ROME – Among the beneficiaries of the pope’s charity during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak are a small number of transgender prostitutes in Rome, who found themselves on the verge of homelessness and knocked on the door of their local parish for help.
It was the parish priest, Father Andrea Conocchia, pastor of the Beata Vergine Immacolata church in Torvaianica, about 45 minutes southwest of Rome, who helped put them in touch with the papal almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski.
Krajewski, who oversees the pope’s charity funds and who throughout the coronavirus outbreak has been driving around Rome distributing food and medical supplies to the poor, then sent them enough money to cover their rent and bills until the nationwide lockdown ends.
Krajewski told Crux that after Conocchia distributed the money, “one of the people that was helped came to this parish church in tears thanking (God) for saving her.”
“This is also the face of the Church,” the cardinal said, stressing the need to think outside the box, because “our Church is not only for the faithful. Jesus washed the feet of everyone. This is the Gospel, it’s enough to read it to find answers of how to help.”
For his part, Conocchia said that when he saw the people standing at the gate of the parish around 10 days ago, “I helped them freely and unconditionally.”
“For me what was important was to remember that they are people, they are people with a life that deserves attention, listening, welcome, and they also deserve respect and recognition as human beings,” he said in comments to Crux.
Despite the current restrictions on public movement and liturgical life due to the coronavirus, Conocchia has kept his parish open for personal prayer, with people coming and going as they please.
Each of the prostitutes lives in the area around the parish. At first, just one person came to ask for help, and then they came back again with a small handful of others. They did not tell Conocchia what they did or what their background was, and he didn’t ask, but simply invited them in to get some food.
“They asked me for help,” he said, noting that he has been in regular contact with the small group of friends, all of whom are from Latin America, in order to ensure that they have enough basic food supplies, such as rice, pasta, sugar, oil and tomatoes.
It wasn’t until they had already met a few times that Conocchia asked what they had done before the COVID-19 outbreak struck. The response was simply that they walked, “street by street,” but the message was clear.
“They are prostitutes, there are no other possibilities of life for them, at least right now, unfortunately. And right now, they obviously don’t have the ability to go out on the street,” he said, noting that “most were trans.”
When he heard that two of them are from Argentina, he urged them to write to Pope Francis about their situation and to ask for the money they needed to pay their rent. He then sent the letter to Krajewski.
“As a person, I am happy to meet them personally and listen to them personally, as I hope that any priest would do,” Conocchia said, saying he was happy that the Church was a point of reference for these people, even though their lives are currently not in step with the Church’s teachings.
“They know very well about their lives, they know very well,” he said, recalling how when two of the individuals were drafting the letter that was sent to Krajewski, they were “crying like children,” because they were ashamed, but they also encouraged one another to be honest.
“At one point one of them interrupted, saying, ‘no, don’t write anymore, because I am ashamed of saying these things to the Holy Father! I’ve had a life like this, and I am ashamed…’ And the other said, ‘no, let’s ask for rent, for the gas bill, for help,’ so they did it like this,” he said.
Conocchia said that in their visits to the parish, he saw some of the individuals praying the rosary or stopping to pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Some asked him to bless religious objects, including images of the Child Jesus and holy water to take home. One even asked him for a personal blessing.
In his view, Conocchia said he believes they are people of strong faith, but, “Their faith, the faith of people who have had very strong and painful experiences, great trials, and also loneliness.”
Many of the people are far from home and have not had any contact with their families in years and are too embarrassed to tell their parents and loved ones what they are doing.
“It seems to me these are very great, real and concrete sufferings,” Conocchia said, explaining that his decision to help them was an act of “concrete attention to concrete people who find themselves in a concrete difficulty.”
“In the flock, there is every type of sheep,” he said. “There is the little angel and there is also the one who errs, there is the sheep who is sick, the sheep who is lame, it’s a flock. There is every type of person, regardless of the life they lead.”
“The person is always a person, then comes the person’s life … first comes the noun, then the adjective,” he said.
After the coronavirus is contained and the lockdown restrictions are fully lifted, Conocchia doesn’t know if the people will still be in touch, but regardless, he said the gate to his parish is always open and “there is the availability to welcome, the availability to listen to them, the availability to give them what they asked me for, and to accept them, because their lives are marked by pain.”
“To me, it seems that this was the attitude of Jesus. Jesus was there for the people in difficulty. The more difficulty they had, the more paradoxically he threw himself in and knocked” at their hearts, he said, adding that what he did for this group of transgender prostitutes he would do for anyone else who asks, whether they are families at the parish or other people in the city.
The heart of the Gospel to me is this closeness, this presence, this ability to encounter,” he said, adding that in his view, “the Gospel is also an encounter and a journey together, a shared journey.”