked pasta alla Carobonara and served the famous Italian Panetone bread for desert. We ate around a table as a family and talked together about the organization Sant'Egidio. Our leader Paolo urged the CUA students to continue doing service and start a branch of the Sant'Egidio in our home states. Contacts were exchanged and there was brainstorming on how to bring Sant'Egidio to even more people than the many around the world who are already impacted by the organization's work.

The Sant'Egidio organization is so important because not only does it do service but it has been approved by the Catholic Church, heavily emphasizing the importance of faith and reliance on God. It is truly a community, for it cares about the people themselves--body, mind, and soul--and not simply feeding a number of mouths. The community has grown so much globally because it is centered around God, evidenced by its numerous prayer services each week. The Holy Spirit keeps it together because "where two or three have gathered together in [His] name . . . there [He is] in their midst" (Matthew 18:20).

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Service Through Mary

                                              Icon of the Holy Face of Jesus in the Church of Sant'Egidio, Rome.

The Homeless Food Run last Thursday fell on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is devoutly celebrated by Italians as a national holiday. For example, on their way to the Food Run, a group of student volunteers from The Catholic University of America heard fireworks fired in the direction of Campo di Fiori piazza in honor of the Virgin Mary. Upon arrival at the kitchen above San Bartolomeo's Church where the food is prepared, the students were told that there was much work to be done because of the feast day of the Mother of God. All of the volunteers were lively and energetic. One of the Italian helpers, for instance, proudly recounted what he had done that day, saying that he had bought statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Medjugorje, as well as a statue of Jesus Christ and a large crucifix to place in his room. Another volunteer is a musician and he was handing out free CDs to the volunteers in honor of the Blessed Mother.

Then, the group headed out to the streets to meet the homeless people earlier than usual so as to say a prayer with them before dinner. The infamous Sant'Egidio icon of Jesus that the group brought from San Bartolomeo enclosed the circle of those gathered together. This prayer included an opening song, the reading of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), an explanation and reflection of the reading, an Our Father, the sign of peace, and a concluding song.

After the prayer service, dinner was served and, as always, conversation began. However, the experience of the Food Run was different than ever before. There was an even deeper connection between the volunteers and the homeless, reflected in trusting and confident conversation. The reason for this connection is that not only were they gathered physically, intellectually and emotionally but now were also united spiritually. The importance of this spiritual connection was emphasized starting with the preparation of the food at San Bartolomeo's and later in the prayer which was prioritized as the first activity of the evening. This was the first time at the homeless food runs where attention was not directly concentrated on helping other people. Instead, all of the attention was on God, and this action united the group more than ever. A feeling of equality among all was present because of the fact that everyone-- both the distributors of food and the homeless people-- worships and serve one God. It put them on the same level of dignity.

The effect of this strong connection was shown in that the homeless people were giving away the hot chocolate that they received from the volunteers. There was the spirit of service and generosity towards one another stemming from a recognition of each person's dignity granted by God, and it was manifested by the care that people showed each other. There was nothing that anyone lacked that night, for there is no doubt of the presence of Jesus Christ through Mary at the Homeless Food Run.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Italy Through Christ's Eyes

The homeless food run outings organized by the Sant'Egidio community are quickly approaching an end for the fall semester students at the Catholic University of America (CUA) Rome center. For the past four months, the students have been meeting other American and Italian students as well as the Italian homeless population. The memories made during the service outings have shaped the students' experience of Italian life abroad indispensably. One student expressed that "There is nothing that I will miss more about Rome than the people at these homeless food runs." Moreover, the students unfailingly ask themselves how they have been so fortunate as to find this group of terrific people.
What makes this service project so impacting is that interaction with people who have been humbled (that is--the volunteers give of themselves to the poor, and the homeless persons have no luxuries) and are therefore more open to giving of themselves to others genuinely and without reserve. Truly, the CUA students have encountered God in the people that they serve, for Jesus says that "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). Because of their inclination to be genuine, the best way of getting to know a foreign country is by coming to know its poor.
The volunteers not only recognized Jesus in the poor population, but they identified with Him. Every Thursday, there were familiar faces at the homeless food runs, enabling a real bond to form. The students were able to more vividly sympathize with the struggle of the homeless people who were worried about a member of their sick family member, about an imminent and necessary trip to a different country, for their medical conditions, for their worries about their life goals. Likewise, the students found support from the homeless people, for the majority are learned. Speaking in different languages, they discuss politics, the state of life in other countries, or even something simple such as the struggles of school.
The identification of the students with the homeless have been invaluable for their CUAbroad experience. One gets to know the city of Rome through the eyes of true Italians not only by visiting museums, ancient ruins, or eating Italian food but especially by meeting the humble Italians that spend their time near these places and who themselves eat the food. The experience abroad is transformed by identifying with sharers of Christ's poverty.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"One Nation, Under God, Indivisible"

                          African Cardinal speaking at the Sant'Egidio prayer service at Santa Maria in Trastevere. 

Prayer has always been an integral part of Sant'Egidio's missionary service. Their organization is strongly founded on Catholic principles and they recognize that they are only able to help other people because God wills it and provides the means. For example, the Thursday homeless food runs begin and end at Saint Bartholomew's church, as they prepare food in an upstairs kitchen and often read from the gospels after serving the poor. There is also a prayer service every Tuesday night at Saint Bartholomew's, every night at Santa Maria in Trastevere (a basilica in Piazza Sant'Egidio), and a prayer service for the poor every first Monday of the month.

In addition, the Sant'Egidio community holds a prayer service for peace in Santa Maria in Trastevere every third Monday of the month. The church is so full each week that there are no pews left and people have to stand around the side aisles. A cardinal is often invited give a reflection, so Sant'Egidio offers headphones that translate what he says for those who speak a different language. There are also books with hymns and prayers that are said during the prayer service.

A French-speaking cardinal from Africa gave the reflection last Monday. He addressed the perennial question "Why does God let bad things happen?" His answer was that it is actually each person that lets violence occur-- every time that one sins, that is. He proposed that the what each person can do to help end world violence is to focus on becoming a holy dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and a support for the family and friends that God has placed in one's life. Not only are there direct benefits to these actions, but there is also the indirect benefit of creating a world in which one likes to live and fostering a community of love. One's concrete witness to the Christian way of living can change the world.

After this moving reflection, someone read off the names of countries that currently experiences violence. At the same time, youth from the community came onto the sanctuary one by one to present a lit candle  and the congregation sang the Kyrie for each country named. The ceremony ended with the recitation of the Our Father, a sign of peace, and a concluding hymn.

The prayer service itself is a way in which the cardinal's words were fulfilled. The frequent and renowned communal prayer services of Sant'Egidio are indispensable in uniting people under God with the intention of holding each other accountable to serve the Lord by opposing violence and indifference towards the poor and marginalized.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Give Love

                                             CUA Facebook post announcing a Homeless Food Run.

All semester, students from the Catholic University of America (CUA) studying abroad in Rome have handed out food to homeless people with the Sant'Egidio service community. The experience of these homeless food runs, however, is uniquely different from most food runs that the students have previously been involved in. The reason for this difference is manifold.

Firstly, Sant'Egidio, as a completely non-profit organization, requires that the food for the homeless be purchased by the same weekly volunteers who distribute the food. Since the responsibility falls into the hands of Italians in this case, there assuredly is excellent homemade pasta. As is also customary in Italian culture, dinner distribution begins no earlier than 8 pm and finishes no earlier than 9 pm-- because of the lively during- and after-meal conversations. The homeless food run thereby resembles a social gathering among equals as opposed to the administration of provisions to the less fortunate. An illustration of this family-like atmosphere is when at the last homeless food run one of the homeless people suggested that the volunteers bring their dinner and some chairs so as to eat together. His suggestion exemplifies the unity created when sharing this unique meal.

The homeless food runs in Rome are not centered around eliminating physical hunger as efficiently as possible (as such services usually are) but about satisfying the hunger for communion with others. This mission is reflected in the meals themselves. That is, instead of serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with fruit and a carton of milk, which is quickly made and in great numbers, the homeless food run crew in Rome cooks pasta and makes fish and omelet sandwiches with much care one hour prior to its distribution. Additionally, people are served on plates rather than to-go containers, hot tea from a thermos, and a choice of fruit.

The volunteers embody Mother Teresa's wisdom that "It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving" because, while the nutritional quality of the food is of a higher caliber than in most food runs, the goal of the volunteers is not so much to provide the poor with more provisions as much as it is to form a bond of love with the people they serve. In this way, the quality of the service is reflected in their intention and vice versa. The execution of such a service is truly impressive and its spirit should be emulated among service organizations worldwide.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Martyrdom of Love: Homeless Food Runs

Relics of martyrs from Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador,
 and Mexico at St. Bartholomew's Church.

Students from the Catholic University of America (CUA) Rome center volunteered at the weekly homeless food run yesterday night. Food is prepared in the kitchen on the top floor of Saint Bartholomew's Church and then distributed to the homeless at two piazzas in Rome. This time, however, the church itself was open, so the CUA students spent some time in prayer before going to the kitchen.

Commissioned by Saint Pope John Paul II, the side chapels of Saint Bartholomew's Church hold relics of 20 and 21st century martyrs from countries all over the world including Asia, Latin America, Africa, Spain, and the relics of those killed in the face of Communism and Nazism. The ethnic diversity of the martyrs reflects the diversity of those involved in the homeless food run. Among the service volunteers, for example, there are people who speak English, Spanish, Italian and Hindi, and among the homeless people there is one gentleman who speaks seven different languages. Each person has his own unique story and place of origin.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the martyrs and the people at the homeless food run are united in their diversity-- that is, they sacrifice for love of God and their neighbor by giving of their own life or their time for the other. At the homeless food runs, the volunteers uphold the dignity and worth intrinsic in every human being. This service project transcends merely distributing food, rather it is a sharing of one's life and experiences with another person. This attitude is what drives the group to cook homemade food, to stay out late to talk with people who have nothing to offer in return, to give out more than one fruit per person, and is what makes us concerned for each other's well-being outside of merely Thursday nights.

Reflection on the spiritual element which is the driving force of service is imperative, for because God created humans in His image and likeness, His honor is rightfully upheld when one takes care of himself and others. Needless to say, after this reflection, the CUA students were ready to serve the other volunteers and homeless people by giving of themselves unreservedly.

Rendiamo grazie a Dio!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Homeless Food Run Community in Rome

                                                                                Food for the homeless.
Sant'Egidio, a non-profit organization, organizes countless service projects worldwide. The Catholic University of America (CUA) campus in Rome is located within a short seven-minute walk from the Sant'Egidio center, offering students many opportunities to serve the poor and marginalized.

Every Thursday from 7-9 pm, students from the CUA Rome center walk to the kitchen in San Bartolomeo's Church on the Tiber Island to prepare food for the homeless. Then, at 8 pm, they then bring the food to two locations where there is a community of homeless people waiting not only to eat but also to talk, laugh, speak different languages, and discuss important issues with the volunteers. Conversations often continue for long after meals have been finished; the homeless people and volunteers alike look forward to seeing each other again the next week.

The homeless food runs are entirely led by the Italian student volunteers themselves who buy the food and organize its preparation. There is always hot pasta or lasagna, sandwiches with tuna or Philadelphia cheese and ham, fruit, and something to drink. The Thursday after the reception following the blessing of the Rome center, CUA students brought the leftover food from the reception  [as seen in the picture above] to the homeless food run, for it was the birthday of one of the homeless people. A lively feast ensued that night in his honor.

The aspect of community is the most important of this service experience. CUA students meet and collaborate with other Italian and American students (from around Rome, John Cabot, and American University) and are each united under the common bond of love for the less fortunate. Going out to the community of homeless people allows for the development of personal relationships with those who one would otherwise not have the pleasure of meeting. Indicative of these relationships is the exchange of email addresses in order to continue previous conversations and enjoy more time together. Additionally, often one comes across his new acquaintances out on the streets of Rome and suddenly finds that Rome has truly become one's second home.

For more information about Sant'Egidio, visit