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    The plaza in front of the Vatican at night

    Princess of the Vatican

    What happens when a Roman palazzo becomes a homeless shelter?

    By Sharon Rose Christner

    June 2, 2023

    Available languages: Español

    • Ellen Olivier

      Anna's story reminds me of Jesus' Parable of the Sower & the Seed!! God's dream of peace and needs fulfilled is seemingly shown in how Anna has become a princess in a home, next to the Pope!!

    • Henry Lewis

      Lovely and true.

    • Matthew Clark

      Beautiful, thank you for this, Sharon.

    • John Hull

      Good job(!), Sharon Rose Christner.

    • Rona Obert

      So touching. God's hands are at work in this world

    • Kathleen Zander

      I look for Sharon Rose Christner's articles as missives from the spiritual dimension of life. Like a journalist from the hidden kingdom of God, she writes captivating stories of spiritual values in action. Her portrayals of mercy evoke Shakespeare's "gentle rain" in their eloquence. Thank you for making Pope Francis and Anna alive to a Chicago reader 4,800 miles away.

    • Benny

      Beautiful. Perspective. Thank you.

    “Ah, you are little Red Riding Hood today!” she says, seeing my red coat, and she tells me the story of the wolf and the grandmother, the great slicing open, how the girl and the old woman won back their home and their lives.

    Anna and I are sitting on a low brick wall covered in cigarette ashes and tiny, resilient mosses, five steps from the border between Italy and Vatican City, in the shadow of the great travertine columns of Saint Peter’s south colonnade. Every morning Anna comes out and sits on this little wall. “First, breathe. Second, smoke.” Besides the cigarette, her face has quick eyes and a quicker tongue. She is tough with men and troublemakers, but soft with little ones, and forthcoming of tales with almost anyone. Most days I meet her here, and she tells me stories.

    Between the columns we can see the façade of Saint Peter’s and the square with its people and fountains and low wooden fences. Beyond these we can see the north colonnade and above it the Apostolic Palace where Pope Francis has chosen not to live. He stays on the side of the square where we are sitting, just around the bend and over the wall, in Casa Santa Marta, a guesthouse on the site of an ancient hostel for the poor.

    The Palazzo Migliori, Anna’s residence, rises behind us, looking much like its prestigious neighbors: four stories of light-yellow stucco, with a dark wood door and terraces above. Once a residence of the wealthy Migliori family, after 1930 it became the home of the Calasanziane religious order and their ministries to young single mothers. When the sisters moved out, it was proposed, given the building’s beauty and desirable location, that it be converted into an upscale boutique hotel. Pope Francis directed that it be made into a homeless shelter instead.

    The plaza in front of the Vatican at night

    Photograph courtesy of Frank Camp.

    The shelter opened in November 2019; as I sit with Anna a few months later, the place is developing a rhythm. Every evening just before seven – while others are pitching tents around the colonnade, or lying down on the front steps of shops, or wrapping themselves in blankets under the bridges of the Tiber – a little group gathers by the door of 28 Borgo Santo Spirito. Up the ramp in his chair comes Mario, always with Luigi pushing him, and like a dignitary he waves and calls buonasera to Marya and Lilia and all the ladies whose names he does not know; Alessandro, quieter, who actually knows all the names; a thin and grinning Ajim, who has just come from the soup kitchen on Via Dandolo and is hungry again; Anna, spinning yarns between cigarettes; Mirella, neck tilted all the way back, talking with the men and finding something to be right about. At seven, someone opens the door and they get themselves through the hallway to the chapel, slowly, because it has been a long day on the feet. They greet each other and sit quietly in the pews, looking up occasionally at the painted wood-panel ceilings or the mural of Saint George, armored and haloed, battling a dragon. The people who have been upstairs cooking come in, drying their hands on their aprons. One of them goes behind the altar and leads a prayer, reflecting on the presence of Jesus with them. The congregation shares a sign of peace, everyone finding everyone else’s hand. Then, with their heavy bags, they make their way up, by stairs or elevator, to dining rooms which, with their chandeliers and brickwork archways, could be chapels themselves.

    Already good bread is on the table. Dinner is brought out in courses – olive-tomato fettuccine or creamy white bean soup, then pork mushroom stew or beef pot roast. When everyone has been served, the people who have come to cook sit and eat with the people who have come to sleep. I could call them volunteers and guests, but such a distinction misses the point. I might call them the residents, who sleep here each night, and the visitors, who sleep somewhere else. Everyone eats together, and is called by name, and afterward there are chamomile teas and baskets of fruit and much talking.

    Anna tells stories, and stories of stories. If you notice her hat, a white knit cap with a Hello Kitty patch, she will tell you:

    A baby gave me this! I was at the park, on the bench. The mother? She is on the phone talking, talking … So I talk with the girl, nine or ten years old. I tell her a story: Once there was a girl, and she learned how to knit hats, and she became very rich – just a story, like Cinderella – and she met a prince who liked her hats.

    So the mother is finally done speaking, and the little girl says, “At least take my hat.” I say, “How can I wear the thing of a baby? I am old!” But the mother says, “Please, she has ten of these in all the different colors. So if she offers, please take it.” I never thought I would wear the hat of a baby! But now I wear it so I can tell this beautiful story.

    Others bring stories too, in many languages and silences, and they bring out their cigarettes to share on the terrace. The genius Silvano brings his Rubik’s Cube, clicking and whirring, and sometimes a gray-haired priest comes up the stairs bringing gifts. The first time I visited, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, brought a wide woven basket of cinnamon-sugar pastries and fancy jams. He spread them out on the counter and didn’t let anyone call him Your Eminence.

    Several times each week, a physician comes and speaks with everyone who will allow her, looking closely at what is hurting. Someone’s ear, someone’s back, everyone’s throbbing feet. Often someone comes in late around this time, if the buses of Rome have failed them. Not long ago Anna herself came up the steps at nearly ten, after everything had been put away, announcing, “I won’t eat!” in great penitence. Nonsense, they said, of course you can eat. “I can eat it cold, whatever, just pasta, because I came late. It’s my fault, è colpa mia.” No, they insisted, of course you can eat the whole meal. Anna really must, because her medication requires food, but for anyone, medication or not, the visitors will get out the fettuccine, the pork and mushrooms, the bread, tea, salt, pepper, and oil, as many times as necessary.

    people enjoying a meal with Pope Francis

    The inaugural dinner of the guesthouse, run by the Community of Sant’Egidio, in Palazzo Migliori, November 2019. Photographs courtesy of the Community of Sant'Egidio.

    At length it becomes more and more like bedtime, and people say goodnight and ascend to the third and fourth floors, where thirteen bathrooms with soap and towels have been prepared for them, and sixteen bedrooms with clean sheets and blankets. In the morning there will be breakfast, and then they will leave for the day, and more visitors will come to clean. For now, for each person there is a usual spot, several accustomed roommates, a place to put their things down for a while and sleep. The visitors come and knock and say goodnight, buona notte, to each one by name.

    Such an overflowing place invites questions: Why such extravagance? Why not make the place into a hotel, rake in the money, and set up a no-frills shelter in a lower-cost part of Rome? Instead of giving beautiful treatment to fifty people, should they not provide more practical lodging to a hundred?

    We could wish for a world without such calculations. But if we must calculate, it depends on the goal. If we are trying to get as many people as possible indoors – when the temperature is unsurvivable – the austere one-hundred-bed place is better. This is the purpose of an emergency shelter, and it is good that we have them. But if the situation is different – if the climate is mild and many people do not want to come indoors – the goal might be to create a stable, dignified place for those who want to come.

    For either kind of place, there is always the question: Will people choose to stay? Anna, and many others, have been in other shelters and decided that it would be safer, or less demeaning, to take their chances outside. Often this is a simple matter of which is more hospitable to human life. If an “efficient” shelter has an atmosphere of danger, contempt, or the bare-minimum keeping of livestock, any of us might choose the outdoors.

    Those of us who have charge of funds and decisions, and who have mostly had it easy, can take austerity on ourselves. But when it comes to caring for others, that is the place to be generous to excess, to give more than seems necessary.

    Once, the Gospels tell, when a woman poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and washed them with her hair and tears, Judas Iscariot was suddenly concerned about efficiency. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold,” he objected, “and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” Jesus told him to let her be, for she had done a beautiful thing, preparing his body for burial. It turned out that Judas objected not because he cared for the poor but because as holder of the moneybag he felt entitled to keep the excess for himself.

    Those of us who have charge of funds and decisions, and who have mostly had it easy, can take austerity on ourselves. But when it comes to caring for others, that is the place to be generous to excess, to give more than seems necessary.

    Palazzo migliori is not the kind of shelter where you line up each day and try to get a place. Carlo, the director, identifies people without another place to go: those especially alone, or more fragile, or without the citizenship that certain shelters require. They stay a few weeks at least. The staff help residents find stable situations – in these first few months several have found jobs and family reunion – but there is no set deadline for leaving. The mental strain of trying to find a bed each night is lifted, and there is room to come to know the others around you, even to trust them; to start to think in terms of weeks, months, years.

    Now Anna has begun to think beyond the food-shower-sleep cycle to plan her own kindnesses. This morning on the little wall she is waiting to catch the bus to the hospital where her closest friend, Concetta, is sick with something like the flu. Yesterday Anna helped her onto a bus and off the bus and onto another bus to the hospital, while Concetta’s breaths turned into brittle rasps. Today, she will convince the nurse to let her into the room again, and she will sit by her friend and talk. Speaking will be difficult for Concetta, but she can still hear stories.

    Some of the stories will be from books, chosen according to Concetta’s mood and interest, and by the feeling of the story, which depends most of all on its ending. They have been friends for forty years, half their lives, so many of the stories will be true: wistful stories of wishing for countryside homes, or the heroic story of Concetta trying to help Anna when she first lost her job and things began to spin downward.

    Anna has only begun to speak to me about what happened then, and never in detail – the circumstances of her youth, what happened to her family, the causes of her grief – but she has told the general story. When she lost her home she stayed “in no place, any place. To sleep? No sleep. Sitting. Upright like this. It was horrible. Always where there was a camera, because I was afraid. And, in the winter, wherever it was hot. A camera for safety, and warmth to survive.”

    beds for homeless people in a large room

    She remembers pedestrians taking wide circles to avoid coming near her, passersby steeling their faces. “Because everybody – except my friend, who is in the hospital – is afraid of poorness. They cannot afford, emotionally, to see themselves in that situation. So they become blind.

    “You start from a normal life, then suddenly boom, everything is broken, even if it’s not your fault.” She snaps her fingers. “Just like that! You fall into a whirlpool, and you drown!

    “And then? God is good. He, the big father, saw this little thing falling down, and he picked me out and put me here. Straight away, without any problem!” – here she becomes quieter – “Without any important reason either. Because I didn’t do anything so great” – she spreads her arms wide – “to stay in a palace next door to the pope! Like a princess, oh my. So if anyone doesn’t believe that miracles can happen …”

    When Anna tells stories, the ending determines the rest. A good end, in a palace with a bed and good food and people who know her, allows her to think of her life the same way she tells a fairy tale. The story could have ended, “and little Anna lived out her days in a dimly-lit, understaffed facility.” Instead, it ends: “and now I am in the place of a princess.”

    This place gives Anna a story that bends toward peace and rests there. Something about its over-the-top-ness: the carefully painted crests on the ceiling, the terrace overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, the unnecessarily good food. The visitors who know your name and your favorites and your good and bad habits, who know you need to put that cream on your foot and will banter with you until you do it. Above all it is knowing: that this place could have been a posh hotel; that some might call its current incarnation a waste; that you are not being given the bare minimum.

    When we love someone, we are not thinking of how to do so efficiently; we are thinking how to do it well. Think of new parents preparing a beautiful nursery: they may buy things the child never uses, and perhaps some of that money and effort might be better used elsewhere. But we are not surprised when loving parents put more thought and work into preparing a place than is strictly necessary.

    There are certain things that we know make a good place for anyone – shelter from the cold, a quiet place to sleep, a warm stew, a clean place to wash up, art, song, softness – and we can prepare these things even before we meet the recipients. Once we meet, there begins the work of making it a good place for them in particular – for Astriche, who loves chamomile; for Lioso, who is so much more tired than hungry and just wants to sleep; for Ajim and his appetite; for Anna the teller of tales.

    Just before Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he comforted his troubled friends with a strange promise: “I am going to prepare a place for you” – his father’s house with many rooms. We think of the way someone prepares a place for us when they know us well; we can only imagine how someone prepares a place for us when they know us completely. For now, there is this quiet joy of making a place beautiful with someone in mind – of considering who they are, what they need and love and fear, and shaping the place to meet them.

    It is by design that Francis lives in a guesthouse and Anna lives in a palace. One’s austerity is another’s luxury, and all things considered the pope still lives in more material comfort than she does. But the direction is a promising one. When we are healthy and loved, it is good and wise to be content with simple, humble things. When we are trying to love and heal someone, on the other hand, we should offer more than they could ask or imagine.

    “So,” Anna finishes, “the building is fantastic. Outside, it doesn’t give so much emotion, but the inside is fantastic. If you were to tell me before that from the beginning to the end God was bringing me close to the pope, living in a wonderful place, loved by everybody – this is great. All the rest is …” She gestures gone, and leans back to look up at the many rooms. “Who could imagine?”

    Contributed By Sharon Rose Christner Sharon Rose Christner

    Sharon Rose Christner is a student at Harvard Divinity School.

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