The story behind Pope Francis’ surprise visit to a Rome shantytown

Pope Francis made a surprise stop at a shantytown on his way to celebrate Mass at a Roman parish Feb. 8 — a “secret” plan that only the pontiff knew about and which prompted tears of joy from residents.
“We forgot that we can cry also for joy. We cry for shame and for suffering. Today, we remembered that we can pray for joy. This was the best day of our lives.”
According to Gianna Iasilli, who spoke with CNA Feb. 10, these were the sentiments of those who live in the “Arcobaleno” shantytown, where Pope Francis made a stop on his way to celebrate Mass at the Roman Parish of San Michele Arcangelo Feb. 9.
A member of the Sant’Egidio community, Iasilli was one of three representatives from the community who accompanied 30 of the shantytown’s inhabitants to the papal Mass. After stopping briefly at the town itself, Pope Francis met with the 30 individuals in the parish hall before Mass began.
Built in the 1930s, the block where the town is located was constructed as a provisional allocation for those evicted from their homes in downtown Rome following the restructuring of the city by early 20th century Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini.
Pope Francis’ visit to the Arcobaleno “was a visit that the Holy Father left a secret, truly a secret. No one knew,” Iasilli said, revealing that the Pope had asked his driver to stop at the town’s address while on his way to the parish.
She noted that when the Pope arrived he couldn’t find the shanties, and had to call the parish priest for additional directions. Once he arrived, the Pope was greeted by a mainly Latin American group, as they live closest to the entrance.
Francis greeted the group in Spanish, asking how many of them spoke his language. His question was met with a resounding “todos!” meaning “all of us!”
In addition to Latin Americans, the shantytown is also inhabited by Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, Eritreans and Russians. Of these, the Ukrainians and Romanians “are the least well off,” Iasilli said.
Among the 30 shantytown inhabitants present at the parish for the Pope’s Mass were all nationalities except for Latin Americans and Eritreans.
The encounter between the Pope and the Arcobaleno dwellers “was a significant gesture that showed depth and mercy,” Iasilli noted, revealing that the Pope came into the parish hall before Mass and closed the door, before asking for each of them where they came from.
“It was very moving. They were moved. Many are alcoholics, many live in the shanties or sleep on the streets. They live in front of shops, looking for a bit of warm air at night,” she said, and recalled how Pope Francis asked to know which ones lived on the streets.
She said that some of the participants in the papal encounter don’t have places to stay in the town, but are too embarrassed to return to their own countries. Many used to work, but have lost their jobs, she noted.
Many who were present in the papal audience asked for peace, including the Ukrainians and the Russians, who said that while they live side-by-side in the town, their countries are at war.
Iasilli recalled how Pope Francis told them that “he prays for peace every day between the nations.”
Several individuals approached the pope asking for prayers, including a man who had hurt his hand. When he asked for prayers for his healing, the Pope took his hand “and prayed at length” for his recovery.
There was also a former mercenary who had fought in Afghanistan that asked the Pope to forgive him for his sins and for “not having loved.” He bowed before the Pope, who blessed him.
Pope Francis also offered his blessing to a woman who asked forgiveness for having “greatly sinned.” The Pope, Iasilli noted, “told her that we’re all sinners. She repeated it and he blessed her.”
Many also asked for prayers regarding their health, because “if you get sick on the streets, it’s very difficult.”
Upon hearing that many of the people in the audience and in the Arcobaleno suffer from violence, including alcoholism and arson fires that destroy their homes, the Pope told those present that people call them homeless, “but without saying your names.”
The encounter, Iasilli said, “was very moving because it was so profound,” and noted that there was “a sense of mystery” in everyone.
Sant’Egidio has been working with the shantytown for 15 years and is on a first-name basis with many of the inhabitants. In additions to offering showers in a local parish where the homeless can get new clothes and sheets, the community brings dinner to the town every Tuesday and Thursday.
The pope thanked the community for their “generosity and patience,” and told inhabitants that he gives them “courage from the Holy Spirit because your lives are like ash. When the fire goes out the ashes remain. But if the wind blows, the fire is rekindled. That wind is the Holy Spirit.”
Despite the difficult reality of those who participated in the encounter, the Pope’s visit “was a gesture that helps us to understand that we’re able to change the cities to make them more united, more human, so they can be more inclusive to the people,” Iasilli said.
She recalled how the Pope told them that Rome must rebuild itself “from the peripheries. Only in this way is a city able to start over. If we exclude the poor, we exclude God.”
Iasilli also spoke about the recent Vatican initiative to include showers for the homeless in the bathrooms of St. Peter’s Square.
Calling the move a model of “revolution,” she said that the act serves as a sign that “it’s possible for everyone if it’s possible for the Vatican and for the Pope.”
“The city and the way we live should be rethought and also how we should live with more solidarity,” she said.
To live with the poor “is a great joy. This I can bear witness to. Being a friend to the poor brings joy. It’s a great joy to be with the poor.”

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