(Vatican Radio) Later this week, The Sutton Chorale, a South London-based choir consisting of Christians from different denominations, will be performing at various locations around Rome and Florence.
Under the baton of their director, Martin French, they will perform a repertoire of English sacred choral music in some of Rome’s great churches, including at Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, and a special ecumenical celebration of Evening Prayer to bid farewell to Her Majesty’s outgoing Ambassador to the Holy See, H.E. Nigel Baker, in the Oratorio di San Francesco Saverio del Caravita. However, their most poignant performance will be a concert of sacred music which will be held in the historic basilica of Sant’Eustachio on 29 May at 19.30, only a stone’s throw from the historic Pantheon.
Few tourists to the basilica realize that it is not only a sanctuary of prayer, but also one of faith and charity-in-practise. At 1pm every day (except Sundays), the nave of the ancient church is turned into a dining room – a mensa – for Rome’s poor and homeless. Receiving no public funding, this is a project which constantly needs donations.
Phil Andrews spoke to Martin concerning the chorale's upcoming visit to Italy, and about why the concert in Sant'Eustachio will be so poignant for all the singers.
Inspired by the patron, Saint Eustace, who was noted for his works of charity, the basilica’s Rector, Don Pietro Sigurani, sums up his motivation in founding the outreach as being a means to discover our own humanity: “To stop what we’re doing, to welcome those in need, to listen to our suffering brothers and sisters, and to give of ourselves; in so doing, we discover who we truly are by serving others”. Thus, since December 2014, the parishioners of the basilica have been providing meals for some 130 people every day, with the exception of Sundays.
With many people queuing outside the church, it is often the case that demand outstrips supply, but Dom Pietro is adamant that no one will be sent away without a meal. On such occasions, he heads out to local restaurants which often sell him dishes at reduced cost, in order that no one should go hungry. Out of his own pocket, he ensures every meal concludes with a sweet and coffee, believing that the joy which simple pleasures bring – such as a sweet pastry - are in themselves an act of charity.
Since the introduction of austerity measures in Italy, the number of those categorized as being poor has risen dramatically in Rome, and many of them rely on the meal provided by the parishioners of Sant’Eustachio, and indeed other Church-run facilities around the city. The majority of diners are either homeless, or of foreign birth, revealing how Italy is at the frontline of the present refugee tragedy. Concerning refugees, Don Pietro is forthright in recognizing the debt former colonialist powers have towards countries which may have been despoiled by their one-time overlords.
As far as Don Pietro is concerned, there is only one qualification for lunch in the basilica, and that is to be hungry; regardless of gender, sexual orientation, creed, or colour. Arrangements are even in place to assist those diners who have specific religious dietary restrictions. During the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslim guests will still be encouraged to join in the convivium of mealtimes with the other diners, but afterwards will be provided with a packed lunch which they can take away and eat after the sun has set.
To the curious tourists who poke their heads around the doors of the basilica during the lunch, and who are surprised to find the nave has become a restaurant for the poor and marginalized, Don Pietro, smiles and says, “Rome is more than just Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Piazza Navona - it is also this - which, whilst perhaps only a drop in the ocean, is, nonetheless, a gesture of charity”.
Martin hopes that the retiring collection following the concert will help raise funds for the next stage of the project at Sant’Eustachio, which is the conversion of the crypt in order to provide medical care, washing facilities, and a laundry; the intention of which is to help Rome’s poorest move from the margin to the mainstream of society.
If you would like to help with the costs of the mensa, or the crypt development project, you can email the Rector of the basilica at: email@example.com
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