The example of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Christ
More than a hundred years have passed since Teresa of Jesus Crucified, born Faustina Zavagli, rushed into the Chapel of Sant’Onofrio in Rimini. Facing the high altar, she prostrated herself at the foot of the large canvas of the Crucifixion, a work of the Guido Reni school. With her eyes fixed on the gaping arms of Christ, the nun opened her anguish-filled heart to him. The money had run out. The fraternity’s coffers had been drained by the need to educate the too many children to whom misery denied an education. The next day there would have been no way to buy food for the girls, who came from the poorest areas of Rimini and were welcomed in that first house, next to the church. Teresa of Jesus Crucified had thought of everything. Since she began in 1882, at the age of almost fifty, after having had to give up the contemplative life as an Augustinian nun for health reasons, she had certainly not lacked creativity. That time, however, she felt she had reached a dead end. So she turned to the Crucifix: “Lord, take care of it”. Otherwise, she would have been left with no choice but to sell the precious painting. This was not necessary. The testimonies report that, shortly afterwards, the foundress of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Christ found the money she needed to put into practice the intuition towards which the Spirit was leading her: to give education and opportunities to those who were deprived of them by injustice.
When she passed in front of the painting, which is still located there, Sister Lorella Chiaruzzi, who was called to lead the institute as mother superior three years ago, often thinks of that episode. It falls to her, therefore, to take on the task that belonged to Teresa, the pioneer. Including the burden of having to guarantee the sustenance of a family that is small but not so small, consisting of 158 sisters scattered throughout Italy, Latin America and Africa. Keeping faith with Francis’ testament whose charism nourishes the institute: “And I worked with my hands and I want to work; and I firmly want all the other brothers to work in a manner befitting honesty. Those who do not know, let them learn, not out of greed to receive the reward of work, but to set an example and keep idleness at bay”.
“Enthusiasm, inventiveness and trust in Providence are, therefore, the cornerstones of our business plan to carry on the enterprise”, jokes Sister Lorella. If in spirit and mission it has little in common, in terms of numbers the congregation resembles a medium-sized company, which in order to stay on its feet, must find resources with which to pay a hundred employees, maintain its buildings, plan new ones, and fulfill its bureaucratic and fiscal obligations. In addition to guaranteeing the maintenance of religious women. It is not surprising, then, that Sister Lorella, from time to time, feels the same anguish as Teresa in front of the Crucifix. “Oh yes, I must admit: economic matters give me quite a lot to think about”. Of course, it is the general bursar who keeps the accounts, with the support of two officials and an accountant. Each fraternity, moreover, has its own accounting system. The superior, moreover, is assisted in governance by four sisters, in the sign of synodality. The issues that end up on the superior’s desk are, however, numerous. This is the nature of her role with five schools - including preschools and elementary school - two rest homes and a facility for self-managed groups to be run only in the Rimini area. Then there are the novitiate in Assisi, the student residence in Rome and the recent inter-congregational experience in the Diocese of Spoleto. In addition, there are the missions in Crato, in the Brazilian Ceará, in Ethiopia - where the religious have been present since 1972 - and in Tanzania, since 2003. Future projects include a new experience in Mozambique, plans for which are in the process of being finalized. These international projects are maintained mainly by work in the fields and micro-enterprises - a bakery, for example - created to produce a small income, as well as to provide work for the most vulnerable in the community, especially women. “Only the Brazilian enterprise, however, is completely autonomous, thanks to the minimum wage that the three sisters receive for their pastoral service in the parish. The others are industrious, but the numbers are greater and the works more demanding. Therefore, they still need support from Italy, coming from collections, donations from benefactors and charity markets. Moreover, and above all, with the missionary secretariat fund, which is getting thinner and thinner. Every year, therefore, about forty thousand euros leave the Mother house in Via Bonsi in Rimini for the eight communities in the south and northeast of Ethiopia and the three in Tanzania, where the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Christ have set up clinics, children’s centers and schools. A substantial amount, yet nothing compared to the expenses to finance Italian projects. In 2019, these were around 4.8 million euros, compared to 4.5 million in revenue. The latter come mainly from nursing home fees and parochial schools. Especially the latter, however, have been trudging along for several years because of the falling rates and the costs of paying staff which are rising due to the reversal of the percentage of religious recruited from within and lay employees from outside.
The impact of Covid, therefore, hit already fragile entities significantly, triggering a telluric shock. “The parents of the children have been generous. Many of them offered to pay the school fees even though the teaching of the youngest children had stopped. However, we still had to close two small preschools and an exercise house. Moreover, some of our elderly guests died from the virus in the second wave. Even the nursing homes, therefore, are barely able to stay afloat. Fortunately, we had made certain investments in the past. Moreover, we stipulated a pension fund from which some sums can be withdrawn in advance in the increasingly frequent case of need. Our main source of income now are the pensions of the fifty sisters who receive them, out of a total of 69 residents in Italy. In each fraternity, the resources are shared and, thanks to the pensioners, we all go ahead”.
The figures, however, are not high, given that two thirds of them receive the so-called “social allowance” of a maximum of 650 euros, an aid for those who have not been able to complete their national health contributions. For example, religious women, who are moved cyclically from service to service; therefore, making ends meet has become a challenge. And, so much so that Sister Lorella sometimes has the temptation to follow the example of an elderly sister and put the statue of St. Joseph against the wall in hopes of convincing him to intercede to overcome the difficulties. “Worse than this crisis, however, is only the drama of wasting it”, says Sister Lorella, paraphrasing Pope Francis. “Covid is forcing us to take note of a series of problems that are already present. To face them, with courage and openness to the new. And a pinch of resourcefulness, like that of the post-war sisters who supported themselves by working in the summer colonies. The pandemic may prove to be a great opportunity for ‘purification’. For a long time, different congregations have been doing the same thing. Perhaps it is time to return to the origins of the charism, to renounce what is not its own. To close what is no longer useful, without regrets. Moreover, we are having a great experience of Providence”. The Mother Superior listed many examples: from the leftover food packages from the Civil Defense to the unexpected gift of a company with which to dig a well on a mission. “This is what gives us the strength to go on”, concludes Sister Lorella who, instead of turning to the statue of St Joseph, in times of difficulty, she walks at dawn on the beach in Rimini. She concludes “I repeat to myself: Lorella, the congregation is not yours. It has existed for 136 years because the Lord wants it. Breathe, He will resolve, as always”.
by Lucia Capuzzi