· With the Little Sisters of Jesus in the Fraternity of the Tre Fontane to know the origins of a mission with open arms ·
When one arrives at the Tre Fontane where the Little Sisters of Jesus live, the atmosphere changes: the noise of the traffic on the street fades, the small well-kept wooden houses are filled with flowers and Sisters and lay people stroll about this simple and welcoming little village. Before beginning the conversation, the Little Sisters took me into the room of the mementos of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. On a wall there was a drawing on canvas portraying the Visitation, opposite Jesus was painted as a young adolescent at the carpenter’s bench with Joseph and Mary, and in the centre on the last wall Christ, his arms wide open and clad in a white tunic, was looking at us. These three drawings done by Charles de Foucauld delineate the spirituality of the Little Sisters of Jesus: being simple and poor, visiting and accepting visits. The conversation began with Little Sister Daniela Chiara, the next to be in charge of the Tre Fontana Community.
What has been your path?
There have been three stages: the first with the gypsies in Bologna, the second with the Toubou tribe in Nigeria among Muslims and the third in Turin in a district near the station.
What has been the place of the Gospel of the Visitation in these experiences?
In itself, the fraternity as conceived of by Magdeleine was born from her encounter in Niger with the semi-nomadic people of Touggourt. She spent a long period living alone among them. It was then that she imagined how life in a Fraternity could be and began to write the Constitutions of the Little Sisters. We therefore came into being precisely from an encounter of Little Sister Magdeleine with the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld, and also from her meeting with the Algerian poor of Touggourt.
Was the Fraternity born from all these encounters?
Yes it was born from all this, and above all continues to be born every time because wherever we live we are small groups integrated into the people’s lives, we seek to learn and to take on a little of “their colour”, their world of life and work, their language. There is no single fraternity that resembles another and this seemed even more obvious to me when I had, as it were, to find my feet in Niger. When I arrived in that country I knew nothing about the life of its people and I found myself “asking permission” to enter it. And life was born from those encounters. At the outset they asked us: “Why have you come to us?”. And one of the Little Sisters answered: “We come because of God to be able to live with you”. Then the Imam, the chief of the tribe and responsible for prayer said: “If it is God who is sending you, what can I say?”. From that moment it was they who taught us everything about life. And we gave them what we were. And life developed in that daily routine. For me this was an important spiritual experience because when one finds oneself among believers in different religions it is the most important “parts” of faith that awaken, and this is a true visitation.
I remember that at the end of a retreat in Niger to a Sister who had asked him what the mission meant for him, Msgr Gayot answered her: “For me the Gospel of the mission is the Visitation”. Two fecundities that meet. It is from this that life gushes, leaps up and dances. It is true that in contact with that simple life and with that Muslim spirituality I deepened my own faith. Indeed, the call “Allahu Akbar”, God is the greatest, recited five times every day, enabled me to rediscover a dimension of my own faith, namely God’s transcendence, which I sometimes risk undervaluing when my heart’s gaze more easily contemplates the wonder of a God who became Man in Jesus. At the same time too, during those moments of adoration before that little piece of bread exposed on the sand, I remember I said to myself: “Look, that little piece of Bread is precisely this ‘God greater than all’ who has become so small… he has put himself in our hands”. Thus the Good News that God made himself a man among men and women for our sake and walks with us became even more precious.
When there is a Visitation, are there two of the visited who reawaken?
Yes. I shall tell you a story. One day we had gone to meet a friend in a nearby tent. She was called Forey. Our Sister Regional Responsible was with us and did not speak the local language. Another Sister was therefore translating. At a certain point, in translating from Tebu into French, she made a mistake. The two Little Sisters start laughing and Forey asked: “Why are you laughing?”. And the Sister translating answered: “Now I can’t even remember my own language!”. That woman, Forey, with whom we had nothing in common (she was African, elderly and Muslim, we were young, European and Christian) said in response: “When you arrived, we were “Toubous” and you were “nazara”, that is, white consecrated women. And now I am no longer a “Toubou”, and you are no longer “nazara”, white; together we have made something new”. This gave me an incredible shock which I shall remember all my life. That is, how an encounter in humanity in faith (although different faiths), creates something new. It was our new life that was beginning! And I could tell you thousands of other stories like this one.
Emanuela (formerly responsible for the Tre Fontane Community), what is your experience?
For part of my life I lived in Cuba. I arrived there in 1985 and stayed there for 22 years. It was a completely different situation: a Communist country, consisting of all races, blacks, whites and people of mixed race. It was a completely new experience for me, I had never known anything like it before. In that country in theory everyone was an atheist, but in practice no one was. I discovered in the first place deep respect for the sacred and then a true desire to try to understand, to create a relationship with us. At the time I was working in an old people’s home, where I did the laundry with a Cuban woman. She was teaching me Spanish and how to fold sheets and she said: “You are my white daughter!”. They were very simple relations. There was so much gratitude. In fact in each of our encounters importance was given to the other person, we made the most of each other. Or, in other words, they made us think “Every life is truly important”. And I said to myself that there was something of God in all this. Moreover it all happened without saying a word. This was already a first Visitation. The fact that we could meet each other at a human level in so simple a way, on an equal footing and with equal dignity with regard to the other who is like you, brought something deeper into being, in other words something of that presence of God which is in each one of us. When I think of Mary who met Elizabeth, and of the sons they were carrying in their wombs, who leaped within them, well, I believe that every time there is an encounter the same thing happens. For in the end there is always God who leaps for joy within us, even if we do not realize it.
What must happen for an encounter to be a Visitation?
We arrived simply to offer our friendship. Thus there was a free giving on our part that which people noticed. And for me, who didn’t even know how to speak their language and was there to learn, this immediately gave the relationship a different tone. For example, I had to learn how to sew, and this is why I took a three-month course. One day a dressmaker sat next to me and said to me: “Who would ever have said that one day I would be teaching a sister!”. It was simple, and it was also in a certain sense the world turned upside down. I think that this must have been what Little Sister Magdeleine experienced when she was in Touggourt.
What happened to Little Sister Magdeleine in Touggourt?
She was adopted by the Muslims as one of them, she was on her own and had to learn to live there. She was welcomed by an Algerian tribe and while she was having this experience she wrote the Constitutions. She was able to share what she was experiencing in her innermost heart with all those Muslims, because they felt she was one of them, like a sister. She learned and they too learned from her: it was a true exchange of friendship. And this prepared the ground for true exchanges of faith, even deeper than all that Magdeleine could hope for or imagine with people who seemed to belong to such a different world. All this paved the way for us to share life with simplicity. And it is in this that our riches lie.
What does Little Sister Magdeleine say of the Visitation in your Constitutions?
A fundamental feature of our Constitutions is the fact of living among others with respectful and sensitive love, of putting ourselves on the same level, neither above nor below, of being the Little Sisters of all. Magdeleine described all the things that create an encounter.
Charles de Foucauld also speaks of this, explaining that God manifests himself in the encounter. He also explained that Mary was urged to the encounter by Jesus himself, she was in a certain way impelled to go to Elizabeth. And he makes Jesus say: “From my Mother’s womb I urged her to go to the other”.
Charles de Foucauld’s life was full of visitations because he wanted to be close to people, he was always seeking to imitate as well as he could the life of Jesus of Nazareth, that is, his closeness to people: being close, as close as possible to others. This was an important feature of his life. He endeavoured to settle in the south of Algeria and hesitated between a more isolated place and another that was more populated. So he asked Jesus: “What must I do?”, and he then wrote as if the Lord had answered him: “It is not distancing yourself that will enable you to recollect yourself in me, but rather love. Live very close to them, lost in God”. Hence his need to visit and to let himself be visited.
The Foundress of the Little Sisters
The Foundress of the Little Sisters, Magdeleine Hutin (1898-1989), came from Lorraine, a few kilometres from the German frontier, where she lived a childhood deeply marked by the tragedy of war. Having long nourished the dream of leaving for Africa, she found in Charles de Foucauld and in his idea of religious life the inspiration she was awaiting and in 1936 left for Algeria. Three years later she founded the Fraternity of the Little Sisters of Jesus. In 1949 she resigned from the office of General Responsible in order to devote herself totally to founding new fraternities in the most remote corners of the earth. In 1959 the Little Sisters already numbered 800 and there were 184 fraternities scattered across the world.
From 1956 until a few weeks before she died, in 1989, Magdeleine crossed the Iron Curtain time and again on board the “Shooting Star”, a van turned into a camper, pressing on as far as China. In the Soviet Bloc countries she created relations with the local Christian communities, founded fraternities and wove profound ecumenical bonds. As it were the sign of a prophecy fulfilled, the Berlin Wall fell on the day of her funeral.
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