For the past two years, I’ve been spending every Saturday afternoon with some friends in a hospice on the outskirts of Rome. It’s a privilege to spend part of my time with these elderly. First of all, the experience changed me because of what we call in seminary “the objectivity of the gesture”: if I would’ve gone to the hospice only when I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to recount the change in me. It was the loyalty to the commitment that allowed me to mature. I learned to recognize the person in front of me as something sacred and desire to look at them in a more profound way. The intensity of a relationship, in fact, is not measured by words but by the way that you look at and are looked at by another.
Let me give an example. One thing that always strikes me: the contrast between the unkempt image of many of the elderly that I’ve met, and their smiling and well cared-for faces in the old photographs that they keep on their nightstand. A phrase of one of our professors comes to mind: “God is able to look at us in our totality. He sees how we are now, how we were at two years old, and how we’ll be at seventy.” In this case, I can put together pieces of their life in my mind: the old lady with no teeth and stained pajamas is also the radiant woman that enters the church dressed in white arm-in-arm with her father; the stiff man in the wheelchair is the boy seated on his older brothers’ laps. Thinking of their past would be a simple exercise of imagination if it didn’t open me up to their future: because someone wanted them and is waiting for them. This one of the many reasons that allow me to conclude that what I have in front of me is something that belongs to Jesus. But even greater is the opposite experience: when they are the ones who look at me like something that belongs to Jesus. It’s the case of Pietrina – 99 years old, practically blind and deaf. As soon as she recognizes us, she always says the same thing: “Seminarians! The Saturday friends!” and her face lights up. When someone looks at you with an admiration that seems disproportionate to reality, you realize that they see something sacred in you. This is the paradox of charitable work: we bring to them what we came looking for.
(In the photo: a moment of charitable work in a nursing home)