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Why I want the nun

Investigation into the presence of the religious women in the Roman prison of Rebibbia

Sister Rita and Sister Carla go every week to the criminal institute in Rebibbia, in Rome. On Sundays, they attend Mass with the inmates. Some of them afterwards go up to them and ask whether they can speak with them. Others have known them for some time and find the time to exchange a few words. Those men have been in prison for years and still have much time to spend in prison. They have a dark past, a sad present, a dark future, but with that request they show that there is something inside of them that is not definitively broken. The desire to communicate, to be heard still remains.

Sister Lucia is a nurse and goes instead to the ward of Sandro Pertini hospital, in Rome, where there are sick prisoner.

Sister Rita has been going to Rebibbia for ten years. Ten years of listening to their stories and their dramas. "Everyone – she tells me after completing one of her visits – has something inside that they want to express, that they want to tell. They are terrible stories that they often do not even know how to explain. One of them, in prison for murder, does not know clearly yet how to explain, even to himself, why one day he killed a man and then cut him into pieces and hid each piece in a different place. He continues repeating: "Why? Why? " ".

She does not seem upset by such dramatic stories, her words are calm and full of  compassion. "They need someone who will listen to them,  listen to their discomfort, who understands the difficulty of their lives." And often the discomfort, the pain is not just about their past, the sins they committed, but also about their present life, as it unfolds in the prisons.

When a nun comes close to a detainee she does not know anything about him. Typically she visits the correctional institution spontaneously, driven by the desire to listen and is admitted after an agreement with the prison management. The relationship between her and the prisoner thus takes place without any formality, without any directives. The nuns are available to listen, the prisoners have a desire and need to talk.

But why precisely with the nuns? Why do inmates often prefer to speak with them rather than with others? In prisons, even in those of the inadequate Italian prison system, there are doctors, psychologists, social workers, and yet – it has been found –  they talk more willingly with the nuns.

Sister Carla is fully aware of this: “They know that we cannot do anything for them from the practical point of view, but they also know that we have no ulterior motive but to listen. For this reason they gladly welcome us.” And - adds Sister Rita - “they understand that we are there for them, only for them and they tell us this. They are keen to point out that what they say to us they wouldn’t tell others."

In this way the meeting becomes mutual and spontaneous. The solace comes from the simple means of words, of understanding, of attention, of the possibility to express doubts, all doubts, even those that no one else would understand. They, it is evident, in that life of suffering continue to search for a mother, a woman who will stay by their side no matter what have done.

Sister Carla recounts that often the detainees with whom she speaks will make promises to her at the end. "Sister - they say - I will try to do everything you have told me because you for me are like my mother." Sister Lucia passes between the cells of the hospital and she hears greetings. "Good morning, Mum," they say. She stops for a chat. "I do not do big things - she tells me - but I understand that I should go there, amongst them, and that they need me. In the ward where inmates with psychiatric problems are hospitalized someone expressly said to her: "I don’t want a psychiatrist, I want the nun." And another begged me: "Sister, do not leave me." I do not ask questions, I listen to them, but I know that through doing this I can help them."

Sister Carla remembers that one day, after Mass, an inmate approached her to ask if he could still say the Our Father. “Why not? What problems do you have? “ asked the nun.”Because I am not willing to forgive," replied the prisoner. He had killed a man who had raped and murdered his wife. He was in prison for that crime, he was serving a severe sentence, he knew he had done a terrible thing, but even so, he knew he was not able to forgive, he had no intention to "forgive" any debt and in that prayer, one knows, it expresses this clearly.

Sister Carla listened and understood. The man who spoke to her was not yet ready for repentance and forgiveness, he needed more time, the path was more difficult. "You can say the Our Father - she answered - with that prayer ask God to help you do what until now you have not done. Ask him to give you the strength that you don’t have. It has the same validity and importance."

In those hours which they spent in the prisons, all the sorrows and doubts and uncertainties about the future of those in that penal institute who are forced to stay for years are poured onto Sister Rita, Sister Carla and Sister Lucia.

Even the fears of those, who may appear fortunate because somehow they have tried to balance their accounts with justice. Sister Rita has known many who have repented, have become collaborators with justice and perhaps, as a result of this, who might have a better future. "But even for them - she explains - the days to come are dark. They have to change everything: their faces, habits, country and then, after a few years in which they have the help of the State, they are left to be alone again. They must think entirely about their own lives, their work, their affections. They are afraid and they confess this to the nuns."

After speaking with the three nuns who go to Rebibbia I wondered if the work of the sisters in prisons is coordinated and directed by someone, if there are any numbers, any data on their presence in prisons, if their ability to listen is known and appreciated.

I learned from Virgil Balducchi, Chief Inspector of the Italian prison chaplains, that the numbers are uncertain, and that it is only in recent times that they are attempting a census, which for this reason they have contacted the Unione superiore maggiori d’Italia to work together on projects and proposals. For now, from the first partial census, we can say that there are roughly two hundred nuns who are visiting prisons, all volunteers, as since 1975 there is no longer a law in place which established them as prison assistants.

There remains the question of what makes a group of nuns who probably do not know each other , which are not coordinated by any higher organization, focus on  their mission in the prisons.

"There's something that drives me, something very strong - Sister Lucia tries to explain - and even if it takes me two hours to get to the Rebibbia or the Pertini hospital, I never miss a day of  my visits. I realize that my prayers are always addressed to them. I realized I could not abandon them for any reason, ever since my first visit to a penal institution. I remember the day after I visited a prison for the first time, I went to a ceremony in St. Peter's and all the time I thought only of  those sick, of those prisoners. I burst into tears for their pain, their misery."

Their misery. Despite being used to prison, the sisters are always affected. "Ever since the first day - says Sister Carla - it was clear that it was the poor who paid most of all, it was they were without work, who had no family, who often did not even know how to read and write and who in the end finish in prison. Some wanted to be confirmed, I gave them something to read to prepare themselves and they asked shamefully if I could read it myself ... They were not able to."

Confronted with this loneliness, this abandonment, this unimaginable poverty the words of the religious are the only wealth, the only attention, the only gift that anyone who is in prison is able to receive .

It is for this that detainees do not stop looking for the nuns and do not stop trying to find them. Even if only foe a greeting, a prayer together and the promise: "See you again in a few days."




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 16, 2019