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The dark side of the family

· Fr Aldo Trento’s house of hope in Paraguay ·

Poor Liza. Poor Paulina. Poor Patricia. They have all had their wings clipped. Blows, domestic violence, torture. The Way of the Cross has many faces. And the list of their names could continue for a long time.

Moreover in recent years the house of hope of Fr Aldo Trento, a missionary in Paraguay, has been known as a special haven, a safe landing place in which to seek refuge. When the police don’t know what to do, dealing with cases of extreme violence, they knock at the wooden door of the parish. Tufts of plants sprout from a red-brick wall. A notice says “Welcome, confession is heard here at any time”.

Victoria and her child

Of course the policemen don’t go to Fr Aldo to make their confession. They know that he is the only person who welcomes human rejects whom no one wants: all too often women’s bodies reduced to a mess of blood, undernourished and subjected to every kind of bestial practice. Young women with little girls’ faces pounded to blood. Because it isn’t only the racket of prostitution that reaps victims. Machismo, a devastating cultural deformation, plays a substantial role in South American society.

At the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last autumn various testimonies rang out in the assembly hall. They were distressing reflections on the drift of this endemic phenomenon which the Church forcefully opposes and contributes to preventing, which is certainly far from easy, given that popular entrenched attitudes change over time, from generation to generation, so there is a need for constant commitment at the educational and didactic level, in parishes, in schools. In any case determination and courage are helpful. Silence is never any use.

Poor Liza. Poor Paulina. Poor Patricia. They could be imaginary names and yet they are not. Their lives are not inventions, a product of the imagination. Unfortunately the reality one meets when setting foot in Fr Aldo’s home portrays a heart-rending image of arrogance. The dark side of the family: brutal husbands, paedophile fathers, ruthless step-fathers.

So it is that in the Italian missionary’s parish structure not only the terminally ill and abandoned children find shelter but the women with their wings clipped also rediscover their smiles. Some of them are long-term patients with debilitating pathologies developed after years of torture.

Margit Brandl, “Broken Dolls”

In one room an elderly woman’s parchment face is striking. It seems a cameo of the past century, at first sight she might be 100 years old. Motionless, she keeps a fixed, almost unnatural position. Mercedes, in actuality, has just celebrated her 54th birthday. It was the blows which turned her into this bundle of skin and bones, so many blows, for years, to the point that they caused her to become autistic. From her world engulfed in darkness the woman picks up only one voice: Fr Aldo’s. When one approaches her, evoking two sacred words for the Guarani Indians, she opens her eyes wide: it is as if a key had opened an enfeebled memory. Mercedes gets up from her bed, her hands joined, ready to receive the blessing. A woman next to her watches what is going on. Fr Aldo whispers other words of affection. The nurses do all they can to help those who are unable to be autonomous. They are apparently all elderly, but who can say if this is really so?

The blows they received over the years have disfigured, aged and bent their backs. Fr Aldo has set up a sort of alternative welfare. “For us Europeans machismo is something we don’t really understand. Of course we have violence, we see killings, but we don’t have such a violent and deeply-rooted male chauvinist culture. The Catholic Church is aware that the importance of the equality between men and women must be defended and teaches mutual respect and the complementarity of their roles”.

It is an uphill road. Nothing can be taken for granted. On the floor below in the large hall full of brightly coloured toys and cheerful furniture, about ten children are playing. Some of them are only a few months old. They are cared for by five or six girls who seem to be about 20 or less.

Set apart is Liza, a paralysed adolescent, confined to a wheel-chair. She has very dark eyes, black hair and her gaze is absent. She too has had her wings clipped. Furthermore her history moved Pope Francis when he came to visit Fr Aldo’s centre. Hers is perhaps the most blood-curdling story of all.

Liza is just 12 years old, but to look at she seems even younger. For years she was raped by her step-father who left her without food, stubbing out his cigarette butts on her legs, amusing himself by torturing her. Her horrendous scars will never fade. The police found her, thanks to a denunciation, abandoned in a hut in the surrounding countryside, in indescribable conditions. Her feet had been broken in several places and this is why she will never be able to stand up. Fr Aldo took her in, she made not a sound, she didn’t even open her eyes. She was six months pregnant, raped by her step-father. Today her child David is a marvellous baby cuddled by several girls who take turns as baby-sitters. Each one of them has other stories, linked to the pavement, to drugs and to the racketeering.

A child of three, Diego runs happily to meet a missionary and embraces him. He holds out a broken toy to him. “Now let’s try to mend it”. Like the wings of these women which need repairing. A smile for each one. Perhaps one day they will fly again.

Franca Giansoldati




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019