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Holy Thursday: Pope Francis at the service of the aged and disabled


(Vatican Radio) For the second year in a row Pope Francis has chosen to celebrate the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper among people often pushed to the margins of society. He will once again visit the Don Gnocchi centre in Rome’s Casal del Marmo area, close to the Youth Detention Center where the Pope celebrated Mass among young prison inmates last year. This year he will be visiting a sister center for the elderly and disabled.

The Mass of Our Lords Supper commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and Christ’s mandate to the Apostles – the first ordained bishops and priests- to be at the service of God’s people. A moment that symbolizes this service is the Mandatum – or washing of the feet of twelve people.


Holy See Press Office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi has confirmed that this year the chosen twelve will include nine Italians, one Muslim from Libya, a young man from Cape Verde and an Ethiopian woman. All of whom have received help and support from the Don Gnocchi Foundation to overcome the difficulties, marginalization and isolation they often face on account of their age or a disability.


But why does Pope Francis seem to have a particular preference for the Don Gnocchi Foundation?

To find out more Linda Bordoni spoke to expert physicist Dr. Furio Grammatica*, who is the Chair of the Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer (CITT) at the Don Gnocchi Foundation. She found out that with a chain of 30 healthcare and research centres specialized in rehabilitation throughout Italy, the Foundation embodies what Pope Francis has termed “moving out to the margins” in search and support of those people society has forgotten or discarded.

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“What are the expectations of your guests and your operators, getting close to the meeting with the Pope ?”

It has been a big surprise for all of us. We all knew how Pope Francis likes the concrete service to the most frail people, and we all felt him as a “supporter” of our mission, like his predecessors showed us to be. On the other hand, when we realised that, thanks to a request of our President – Monsignor Angelo Bazzari – the Pope really decided to visit us in a so important and symbolic occasion – we all thought “too fantastic to be true”!
Concerning our guests, one could guess that most of them cannot fully catch the meaning of this visit, but this is definitively not true, even for the most critical cases: what I learned first, when I joined Don Gnocchi Foundation 10 years ago, is that our guests all developed a clear “sixth sense” on how much they are loved, and – in a definitively more straight way than us – they fully rely on people closer to them, who represent the fondness they feel. Pope Francis is not only a Pope, but a icon of the tenderness and strength at the same time, so they are really excited in view of meeting the Pope.
We, as Don Gnocchi Foundation operators, really expect a familiar, easy, true presence of the Pope at our Centre, bringing-in a wave of hope and strength in our daily care towards our guests. These are not easy days, for anyone. By the way, the Lent period reminds us the meaning of solitude, weakness, doubts, being tired or confused. Let me say, to see the Pope coming at our workplace means anticipating a bit the Easter for us !

“What does Pope Francis' decision to visit your Foundation represent for you ?”

Our Founder, Don Carlo Gnocchi, has been defined as “a charity entrepreneur”, putting together two terms that are sometimes felt as opposite. Actually he demonstrated in his life, and left us as an heritage, that these terms are not only compatible, but synergic. For those like us, willing to continue on this track, the secret not to be overcome by pure management logic is to stay stuck on the reality of the sufferance, with humility, feeling our limits, but - on the other hand – “combating the battle against the invasion of death”, as Don Carlo used to say, by all means: charity together with science, patience together with innovation, closeness together with technology. We feel that Pope Francis message – so far – has been very clear and is very encouraging for us to go on in this track: staying close to neighbour, first, somehow witnessing the caress of God through all our available means. If the Pope comes and washes the feet to our guests, we can only be more and more determined to offer them all that we can.

“Can you tell us something about your structure and activities ?”

Don Gnocchi Foundation is more than 60 years old. Don Carlo Gnocchi was a chaplain of the alpine troops during the second world war, and there he saw – as everyone – horrific situations and the fear of dying soldiers especially to leave their families alone; but – with the typical vision of the saints – don Carlo also saw a perspective to be trained by this desperation and to offer a vision of hope, starting from there. In 60 years the Foundation evolved together with the frailties of its guests, passing from the little war victims to the wider target of rehabilitation, but keeping the holistic approach of the Founder: the human being has to be restored as a whole, as a masterpiece, taking into account body and soul at the same time and using all means available. So we passed from crutches to nanotechnologies, from blood analysis to genomics, from bare visual inspection to advanced neuroimaging, from the pilot centre to a chain of 29 centres in 9 Italian regions, in which we see 3,5 million patients a year, and more than 5.000 operators work in the field of clinics, rehabilitation, assistance to elderly, to disabled people, to terminally ill patients; education; scientific and technological research (the Foundation is recognised by the Italian Ministry of Health as a Research Hospital excellence centre in the field of rehabilitation medicine); innovative models of territorial care, also using ICT advanced techniques; presence in developing countries to export the value of being rehabilitated even where desperation of everyday life is the rule. This is the declination of the Foundation mission slogan “Accanto alla vita, sempre”, that is “Always aside life”. “Always” means from the childhood to the death and from hospital to home. It is important for us what Pope Francis repeatedly says: be magnanimous, let’s stretch our hearth. We hope he will remind to all of us this encouragement next Thursday, confirming he will support us with his guide.
* Furio Gramatica, physicist, was born in Milano in 1964. He is the Chair of the Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer (CITT) at Don Gnocchi Foundation – an Italian chain of 30 healthcare and research centres specialized in rehabilitation – where he also leads the Nanomedicine and Clinical Biophotonics Laboratory (LABION). For five years he served as Director of the Biomedical Technology Department “Polo Tecnologico” in the same Foundation. Formerly, he spent several years at CERN (Geneva), at Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics and in high-technology companies, with R&D management roles. Dr. Gramatica is a member of the Executive Board of the European Technology Platform of Nanomedicine (ETPN) and Chair of the ETPN Clinical Interface Group; member of the board of experts, evaluators and reviewers of the European Commission and of Wellcome Trust; nanomedicine Scientific Advisor of the Italian Ministry of Health; national representative of Italy at ETPN Mirror Group; member of Nanotechnology Commissions of Assobiotec and of Milano Engineers Association; fellow professor of physics at Milan University Medical School.