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Gestures of love

With the Xaverian Missionary Angela Bertelli on the outskirts of Bangkok

For eight years Angela Bertelli, a Xaverian missionary, has directed the House of Angels for disabled children and their mothers on the outskirts of Bangkok.

What is the House of Angels?

It is an opportunity for evangelization through charity. It is saying, through practical gestures, what one doesn’t succeed in saying with words. Indeed, if we translate into Thai words such as “mercy”, “love”, “freedom in giving” and “God”, they do not have the same meaning as they have in the Bible: we cannot know what others understand by them. However, people understand simple, concrete acts: “Come, I’ll help you, I do physiotherapy, I’ll teach it to you, we shall prepare food in the blender for the babies...”. Through the experience of receiving freely, mothers realize that there is something different from the love that they know. Such acts in such real situations enable them to recognize the abundant mercy of God.

How do the mothers react?

They are stunned. They see that you are with them, that you wash the floor, clean the lavatories, go with them to the hospital... why? You talk to doctors, you help them to understand their child’s condition. At the heart of it all it is with the mothers that the enormous task of educating lies.

Does giving freely stop if you make the Christian proposal?

Before starting work in the morning, and at midday, we read the Gospel. I tell them: “I am not asking you to change your religion; but I am proposing to you an alternative to the karma”, according to which everything is predicted and paid for. Although their culture urges them to distance themselves from the Cross, their motherly love orients them to the Christian faith. I say to them: “I shall enable you to know an alternative to a guilt-making interpretation of your children’s suffering. Jesus said: “I was ill and you visited me...”.

Mothers’ love for their children becomes a grace, a journey that prepares them for the encounter with the greatest surprise of their lives: God’s freely given love and his mercy. They see that their children are smiling and without realizing it they find themselves living Christianity. Almost every year there is one mother who asks for Baptism.

Can you give some examples?

The first mother is now going to catechism and takes her child with her: “Without him I would never have encountered God’s love for me, I would never have received Baptism. I now know that there is a God who is more a father than my own father”.

All the mothers think that they are bad because they sometimes get cross with their children. At times they have considered putting them in an institution. “Be careful”, I say to them, true love does not lie in feelings but in service, in the gift of yourselves”. One mother who had seen her disabled three-year old girl die after a long and “useless” period of nursing, and who was then abandoned by her husband just after having given birth to her second child, was taken in by the House of the Angels. Two years later her husband came back. Although she was ready to forgive him, she was brave enough to say to him: “If you want us to live together, you must accept the fact that I am Christian”. She is a timid, introverted woman, yet she had this courage.

Another woman, who was pregnant and already had a blind and dystonic little boy, opposed her husband who wanted her to have an abortion. She gave birth to a very beautiful and healthy baby girl. These are courageous actions, especially in a context in which women are submissive to their husbands.

What is the social condition of these mothers?

They are all poor people who come from the slums surrounding the city and seldom have a job. Seven kilometres from the House there is a state institution for disabled children of up to seven years old who are left there by families: there are 540 of them and when they grow older they are sent to other institutions. Their condition is pitiful. Once the children have been left there they cannot be taken back home. The temptation for mothers is to leave their child there. Certain disabilities are the result of poverty: because of the lack of money a mother was not able to undergo a Caesarean and the child suffered traumas during birth; a father had tuberculosis and looked after his children while their mother went to work and they contracted tuberculosis of the brain...

What is the impact of the House of Angels?

People are amazed that young people from schools and universities in the country come and see us. One lady, an accountant at a bank, comes every week to keep the books. And ever since the house opened more than 130 Italian volunteers have arrived, at their own expense. Having surmounted the language barrier, the mothers have become accustomed to a communication of love which has become mutual knowledge. The volunteers take care of the children and the mothers can rest, at least for a little while.

For the volunteers too this is a moment of encounter with the Gospel: they see God’s love in these mothers, despite their Buddhist experience.

What is a typical day at the House like?

We get up at 6:00 a.m. The mothers bathe the babies, those that are not their own as well. Then at 8:30 they take them out in pushchairs for breakfast. Those who must accompany a child to hospital have already left. Then we pray the Angelus and read the day’s Gospel. At the beginning I explained, now that I know the language, that a moment of silence suffices, after which every mother may express a thought. The meeting lasts for half an hour and almost all the mothers speak.

Then the physiotherapy starts, one by one, and continues until ten. All the mothers know how to do everything for everyone, from physiotherapy to cooking. From 10:00 to 11:00, there are snacks and half an hour of playing together (painting, bowling...). At noon, there is more physiotherapy. In the meantime the meal is prepared. At 12:30 the mothers eat, then the others take turns to mind the children.

I arrive at 1:30 and we stop for the afternoon prayers. We are reading the bible. We have now come to the Prophets. I give some directions to help them understand what these things have to do with life.

From 14.30 to 15.30 there is more physiotherapy, then a snack. We then do the cleaning and give the children a second bath. Towards 5:00 we go to the refectory for the evening meal. At 5:30 the mothers go home, having left everything clean. On Sundays there is no physiotherapy. On Thursdays there is adoration in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, to recentre the entire service on the gift of oneself, as Jesus gave himself and as he teaches us in the Eucharist.

What is the atmosphere in the House of Angels?

It really is a family – for me too – where mothers learn more truly to love their children, as an opportunity for good and for their own growth too. When they arrive they don’t even know how to smile. They don’t know the reality of God’s love. How often have I read them the account of the Creation: “You are in God’s hands, you are not here by chance”! In Buddhism everything is fortuitous. “Let’s re-read some more”, one mother said to me. Re-reading these passages with them is like opening a door. I say to God: “I offer you the little that I can, but you transform the hearts of these mothers”.

How did all this begin?

I started by taking care of AIDS victims in the terminal phase, who did not know that free assistance had been offered to them. It was from 2004 to 2005, I saw so many of them die, it was the time when the AIDS problem exploded in Thailand. People would summon me, work increased. After six months Fr Adriano provided me with a team of six women. In the morning we would pray then we went out in pairs. In this way we became acquainted with the first of the disabled.

In December 2004, before the tsunami, Federica and Cristiano, an engaged couple from Venice who knew Fr Adriano and who had come to Bangkok, suggested to the Venice Caritas, with the agreement of the Archbishop of Bangkok, that it fund the construction of a house for disabled children. The engaged couple themselves earmarked their wedding gifts for the project.

Marc Chagall, “La mère à la robe rouge” [The mother in a red dress] (1965-68) and Sr Angela Bertelli with a guest of the House of Angels Didascalia: Marisa Mori, “Motherhood or the physical intoxication of motherhood”, 1936

I resolved not to ask for anything. At the beginning of 2007, the foundation stone of the House of Angels was laid. It was 11 February, the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions. The following year the house was ready. When the Sisters arrived in 2009 and we had formed our community, work was tackled.

So what does being a missionary in Thailand mean for you?

For me mission has become a proclamation of the Gospel through the language of concrete charity for the neediest people, and not only materially: they do not know the hope and comfort that only Jesus’ company can give them in all the dramatic events of their lives. For me it is a pure grace, a gift of God to see and feel him present in these people, especially in our little angels: it gives me joy and boundless energy to expend myself for them, for Jesus within them! They are Christ in our hands: what an honour has been granted to us! Even when you are washing the bottom of one of them it is the most beautiful prayer you can pray! I always repeat this to the mothers who – as they go to change a nappy – then say to me laughing, “Sister, we are going to pray!”.

Doesn’t it sometimes seem to you a restricted space in comparison with the great challenges of the world?

I have seen the organization of evil outside abortion clinics, then in Sierra Leone and in the human trafficking in Thailand... The evil is too powerful, we cannot fight it, it would be time wasted... It’s better for us to use our time and energy to work for the good which God permits us to do, starting with small things.

“Are you aware of the lovely things that you are doing?” I ask the mothers. If they manage to become a vital seed, it will be a seed that produces other seeds. I never refuse opportunities to talk about it. The violence we have within us is the same violence that devastates the world: to transform it into tenderness is already to contribute to a new world.

Teresina Caffi

The House of Angels

Angela Bertelli, a Xaverian Missionary of Mary, after living in Sierra Leone, has been in Thailand on the outskirts of Bangkok for years. It was here that the House of Angels for disabled children and their mothers came into being in 2008. Today 15 children live in the house. Five of them are abandoned, one is an orphan, and four have only their mother. Then there are five children who come during the day, they have both parents but these have serious family problems. About 13 mothers live at the centre with their children during the daytime.

There is friendship among them; at times they quarrel or show that they are jealous, partly because of the anguishing histories they bear within them; at times there is tension between Buddhists and Christians, then they forgive each other. They learn to trust each other day by day. They realize that they are no longer isolated or discriminated against, but are together. Then something absurd for the Thai culture happens: that a disabled child should become the path that leads you to God. Four mothers without husbands are permanently present, another comes for the night. We give them financial compensation for the service they carry out which is not only for their own children but also for those that have been abandoned. Angela tells of her experience in a book: Maria Angela Bertelli, La casa degli angeli, Itaca, Castel Bolognese, 2015 (itacalibri.it).

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