OSTIA — Their blue veils flutter amid the rides. At their booth you can play Noah’s ark, fishing flowers and fish from the sea. One never goes away empty-handed and one never leaves without a smile. Anyone who comes to the carnival park in Ostia on the Roman coast knows it. “Here the door is always open; in fact, there is no door. The gate opens and those who come in can stop by, play, talk, confide, and say ‘pray for me.’”
Sister Amelia smiles. At age 75, she has spent most of her life at the carnival. She is one of the “Little Sisters of Jesus,” a community following in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld. The three Sisters live in a caravan provided for them by the carnies.
Last year they Sisters received a surprise visit from Pope Francis, who entered through a small gate and took the little path that leads to the caravan area. The pope entered their home and spent a few minutes in the chapel inside.
To recall that memorable visit, the path was named after Pope Francis. “Our people were truly affected by his visit. It is the first time the pope has entered a caravan, he entered into one of their caravans; he entered into their world. This is what has remained with them. They felt he was close to them, one of them.”
Ostia’s amusement park is located next to a church, but it is on the “peripheries.” In the morning the workers rest, and at night and on holidays, when people come out to have fun and meet, they work. And so it becomes difficult to find opportunities for stable relationships, even with the parishes. “We need pastoral care better suited to them,” Sr. Amelia says. This is one reason why the “little sisters” are here, as a bridge, to be the arms of the Church going out, who is close to her children where they live. What better place for the followers of a man — Blessed Charles de Foucauld — who dedicated his life to accompanying nomads? The “little sisters” have taken this root a step further, becoming nomadic with nomads, workers among workers, artisans among artisans, carnies among the carnies, “not with the desire to convert but to be sisters to them and bear witness to God’s love.”
Sister Amelia has lived among the amusement park rides since the 70s, first in Rome and now for some time in Ostia. “Unlike in Rome, we live right here with them, we share daily life, we don’t come only for work. It is a sharing of life, a continuous exchange.”
The days vary, flowing with the rhythm of funfair. The morning is free and is dedicated to prayer, to Mass and daily “chores”: shopping, cleaning, and various business affairs. In the afternoon they work at the stand. Their lives are in continuous contact with the families at the amusement park. So an invitation to dinner arrives, or someone passes by to exchange a few words, or they visit the sick.
The Sisters also organize community events. “They like to make pilgrimages, the idea of the journey. We have made many over the years: we pray, we attend Mass and we eat together.” Some have even asked to be prepared to receive the Sacraments. “Although they are not often practicing, they have a deep religious sense. In this kind of life, in contact with people and nature, the unexpected is always around the corner. It leads you to have fewer attachments and to entrust yourself to God.
Born in Tuscany, Sister Amelia was raised in Tivoli where her father worked as a stonemason. She was a member of Catholic Action, then encountered Charles de Foucauld through reading and getting to know the “little brothers.” “I was fascinated by these hermits who occasionally went to the market, among the people.”
The “little sisters” live by the work of their own hands, after the example of Jesus, who lived for 30 years in the house of Nazareth working. The other image which has inspired her life is the Visitation: carrying Jesus like Mary, when she visits Elizabeth. From her father, Sister Amelia inherited artistic talent and the taste for beauty. Today she makes crafts, working especially with clay, and operates two stands together with the Sisters.
Recently, Pope Francis called circuses and amusement park operators “artisans of beauty.”
“Creating beauty is a participation in the creation; it unites you to God and to others,” Sr. Amelia says. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the chapel inside their caravan. At the foot of the tabernacle is a statue of the Child Jesus: “It is the little Jesus who opens his arms, because he gives himself and because he wants everyone to feel welcomed by him. A little child does not scare anyone. And so: be like children, and feel welcomed.”