“Getting down on one’s knees before the world”: the story of Giulia Civitelli, a scalabrinian secular missionary and doctor of the least at Termini Station
Every day Giulia Civitelli, a Scalabrinian secular missionary and doctor, goes to the Polyclinic of the Caritas Diocesan of Rome at Termini Station, where she meets and treats homeless people, migrants and refugees, and others without legal permit to be in the country or in conditions of social marginality. “Every time I kneel down in the evening to padlock the main entrance door to the outpatient clinic, I am reminded of Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, when he spoke of getting down on one’s knees before the world to beg as a grace for permission to do good to it,” Giulia recounts. “As I walk along the Termini Station complex, I think of the infinite and creative ways of the Lord that led me to get to know the person and spirituality of Scalabrini and to become his missionary.”
Giulia was still a medical student when she first came to the Outpatient Clinic as a volunteer. “I was looking for an experience of service and meeting people, and unknowingly I was taking steps on a road that would lead me to encounter a living, personal God, close to me, the God of Jesus Christ, and to discover my vocation.” The Scalabrinian Secular Missionaries follow the charism of Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini and have as their mission to live secular consecration on the roads of the migrant exodus. With no external signs to distinguish them, they work and carry out professions in the most diverse environments and contexts of society to transform from within every reality, especially the migratory one, into a total welcoming experience. “A missionary worked at the Polyclinic, and the encounter with this community, with their joy of living together on the way of the Gospel, among people of different backgrounds, was a real revelation for me. I was fascinated by a life given totally to God and spent in the service of migrants and young people. I felt that the Lord was knocking, gently and firmly at my door asking me, “Are you coming too? Do you want to follow me? Here, in this charism, with these people?” The fear was great, but joy was also growing rapidly, a joy that only God can give and that cannot be resisted.”
Julia said her yes to God and today she is the director of the Caritas Outpatient Clinic. “We mainly assist migrants without residence permits, but there is also a small percentage of Italians. Thanks to a hundred medical and nursing volunteers, we manage to treat 2,500 people from 90 different countries in a year. We are open every afternoon. Our doors have not closed even with the pandemic.” A difficult choice this, but a necessary one. “We could not leave people alone on the streets. It was not easy because they told us we were the cause of spreading the virus. Then time proved us right.”
During the lockdown, the clinic remained one of the few open, direct-access health clinics, a point of reference for those living in precarious housing conditions or on the street. “Pilo is an Albanian migrant, homeless, who came to us one afternoon, saying his brother had been sick and had been taken to the hospital. They had been living symbiotically for 10 years in the parks and streets of Rome, and Pilo had heard nothing more about him. Unfortunately, a few days later we learned of Darin’s death from covid pneumonia. With colleagues at the Outpatient Clinic, we broke the news to Pilo and from that moment on we became even more his family. Pilo knows the Bible and when he comes to the outpatient clinic he quotes gospel verses as he wonders why there is so much injustice and so much pain in the world. A few days ago he told me, “We who live on the streets are dead men walking, we don’t count for anything, we live like animals.”
Another story Giulia carries in her heart is that of Stefi, an Albanian migrant who arrived in Italy after the death of her parents and sister. An economics graduate, she was taken in at a Caritas shelter. There she met Jose, a Peruvian migrant with Italian citizenship. “They fell in love despite their apparent differences, she Muslim, he Catholic. They decided to marry civilly and moved into an occupied building. Stefi never got papers because under the law Jose could not get her a residence permit. She was a patient at the outpatient clinic and unfortunately a persistent back pain of hers turned out to be actually the metastasis of advanced breast cancer. Jose treated her with immense love, never leaving her alone. She would come to us to get the medications she needed. Eventually she was admitted to the hospital and then to a hospice for terminal patients. While in the hospital chapel, she had a very strong prayer experience and decided to convert to Catholicism. She was baptized and also received communion and confirmation.” Jose and Stefi also decided to get married in the same chapel. “It was a moving ceremony,” says Giulia, maid of honor at the wedding. Things seem to be getting better and Stefi is discharged. “She wanted to study and become a social worker. However, the disease was still there and 9 months after the wedding she left us. We will never forget her, we received so much from the testimony of this woman who believed in life until the end, even when the diagnosis left her no chance. Last week I met her husband by chance and he said, “For me there will always be only her, I always tell her to wait for me that sooner or later I will come.”
For Giulia and her colleagues, there is no shortage of difficult moments facing suffering humanity. “The situations where we feel helplessness are when we encounter undocumented people with addictions and mental health problems. While it is very difficult to talk to these people and try to convince them to take a path out of their addiction, there are no services to take them in. Last October we took a young man to the hospital: from North Africa, he was addicted to drugs and self-harming,. We spent six hours waiting for him to be admitted, but he was finally sent away. The doctors told us that the few places they have are reserved for people with Italian health cards.”
Faced with grief, there is nothing left to do but take it in, Giulia explains, “and then start again every morning from prayer, from listening to the Word, from the Eucharist, as Scalabrini taught us. I thank the Lord for this missionary family that tries to live communion among diversity.” On Oct. 9 Pope Francis will proclaim Scalabrini a saint: “It is significant that precisely in this time when migration is so intense, the Pontiff cares so much about the lives of migrants. Scalabrini is a model: by his life he showed us how it is possible to let Jesus Christ live in us, to let Him love in us, to let Him work continually, ‘being He the only one able to reconcile earth with heaven,’ he said. This is what we also try to do in our mission alongside migrants,” Giulia concluded.