“In charity we find the Church, the Gospel teaches us this, so what better place [to be] than on the tomb of Peter and under Bernini’s colonnade.” This is how Dr. Massimo Ralli, the director of the Vatican’s Mother of Mercy Clinic, describes the importance of this medical center, which offers free health services to those living in poverty or on the streets.
Tucked away under the right colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, the clinic welcomes an average of 70 patients a day. In light of the Seventh World Day of the Poor, which will be celebrated on Sunday, November 19, 2023, the clinic will extend its opening hours into the afternoon throughout the week.
“This is a wonderful initiative. […] Being able to have a whole day dedicated to [those in need] makes me feel much more relaxed when I arrive, as I know I can devote to them all the time I have,” said Dr. Chiara Cedola, one of the many doctors who volunteer at the clinic throughout the week.
The medical center is usually open from Monday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., but for this week it will stay open until 5 p.m.
A day at the Mother of Mercy Clinic
Pope Francis decided to open the Mother of Mercy Clinic, managed by the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, in 2016 to help assist the homeless who live around the Vatican and any other people in need. Of the thousands of tourists that line up each day to pass the security checks to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, probably very few notice the two discreet wooden doors that lead to the clinic.
Upon entering there are four rooms for examinations, which include different kinds of medical machinery, as well as a storage and waiting room. The center offers general medical services, such as check-ups, blood tests, or vaccines, but also specialized appointments in fields such as cardiology, gastroenterology, gynecology, dentistry, and more.
If the doctors at the clinic prescribe certain medications, the patients can also get them for free at the Vatican pharmacy, as often they do not have the means to buy them or to get them through the Italian public health system, Dr. Ralli explained.
According to the website of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, the patients come from around 132 countries and their average age is 48 years old. Some 30% of those who come for medical assistance are women.
The medical professionals find themselves treating all kinds of illnesses, from more to less serious: from “injuries that come simply from a person wearing a shoe that is not in their size” or from “not having socks,” to the flu or pneumonia in the winter, explained Dr. Cedola.
“The door is open here”
People with all types of needs pass through the clinic.
Dr. Ralli explained that some weeks ago they assisted a young homeless woman who was eight months pregnant and struggling with psychiatric issues. “Thanks to the clinic she was assisted in a moment of major crisis and was cared for. She was given the necessary medication and taken to a hospital emergency room,” Dr. Ralli said.
“Last week, the baby was born and they are both doing well,” the director of the center added with a smile.
After several years of the clinic being open, “we now also have our loyal patients who come here even for a simple health checkup, like measuring their blood pressure. They often just want to chat, to be told that everything is fine and that there is someone who takes care of them,” Dr. Cedola explained.
She has been offering medical support to the homeless of St. Peter’s Square since before the health center opened, when she was still a student in medical school.
The Mother of Mercy center “has changed over time, as at the beginning we were not yet known in this area as a reference point for [the poor] and now we have become more than just a clinic,” she said, highlighting how the number of patients especially grew after the COVID-19 pandemic. “They know the door is open here. […] It is definitely a place where they often take refuge.”
The challenges and beauties of working at the clinic
There are around 55 doctors, six nurses, and several other health and technical professionals who work at different hours to offer all kinds of services free of charge.
Dr. Cedola explained that sometimes it can be challenging to find a “way of communicating with [the patients] that is effective” and “suitable to their personal situation, as it is always different and often tragic.” Being able to communicate properly generates trust in the patients and helps them feel welcomed and want to return, she said.
“The most beautiful thing [about volunteering at the Mother of Mercy clinic], definitely is everything that the patients then give to you. Even, for example, the complete trust they put in you; they give themselves completely,” she said.
At the clinic those who are in situations of poverty or in need “are simply welcomed with their history, their personal stories, as well as their illnesses,” Dr. Cedola said.