Despite the gray and rainy sky, St. Peter’s Square was celebrating on Friday, April 1. Under the Bernini colonnade, young autistic people prepared and served pizzas, sandwiches, and cakes to the homeless of the area. The young people, members of the Italian Autism Foundation, had just come from a private audience with Pope Francis, held on the eve of World Autism Awareness Day (April 2).
“It’s nice to be able to offer a hot meal to people who are often marginalized or forgotten,” says Gabriele Nughes, who has autism. At 22, he’s in charge of the waiters at PizzAut, a pizzeria in the Milanese hinterland where a dozen young autistic pizza makers, waiters, and bartenders work. To celebrate their visit to the Vatican, they brought their red and black food truck, the “PizzAutObus,” to St. Peter’s Square. “It’s beautiful; it’s a unique opportunity,” says Gabriele, wearing a red apron with the slogans “Let’s feed inclusion,” and “Don’t trample on dreams.”
Under the columns, alongside PizzaAut, is also BreakCotto, a social cooperative that employs autistic youth to provide and manage vending machines in hospitals, schools, offices and other public places. This morning, they’re handing out sandwiches and pastries to homeless people who regularly come to St. Peter’s for showers or meals. The youth wanted to “set a good example by offering lunch and then dinner to people in need,” explains Fr. Andrea Bonsignori, founder of BreakCotto. Behind him, the entire team is working to ensure that no one goes without.
The people receiving this service are impressed with the quality. “I’m very happy today. They brought a good meal!” exclaims one of them, after eating a slice of Margherita pizza. Others, sitting on the steps of the colonnade, ask for more, smiling. Immediately, a PizzAut waiter comes running.
“Agents” and not just “objects of care”
During the audience that took place shortly before, Pope Francis praised the initiative of these autistic people. People with disabilities must be “agents” and not just “objects of care,” he stressed, happy that they could go and serve the poor. “I never thought I would meet him in my life one day,” says Gabriele, who says he can’t wait to tell his family and friends about this experience … “Tell everyone,” he adds.
“It was beautiful and moving. My legs were so shaky I could hardly stand,” said Filippo Miserere, a 20-year-old wearing earrings. Before the Pope spoke, Filippo gave a speech on behalf of all young people who, like him, have autism.
The Bishop of Rome responded by stressing the importance of “supporting the life project” of people with disabilities and putting “fraternity at the center of the economy.” Pope Francis “expressed some simple but very effective concepts,” concluded Paolo, Filippo’s father, underlining that the pontiff can be “a great sounding board on this subject that people still don’t speak about enough.”