Last Saturday evening (30 January) concluded in Rome the XVIII International Meeting "Christians and Shepherds for the Church of Tomorrow" organised by the community of St Egidio. This year's theme was: “The Church of Mercy”.
This annual gathering lasts three or four days. As one bishop shared during the meeting, some of us take it as a kind of retreat though not the usual one as it is marked not only by prayer and reflection but also by the service to the poor.
In fact it is interesting to see that on the very first evening we are in Rome, though many of us had long trips from the countries where we come from and have hardly slept the night before, many bishops join the different teams of lay people going out to take some food to those that are homeless and sleep on the streets or train stations of Rome.
Looking back I see that every year I have gone to a different place. The very first time, I remember, it was just outside St Peter's and not far from the house where I lived for three years. This time instead it was around St John Lateran.
It is never just about taking some food and hot tea (very much welcomed in winter!). We spend time listening to their stories and their needs. They are known by name and in some cases a process is done to help them move to a different kind of set up and off the streets.
Another type of service in Rome is done on Friday afternoon. This time is about the elderly, the disabled and those in prison. I was part of this last group for the first time. We went to “Regina Coeli Prison”.
Again… it is a place I know well “from outside” as many times I passed in front on foot going from the Consolata house to Trastevere. I never thought I would ever have a chance to visit the prisoners.
With Bishop Fernando (from Sri Lanka) and led by Sebastiano, a lay man who goes there weekly, we visited two levels of prisoners who are sick. We were allowed to go into their cells. All of them welcomed us with a grateful heart.
Sebastiano introduced us and offered them to have a short prayer and blessing by one of the bishops. It seemed they were looking forward to that. One told us he was feeling really down and had just placed the image of Our Lady next to his bed when we came in. “She heard my prayer. I feel better now. It is what I needed...”. Some had tears in their eyes. It was not more than a few minutes in each place (we were only given one hour for the visit) but it was a very intense moment for them… and for us.