Between meeting political and church leaders and saying Mass for millions of people on his recent visit to Paraguay, Pope Francis visited the clinic at Fundación San Rafael in Asunción, where he blessed terminally ill patients.
Created to serve “the least of these” by giving the best possible care to those who cannot afford it, Fundación San Rafael was established in 1999 by Padre Aldo Trento. Padre Aldo, a priest of the Missionary Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, was assigned to Paraguay in an attempt to help him find relief from the depression that had plagued him for years. His first “guest” was a terminally ill homeless man, whom he took into his house and nursed until the man died. Next was a homeless woman, also terminally ill, who came with her two children asking for help. He took all three of them in, and cared for the woman until she died. Those experiences gave rise to the hospice clinic and the children’s homes; other programs now include a farm, an elementary school, a high school, and homes for the elderly.
San Rafael’s mission is best illustrated with one small example – the story of Romina (not her real name). In Paraguay, HIV/AIDS carries a strong stigma. People known to be positive are feared and ostracized, but San Rafael makes a point of accepting and caring for those affected by the disease. Romina discovered she had HIV when her three-year-old son was diagnosed with AIDS. After her son’s death, she lost all reason to live and was dying with no one to care for her. She was brought to San Rafael’s hospice clinic and there, with medication and love, she recovered. Now, seven years later, Romina works at Casita de Belén – San Rafael’s home for the youngest children. On paper, she’s the launderer, but in reality she’s the heart of the home. Having been given work, friends, and children to care for, Romina is very much alive, offering children and staff an unfailing supply of hugs and laughs – plus the occasional surprise trip to the ice cream store.