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Birmingham pilgrims join Holy Father for life-changing event in Rome


A group of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Birmingham was among thousands of homeless and excluded people from across Europe who gathered in Rome last weekend to join Fratello 2016, celebrating the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican.

To mark the end of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invited people to join him for a special celebration that would remind homeless people they have a place in God’s heart and in the Church. The invitation extended to homeless and poor people all across Europe, as well as the organisations and individuals that support them. The Archdiocese of Birmingham, the Diocese of Salford and the Passage in Westminster responded to this call, with each organising a group from their area to attend. 

Caritas Archdiocese of Birmingham, in partnership with Father Hudson’s Care, arranged for a group of ten people to make the pilgrimage to Rome. Fr Michael White, a Caritas member and Tamworth priest who helped organise the trip, said: “A lot of hard work went into preparation and although the trip took place on Thursday, it started a few months ago. We worked hard to find people who had been homeless and who had a desire to go to Rome and meet Pope Francis. Those who went were at a stage in their lives where they were concerned about their spiritual journey.”

The preparation also gave the group the opportunity to meet each other ahead of the trip so, when they met at the airport, they already felt part of a group of pilgrims rather than strangers.

Despite coming from a range of backgrounds, the participants had all experienced homelessness and destitution, with some having lived on the streets. Although some of those who went still live in hostels and temporary accommodation, they are moving forward with their lives. Some are working towards employment, while others volunteer at soup kitchens and other charities.

Almost everyone who went had never been to Italy before, let alone to Rome, so for many the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

/media/news/library/img_1434.jpgOn arrival in Rome on Thursday, the group of ten joined thousands of other homeless people and companions from many other countries. Fr Michael said, “Being among the people who gathered for the pilgrimage we felt part of something bigger. There were thousands of other people there, each with the stories of their lives etched onto their faces – people who had experienced abuse, violence, trafficking, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and much more. It was very moving.”

The event began on the morning of Friday 11 November when a few pilgrims had an audience with Pope Francis. Out of the thousands of people gathered, a small number were selected to meet the Pope in person. A member of the Birmingham group, Josephine, was one of those who experienced this privilege. Josephine, an asylum seeker from Congo who had become destitute, said meeting the Pope was like “a daughter talking with her father.”

During her meeting she received a kiss and then held his hand and spoke to him, sharing her prayers with him. After the meeting she said, “he is very humble – he listened to me.”

Other homeless people took to the stage and gave witness, sharing moving personal experiences about homelessness. The Pope spoke with people and, although they couldn’t understand every word said, through his body language and attitude he made them feel embraced and welcome.

/media/news/library/wp_20161112_13_41_15_pro.jpgOn the second day the gathered pilgrims were split into language groups, offering them the opportunity to meet people from across the globe. Fr Michael said Mass for their group and they spoke with others including a nun who shared her experiences of working in prisons in America.

The trip also offered the opportunity to explore Rome and on Friday the group had fun touring the city, seeing the sights, and enjoying lunch in a local café. On Saturday they visited a market and took a trip to the English College, where they received a warm welcome from the seminarians. Over lunch at the college they mingled and chatted with the trainee priests, who treated them with great hospitality.

Saturday evening saw the group take part in a candlelit procession around St Paul Outside the Walls, where they shared prayers and solidarity with homeless people present, followed by a vigil.

The weekend concluded with Mass at St Peter’s Basilica, at which homeless people were given the VIP treatment and were seated in the front rows with diplomats, Vatican officials and others behind them. The pilgrims from Birmingham were close to the front and could see Pope Francis throughout the service, which they described as a “very special experience.” Those present were given headphones so they could hear a simultaneous translation of the Pope's words.

/media/news/library/img_1472.jpgFr Michael said that some people who took part in the trip were “moved to tears by the sense of mercy and reconciliation.” He also spoke of the importance of, not only looking after health and housing needs of homeless people, but also caring for their spiritual needs.

The group visited historic Rome, including the Colosseum and the Forum before boarding the coach to begin the journey home. One member of the group said, “It’s truly incredible and I feel really privileged to be here. After three days we’ve made it to the Colosseum but now we’ve got to go home. I wish we had more time. Thank you to everyone who’s allowed me this experience.”

The experience was profoundly moving for all those who went, with many touched by the stories they heard and by the way Pope Francis welcomed them and embraced them into the Church. One of the Birmingham group said it was “the most amazing and beautiful experience of my life.”

Despite coming from many different backgrounds, the group became close and formed friendships over the weekend as the unique experience brought them together. At the end of their trip, not only were they sad to leave Rome but they were sad to say goodbye to each other.

While the pilgrimage may have ended, the legacy of the event and of the Year of Mercy continues. Caritas Archdiocese of Birmingham, Father Hudson’s Care and other partners have worked together over the last year to develop a project that will care for rough sleepers in Birmingham. Due to open in April 2017, Tabor House will offer emergency shelter for homeless men and women in the city. And, inspired by their trip and wanting to help others, several of the participants will be volunteering at Tabor House, extending their own hand of friendship to other people in need.

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