I‘d never pronounced Cecilia with a “ch-“ sound but that’s the Italian way, apparently. We were told to find Cecilia at the soup kitchen she ran in Trastevere, a building buried behind a leafy corridor lined with benches. Having spent the day getting footage of Rome and exploring the Vatican, we were a bit tired but nevertheless curious to talk to the woman who had coordinated the Pope’s most symbolic act of humanitarian aid—taking in a group of Syrian families from a Greek refugee camp.
We showed up around 6:00, when the kitchen had been serving for an hour already, and made our way down the outdoor walkway, smiling at the men as they puffed their cigarettes. Sitting down there was Georgio, who was fascinated that we were from America. A homeless Romanian living in Rome, he didn’t speak much English, but uttered enough to convey that American politics were “just crazy.”
We were led upstairs to find Cecilia in a room with three other men, barking orders in Italian. Both of her hands were occupied, one pressing a phone to her ear and the other rapidly pointing at the computer screen on the desk. At this moment, she was training new employees, putting out a fire, and running a soup kitchen that was serving another 150 people tonight. Cecilia was short in stature but moved quickly, glancing intently about the upper room to make sure all was in order. You could tell nobody crossed her, but nobody needed to—she had the warmth of a grandmother but the precision of a corporate mogul. It soon became apparent that something had come up. “I have to go downstairs to the kitchen,” she said, and immediately we stood up and followed her, like ducklings in a row.
At this moment, she was training new employees,
putting out a fire, and running a soup kitchen
that was serving another 150 people tonight.
I felt a little uncomfortable having my camera in visible sight as we waded through the soup kitchen, so we eventually stopped our progress and made our way back to the entrance, away from the stares of the patrons. Showing sensitivity has been crucial in our interactions with people, yet something that’s taken more conscious effort and learning than I had imagined. Cecilia acknowledged us outside but had another phone call to answer. Such is the life of a woman on a first name basis with the Pope.
“The sacristan is sick tonight, so I have to coordinate a replacement,” she told us, “it may be best to just sit here and talk for even 10 minutes.”
“Absolutely!” we chorused. Any one-on-one time with her was precious to us. Cecilia was in charge of selecting the Syrian families Pope Francis brought to Rome from his trip to Lesbos this April. Officials in the Vatican had decided a week before the trip that the Pope should “give an example” to the world and offer a tangible sign of solidarity. The Pope trusted Cecilia, a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, and two others to survey the island three days before his arrival and find 12 refugees to host at the Community.
The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay service organization with ties to the Vatican. Most recently, the Community has pioneered the creation of humanitarian corridors to provide safe passage across the Mediterranean for vulnerable migrants.
Conducting the Pope’s due diligence was no easy task, however. “We had to operate under secrecy,” she explained, ”we couldn’t say we represented the Vatican or we would have thousands of people asking to be taken away.” Beyond that, they had to convince officials that they were not smugglers. After UNHCR denied them entry into the camp the Pope would later visit and after being closely observed at another camp, they appealed to the local mayor to grant special permission—“We received just one hour to select our people,” she said.
Up to this point, any mention of the Vatican had been suppressed, but the Pope was arriving within hours without any legal backing to bring refugees home. “Finally, we gained the support of the Swiss Guards to explain openly the Pope’s goal,” she said, “and that meant the chief of the camp took the task into his own hands.” Complications arose as one family was void from rescue having arrived a day after the EU-Turkey legislation went into effect—it established that after March 20, migrants arriving to Greek shores would be sent back to Turkey in exchange for the resettlement of the same number of migrants living in Turkey. “We tried but there was nothing we could do to bring this family home,” she told us. Nevertheless, 12 Syrians were soon aboard a flight to Italy, ready to start new lives with the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Standing up, Cecilia took out her phone. “I have to go,” she apologized. She had given us her undivided attention, as if nothing else mattered, in the past half hour. She offered each of us hugs before striding back toward the activity in the kitchen. She was undoubtedly off to share her smile with as many more faces as she could before sunset.