Rome – Close to the Vatican, the heart of Catholicism and one of the most crowded spots in Rome, there is a villa with its walls decorated with bright and colourful flowers. In the courtyard, birds sing expressing sunny joy while weak streams of water coming out of rock fountains provoke a relaxing and pensive effect on the visitors. Villa Angeli works as a religious oasis amid the bedlam of the touristic quarters of Rome. 

In the seven days I have been in the eternal city, I’ve met plenty of rather high-spirited people. Young students reading the Bible while commuting in the subway, priests, monks and nuns from a high range variety of religious orders visiting the overwhelming churches that fill Rome and the Vatican. But it was not until I went to Villa Angeli that I encountered the most devoted women. 

Brethren Flor de Francisco, Hortensia Bartolomé and a Mexican novice, all from the religious congregation the Suore del Sacro Cuore(the Sisters of the Sacred Heart), welcomed me with an honest hug in Villa Angeli. Their order is specialized in assisting and accompanying old people on their last days of their journey. However, as a means of income for the religious order, this Sisters also run a villa for pilgrims visiting Rome, a religious stop in the profane world. 

The Mexican novice, Flor de Francisco and Hortensia Bartolomé inside Villa Angeli. Photo: Rosana Bautista Benito

Through the talk with these religious women, I aimed to gauge the pulse to Italian Catholicism and to discover more about the human’s faith when they are knocking on Heaven’s doors. The three Sisters shared an opinion about the topics we discussed. Only when we talked about bioethics the youngest disagreed.

Question.What does your routine consist of?

Answer.Our days are simple. The very first activity we do in the mornings is being with the Lord. We pray daily and listen mass every two days. Afterwards, our task consists of accommodating pilgrims. In the afternoon, we pray again, as religious orders do.

Q.Do all pilgrims have religious concerns?

A.People from all religions and non-spirituals are welcome in Villa Angeli. Some are very active and have a great religious inquisitiveness. Others just observe. 

Catholicism is very much part of the warp and weft of Italian life, as an inevitable social, cultural and political force that Italians take for granted. The religion in the Mediterranean country is a pervasive, but not always deep reality. Mass attendance in Italy is higher than in most of Europe, but not as high as one might expect. Experts generally put the attendance rate at about 15-20 % on an average Sunday[1].

[1]Catholicism in Modern Italy: Religion, Society and Politics since 1861. London: Routledge, 2008. 

Photo: Rosana Bautista Benito

Q.Why did you choose this religious congregation, the Suore del Sacro Cuore (the Sisters of the Sacred Heart)?

A.The election of the religious order is not important. We all serve the same “master”: God. But most of us started working in nursing homes and this religious congregation helps old people die. That’s why the majority of us are sisters in the the Sacro Cuorecongregation.  

Q.How do you help people die? 

A.Dying in grace is the most important part of someone’s life. Sometimes, old people just need some company, somebody that listens to them, holds their hand, caresses softly  or tells them ejaculatory prayers. 

Q.Do people accept the end?

A.Mankind doesn’t accept death. We’ve tried to master everything. However, there are two actions humans can’t control: the birth and the death. We are trying to manipulate them through praxis like abortion, euthanasia or eugenics. But we simply can’t master them.

Q.But isn’t medicine a way of disrupting the process of death too?

A.Doctors can delay the moment of dying when they heal patients. But they can also set it forward through some palliative caretreatments. Relieving pain is sometimes necessary, it’s also a complex issue for us[1].

Q.Some people suffer from unbearable pain and claim the right not to stay alive. Would that be sinful for the Catholic faith?

Answer from the novice.Some people accept the illness as a natural part of the life because they have faith. On the contrary, others don’t accept it and think about sickness as a punishment. I don’t dare to make a judgment about those who assist their beloved in committing suicide because I have never been in that situation. 

Answer from the elder.Death should be a natural process, until God says “this is the end.” There are other options in order to avoid euthanasia: asking for psychological help, hospitalizing the beloved one in a specialized center for the particular illness… In spite of not sharing those beliefs, we respect all options. 

Q.What would you advice younger generations?

Answer from the elder.We are worried about the fact that the suicide rate among young people is steadily increasing. In Italy, suicide is the second cause of death among youngsters under 21. The major one is mortality in traffic accidents[2]. We think they end up their lives because they are unable to find a valuable meaning. 

Answer from the novice. They should look for their passion, and work hard to achieve results. Life is a constant fight and faith helps enduring it. They should also work on their self-esteem in order to learn to truly love. And always remember that Jesus is a loyal companion in their journey.

[1]The Roman Catholic Doctrine makes a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary treatment and care regarding end-of-life matters. As an example, the provision of nutrition and hydration to patients in persistent vegetative states is considered ordinary care and therefore must be administered. Euthanasia is not permitted and Catholic doctrine addresses “euthanasia by omission” and clearly states that this is prohibited. Otherwise, Catholicism gives a rather wide berth for accepting or refusing other treatments. Treatments are viewed as disproportionate or extraordinary when they either do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or are excessively burdensome to patient or community. 

[2]The figures they claim appear in «I giovani: lo sbando e la nostalgia»: Il Gabbiano 4, 1998.