Some time ago I had the opportunity to visit the cooperative Nazareno di Carpi, an organization that takes care of disabled children. One day they showed me around and had me visit the various parts of the cooperative. It was a sunny day, a little muggy, a typical day in Italy’s Po Valley.
I met a handful of kids who, helped by their teachers, were busy rehearsing for a theatre production. I remember one of them whom I’ll call “Luca”. He was wearing a cowboy hat that was a bit too small for his large head, and he was carrying a plastic pistol. The children performed a few scenes from their play just for me, full of moments of shyness and moments of exaggerated euphoria. They were well behaved, kind, and above all, happy. They were happy that I was there and they were in silence, because I listened to them and watched them. They were happy to give something of themselves to me. At the end I gave a round of applause and they were even more content, especially Luca with his pistol.
Our visit carried us to the jobs department where I met “Luigi”, a boy who was injured in an accident, who is now in a wheelchair and almost blind. I spent a bit of time with him and he talked to me about what he does. He showed me some of his work and invited me to have a cup of coffee with him. While we were in front of the coffee machine he realized that my name was Francesco and he asked me, “So are you the pope?” When I told him no, he became sad, noticeably downcast. But he forgave me all the same and offered me his friendship and a cup of coffee.
Next we went to the art department. There I met “Paolo”, a boy with Down syndrome. He was painting, completely bent up over the table, intensely focused on his work, tracing out lines and filling in spaces. The teachers explained his paintings to me and told me about his exceptional gifts, which have been recognized even by art critics. At one point in our conversation Paolo realized we were talking about him. He slowly backed away from the table, leaving his drawing in sight. With his look and his hand gestures he motioned for me to come closer. Without using a word, he made clear to me that this painting was his. He was proud of his work. Viewing the painting attentively and without haste, I made an effort to gather in its meaning. Then, addressing Paolo, I complimented him for his work. He silently shook my hand and bent back down over the table and carried on with utter dignity.
I left in the afternoon. It was a simple day and at the end I felt very grateful. They were true encounters, pure encounters. Those children shared something precious with me: their drawings, their work, their time. They shared themselves, their strange and kind personalities. There’s hidden warmth in the act of sharing, in the gift of oneself. I saw a place where, in some way, loneliness seemed more difficult and companionship more stable. Sharing life allows us to enter mysteriously into the secret of God’s life, a secret that he began to reveal to us when He became man.
(photo Emma Huang – Portrait Painting)