She sits at the gate of the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Rome’s Via Aurelia, paper cup in her outstretched hand and eyes pleading with the well-dressed throng hurrying into Sunday Mass. Her clothes are shabby and layered for warmth against the chill of a gray October morning. On her lap is a small child bundled in a too-large coat. It is impossible to tell whether it is a boy or a girl. My steps slow slightly as I pass her. In my pocket is a single euro coin to drop into the collection basket, in my ears the Roman lament about the “gypsies.” “Why don’t they find jobs? They are young. They just don’t want to work.” I keep walking.
In the back of the church, banners and graphs urge donations for a new roof for the church. Posters remind parents of soccer practice, catechism, preparation for a youth pilgrimage, the need for information for the parish newsletter. In our modern pews, we are surrounded by the comforting ordinariness of middle-class life. Then the priest scores a goal with a well-aimed kick at our complacent practicality. Pope John Paul II, he relates, was once asked by a journalist, “Holy Father, do you know the cost of all the trips you are taking?” The pope’s gentle response: “My son, do you know the cost of a soul?"
The offertory collection is taken, but my coin stays in my pocket. I have decided to give it to the woman at the gate.
Outside the church, the sky has grown more threatening. I observe the worshipers as they exchange greetings, hurry to their cars, use their cell phones. An old man searches in his pocket for change to drop in a cup held by another shivering beggar, a thin dark-eyed woman whose baby sleeps in a rickety stroller. Now nearly everyone is gone.
I approach the woman with the older child and suddenly find myself praying, “Jesus, if You want me to say something to her, give me the words. No one wants to beg. If she is here, it is because she has no choice.” As I drop the coin into her cup, I drop to her eye level, almost to my knees. “What is your name?” I ask. Surprised at the question, she raises green almond-shaped eyes to mine. “Giulia,” she answers, then drops her gaze. “Where are you from?” I persist as gently as I can. “From Romania.”
“How long have you been here?"
“I arrived two weeks ago.”
Mindful of what I have been told about the beggars, I comment, “It’s hard to find work here in Rome, isn’t it?” Giulia’s eyes fill with tears that she turns to shake away. “Yes. I can’t find a job.”
I turn to the child on her knees, a girl of perhaps 5 years. “_Ciao, bella_. Hello, beautiful little girl. How are you?” The only sign that she has heard me is a widening of her deep chocolate eyes. She is silent and still as a fawn hidden by its mother in a forest thicket. “She doesn’t understand,” her mother tells me. The child holds my eyes with a silent, solemn stare. I wonder what it is she doesn’t understand. Is it Italian? Or her mother’s sadness? Or why she has to sit in the cold enduring the indifference of those who pass? Or is it hunger? There are so many things a child of 5 shouldn’t have to understand.
“Where do you live?” I prod. “In a baracca,” she says. I know these wooden shanties cobbled together by the homeless on the outskirts of the city. Not knowing what else to say, I tell her, “Your little girl is beautiful. I have five granddaughters at home, and two of them are 5 years old, just about her size.” Then I add, glancing at the cup still clutched in her right hand, “I wish I had something more with me to give to you.” “Thank you,” Giulia whispers. And then, “If you have any clothes, maybe you could bring them by. You can find me here on Sunday.” “I’m so sorry,” I explain. “I live in America, and I’m only here for a short visit. My grandchildren are far away.” Both of us are silenced, me by helplessness and Giulia by loss of hope.
As the rain begins to fall, I lay a hand on Giulia’s shoulder and wish her well. Rising, I give what I hope is a kind smile to the frightened angel on her lap, open my umbrella and begin the 20-minute walk that will take me to a warm house, to family and to a table overflowing with delicacies. Navigating the obstacle course of narrow sidewalks, I begin to understand why so few of us stop to talk with the beggars on the street, the homeless on the steps, Lazarus on our doorstep. It’s easier to walk by, to tell ourselves that they prefer begging to work. It is when we hear their voices, learn their names, see the tears they try to blink away that their suffering shatters our complacency. It is then that we begin to contemplate the cost of a soul.
Barbara Mangione recently retired from Notre Dame’s Department of Romance Languages and Literature after 15 years of teaching Italian and Spanish.