Father Carmine Arice, is it very important for a priest, or someone from Cottolengo’s Little House, to smile?
Yes, I think it’s fundamental in a man’s life because, as poets and artists say, it shows his state of mind. A smile becomes a way to communicate his perception of existence. It is clear that there’s a difference between a fake smile and one that comes from a place of giving. In 1975, Paul VI wrote a beautiful letter saying that, in God, all is joy because all is giving. Here, the nuns – despite the fact that they are in constant contact with severe disabilities and suffering – symbolise that authentic smile, which comes from a culture of giving.
You spoke of the nuns. How many are there at Cottolengo and how many throughout the world?
Currently, there are about 1,000 nuns and about sixty priests, including those who are in training, and about thirty brothers. Some nuns are already quite old and others are not self-sufficient, but most of the nuns are quite active – we even have some young ones – and are carrying forward our work. Over time, the types of people at the Little House have changed, especially in terms of those who offer assistance, which involves ever more non-religious people. In Italy, currently, we have 2,500 people, including non-religious people working with us directly and indirectly.
When was the institution created?
It was created in 1827 in Turin as the result of a specific case of medical malpractice. At the time, there were only two hospitals, a maternity hospital and a general one. A French woman living in Milan who was on her way to Lyon fell ill here and tried to get assistance, but both hospitals turned her away. She died in a room at the Vecchia Dogana, a hotel that is still there today. Cottolengo was called, because this woman was pregnant. They managed to save her little girl, and Cottolengo baptized the baby. Having witnessed this episode, Cottolengo decided to create a place that could accommodate those who are not admitted to other venerable hospitals, in the words of King Charles Albert. In the beginning, it was housed in two rooms in Via Palazzo di Città. He went through a two-year crisis, not about being a priest but about how to be a priest. It was an opportunity to re-evaluate his mission and give himself completely to those who have been discarded, to use words dear to Pope Francis. This is what he did and continues to do, in a certain sense, up to today. Over time, the faces of these “discarded people” have changed. For example, today we have fewer requests to help those who are severely disabled. There have been advances in medicine and some diseases no longer exist or some things can be resolved early because, for example, amniocentesis can detect serious deformities, and these pregnancies are then interrupted.
“That authentic smile, which comes from a culture of giving”
Father Carmine Arice, are these interrupted pregnancies considered abortions?
Absolutely. They are considered abortions. I am merely focusing on the phenomenon, and not commenting on the ethics of it. Today, they tend to do amniocentesis or prenatal diagnoses very early because, if there are deformities, some women will want to interrupt the pregnancy. I will refrain from speaking to the ethics of this situation. Naturally, I’m not in agreement with it, but I don’t judge women as much as the value of life in and of itself. However, I want to say that, today many families that know that the child on the way has a disability welcome that child and are open to a more pro-life position. Of course, they will need support and help. So, therefore, the difficulty of dealing with the disability can be lessened, and they also find some help through the public system. Today, it is the elderly who tend to knock on our door more frequently, the elderly who are not self-sufficient or who have a multitude of ailments, and also because the family dynamic has changed. There’s no longer the patriarchal family, with the opportunity to easily take care of these people in the home. In Italy we have thirty services, with sixteen quite large facilities. This means that inside each of these facilities we can have many services. In Florence, we have a nursing home with eighty beds, and there are two centres to support families of the disabled, guaranteeing that we will take care of them if the family can’t. In any case, in this whole scenario, most requests are for the elderly. Currently, in Italy, there are thirteen million people over the age of sixty five, which is a very high number if put into the context of the birth rate. Four million of these people are not self-sufficient, and about 1.5 million have neurodegenerative diseases. Illness doesn’t take social status into account, so it can strike those who have the means to seek medical attention as well as those who don’t. And here we are talking about a lot of people.
Does the Cottolengo organisation work only in Italy or throughout the world?
This year marks fifty years since we returned from Africa. I use the word “return” because initially we went to support the first Consolata missionaries, and we helped them get set up in Kenya. Then the nuns came back after about twenty years, and then we came back after fifty years. We focused on some services that have to do with “discarded people”, for example children with disabilities. That’s where we started. Culturally speaking, there, disabilities are seen in a very traditional way, and are a disgrace to the family. We found these children in all kinds of conditions. We started with the Meru then we went to the Nairobi area. We have dispensaries and a maternity hospital, because in Africa women still die during childbirth. In Nairobi, we opened a centre for children with AIDS. Today, it is home to seventy children, and we fully fund their care, except for some antibiotics. We also have other small hospitals scattered throughout the country. We also went to Tanzania, where we opened two centres and where we have a parish. Generally, we have dispensaries, nursery schools, and hospitals. We are also present – along with Communion and Liberation and the Salesians – in Ethiopia, in the Tigray region, where they realised that quite a few children were dying when they reached a certain age. A Salesian nun wondered why there was such a high death rate, and how it was possible just a few hours by plane from Europe that children could die because an antibiotic couldn’t be found or because there was no basic care. Actually, right now we are worried, because this is a “hot” zone and our nuns have stayed there to care for those on both sides of the conflict. Then we are also present in different regions of India, even in predominantly Hindu ones. We don’t try to convert anyone, but we offer a Christian presence with the schools, dispensaries, and centres for the disabled. We began these initiatives in India about fifty years ago as well.
Did you lose a lot of people in the pandemic?
We lost several nuns during the first wave, nuns who were quite fragile, who paid the highest price. We also lost some elderly, about fifty, also during the first wave, out of the 1,500 that we have. This was a miracle of providence. We had a home in Lombardy, which suffered a lot. I have kept the messages I wrote at the beginning to the Prime Minister and the president of the region, because we couldn’t find masks or anything else we needed to protect ourselves. Those months were complicated, but I remember a night when so many stars were shining, right in that period when fifty-six of our elderly had died in various homes throughout Italy. People for whom we were unable to hold funerals. Some of the nuns were reciting a prayer that truly moved me, saying: “Father, save the lives of the poor and take us instead.” That night so many stars were shining, and many of the workers stayed on, not returning home, so they could save their families and the elderly, creating a bubble around them. These workers gave of themselves in such an incredible way.
“We want inclusion instead of exclusion, a place where everyone can feel very much at home”
Father Carmine Arice, is Cottolengo also a hospital?
Here in Turin, where we make 2,000 meals a day, we have a hospital for acute care that has 200 authorized beds and 146 accredited beds. During the pandemic, we opened a Covid unit with sixty-two beds for acute care patients. We also created an ICU during that period. In Turin we have three nursing homes, a university for nursing sciences, a religious community, a monastery, and a primary and middle school with about 400 students. There are students with disabilities, so the school is frequented by children who are healthy and by others for whom life has been more difficult.
Speaking of “discarded people”, how come hotels in Italy, by law, only have to have two handicapped rooms?
The law says that every hotel has to have at least two handicapped rooms, and usually they don’t have more than that. These rooms are designed in a specific way, with the characteristics of a hospital room. Actually, hotel owners tell us that it’s difficult to book them, because when they tell people they only have a “handicapped room” available potential guests are hesitant to take it. We are opening a home in Rome that is unique, just ten minutes from Saint Peter’s Square. It will be ready at the beginning of 2024, and we will present it to the Minister for Disabilities and the Minister of Tourism along with Monsignor Fisichella, president of the Jubilee 2025. We wondered if it would be possible to create a home where anyone has access. So there aren’t handicapped rooms, but all of the rooms must be of high quality, beautiful, and meet the needs for efficiency and effectiveness that make them accessible to the handicapped. This idea to merge these concepts in this building was very enthusiastically received by, for example, the Minister for Disabilities. We want inclusion instead of exclusion, a place where everyone can feel very much at home whether they are handicapped or not. It should feel like a hotel room with all of the necessary comforts, somewhere an important businessperson could come and feel at home just as a person with a major disability could come here and also feel at home. The criteria that has driven Cottolengo since the beginning is to be open to everyone, even those who can’t pay.
Who supports you?
It’s called divine providence. You may laugh, but it’s the truth. This house, at the beginning of each year, would not be able to bring in ten or eleven million euros without the providence that comes along with benefactors. On 20 October we presented the annual report, with a financial statement listing all those who have supported us. From the time we were founded, our benefactors, our supporters, have sustained this house. People have even left us their inheritances. Then we also have contributions from people and from institutions to pay for accredited beds, and the optimization of our non-institutional assets, meaning what we don’t use and from which we try to earn income.
Since you began your work, about forty years ago, have people changed in terms of being more or less charitable?
I can attest to the generous people I encounter every day. Generally, they are the ones who keep a low profile and don’t even want their name written anywhere. Usually those who help have already experienced the care given in our hospitals or nursing homes, and they decide to support us.
Do you have a special relationship with the people of Turin?
Turin loves us and we love Turin. I can say that all of the governments, regardless of religion or party affiliation, have come to visit us willingly at the Little House. They were welcomed warmly, and shared their appreciation with us, even knowing that it’s a home with a religious affiliation and teachings.
“Dying is difficult for everyone. For a person who has faith, life is not taken away but transformed.”
Father Carmine Arice, are your medical doctors secular?
Yes. We tell them what our principles are, what the philosophy is, and we ask that they share in the service. There are three types of people who work with us: those who share a passion for people professionally, or by supporting us economically, or on a volunteer basis – there are many non-religious volunteers, including many who became believers working alongside the poor; there are also those who share the Christian experience or do so in the name of their own religion, like, for example, our Muslim workers; finally, there are those who relate to the dynamic aspect of Cottolengo and want to become a part of it, even if they are non-religious. There is room for all. It is a house that was created out of a love for Christ, but it’s also a house in which we don’t try to convert people or impose any kind of religious expression. There is full respect for the path taken by each person, and the religious references are mere references, to be taken or not.
Do you depend on the Pope?
The religious congregations are of pontifical right, so they are recognised by the Holy See, but the organisation in which they operate has been a moral and civil entity since the times of the founder. Cottolengo had this intuition to ask King Charles Albert for recognition as an entity. The unique thing is that the religious among us, who are part of the big family, as per the charter can’t own anything; all of our possessions belong to the Little House. That means that if the Little House were to go bankrupt, the religious here would not have anything for themselves. But Divine Providence always provides.
Today, it is often noted that there is a great disparity between those who have a lot and those who don’t have anything.
That’s true. I will give you an example. We opened the Granetti clinic, which is named for the first doctor who helped Cottolengo. It is absolutely free, because for some people in Turin it’s difficult to find a place to have one’s blood pressure taken, to get a shot or have a general visit. This clinic is not only frequented by immigrants. We are seeing more and more families that can’t make it to the end of the month. We have people that ask for help in buying groceries and we verify their situation, because one of our principles is to not create welfare dependency. We try to find a solution for each case, while making sure there is a real need and they aren’t taking advantage.
What is your position on today’s big topics, from sustainability to euthanasia to drugs?
I think every situation is unique, every story is its own. We take on these issues in two ways. Firstly with an immediate response, because one of the things Cottolengo would have done is not ask anyone else, he would have taken on the issue himself. So, we begin with a response. We have created a range of special services, and we have special priority lanes for those most in need. At the same time we try to raise awareness with the public, because it’s the public that, first and foremost, needs to take these matters in hand. Charity is justice. We need to maintain a sense of awareness. We started out of a case of medical malpractice, so we need to respond right away to avoid what happened in 1827.
Is accompanying people on the journey toward death very important?
In May we will open a palliative care centre in Chieri, which the region has authorized. There will be beds for twenty-one people, who will live out the last part of their lives here. In Italy, we have had a law since 2010 for palliative care that is still being widely disregarded if we look at the number of beds region to region. Now the Health Ministry has revised it, and taken the various cities and regions to task because there are still too few beds. We need to create the conditions so that these people can appreciate life as much as possible.
Is it easier to die with or without faith?
Dying is difficult for everyone. The fear about how it will come is the proof of that. Faith helps us to live better and sustain difficulties. The Christian faith tells us that because there has been death and resurrection the real enemy of God is death and the suffering of His children, the children of God. Jesus came to take away the enemy, which is death. For a person who has faith, life is not taken away but transformed.