A tale of slavery in modern-day Italy

By Michelle Hough
Caritas Internationalis

Sunday is the first International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.

Graffiti on the walls of the social center where Caritas Caserta assists migrants. (Michelle Hough)

Graffiti on the walls of the social center where Caritas Caserta assists migrants. (Michelle Hough)

CASERTA, Italy — Jean Konan* speaks five languages. He’s bright, articulate and knows his rights. He’s also been a modern-day slave, working in the fields for just €25 ($29) a day and sometimes for nothing at all.

“They say that slavery’s been abolished, yet it still exists but it’s invisible,” says Jean.

He left his home in Ivory Coast in 2006 when the political situation became unsettled. As a language student he thought he’d have a brighter future abroad.

After a terrible journey across the Sahara, through Libya and across the Mediterranean, Jean arrived in Caserta, near Naples. It’s a hub for African migrants looking for work in agriculture.

Caritas gave him a place to stay and food, and very soon he joined dozens of other African migrants who gathered at the town’s roundabouts at dawn, waiting to be picked up by foremen who would give them work in the fields.

In his first job picking tobacco, he got €2 ($2.2) an hour for 12 hours’ work a day. For picking oranges in the south of Italy, he got around €22 ($25) a day. He thought he’d hit the jackpot when an electrician took him on as an assistant, promising him €1,200 ($1,374) per month. He eventually got €250 ($286) after a month’s work and was let go. After that, a woman gave him work picking tobacco but didn’t pay him anything after two months.

More wall art in Caserta. (Michelle Hough)

More wall art in Caserta. (Michelle Hough)

“They knew I had no papers and they knew they could do what they wanted with me,” said Jean. “I was afraid I could go to prison if I said anything.”

With encouragement and help from a lawyer at Caritas, Jean reported his employer to the authorities. They took the woman to court, but didn’t manage to get the money owed to Jean.

“The real chains that bind Italy’s migrant workers are economic ones,” said Gian Luca Castaldi, head of the migrant office at Caritas Caserta.

He explains that migrant workers don’t report unscrupulous employers for a number of reasons. They are afraid and see their poverty as an inescapable reality; they don’t want to be seen as a traitor by the other workers; they feel as though the owe something to the informal labor network in which many migrants without documents work; and legal proceedings in Italy can be very long and complicated. In some cases, the workers don’t even realize that they’re being exploited when they’re paid too little, too late or nothing at all.

This graffiti says, "We're all illegals." (Michelle Hough)

This graffiti says, “We’re all illegals.” (Michelle Hough)

Castaldi says that the African migrant workers around Caserta risk far more than non-payment for work. Apart from physical abuse, Castaldi says that out of 101 migrants Caritas is helping because of labor exploitation, around 30 have been sexually abused. There have also been unconfirmed cases of organ trafficking in the area.

A doctor working for the medical service Caritas offers weekly to the migrants says that migrants suffer both physically and mentally. He says there are many cases of depression and alcoholism. Many of the migrants have skin ailments because of the nature of their work and stomach problems because of poor diet. There’s also a high number of previously undiagnosed cases of diabetes.

Jean got his papers when the Italian government created an amnesty for migrants and is now working as a mediator for migrants at the Caritas center in Caserta, and is part of the Immigrant and Refugee Movement of Caserta.

“It’s inhuman to treat us like this,” he says. “We need laws against exploitation and we must all work together – all people of all different races – for future generations. People must shake off their ignorance.”

“I still dream of a future. I feel I can help people change their lives and I want to use my experience with racism to help them,” says Jean.

*Name changed to protect identity

Caritas Internationalis coordinates COATNET – Christian Organizations Against Trafficking in Human Beings. It’s a network that links together 42 Christian groups which are fighting human trafficking. They raise awareness, lobby for change and help people who’ve been trafficked or abused by employers. Learn more here.

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

Author wants to give 1,000 books to pregnancy resource centers

Catholic pro-life advocate Chaunie Brusie wants college-age women facing an unplanned pregnancy to know they can continue to move forward with their life goals without turning to abortion.

Brusie knows. She faced an unplanned pregnancy as a senior in college.


She explores her experience in a book published by Ave Maria Press a year ago, “Tiny Blue Lines; Reclaiming Your Life, Preparing for Your Baby and Moving Forward With Faith in an Unplanned Pregnancy.”

The book’s title refers to the blue lines that appear on one style of home pregnancy test kits that indicate a woman is pregnant.

Now she wants to distribute 1,000 copies of her book to pregnancy resource centers around the country through Heartbeat International’s annual conference April 7-10 in St. Louis.

To help with that goal, Brusie has turned to crowdfunding through the FlowerFund website.

Her goal is to raise a bit more than $7,000 by March 31 so she can buy 1,000 copies of the book herself for distribution to each person who attends the Heartbeat International gathering.

“I really admire their mission and what they do with pregnancy centers,” Brusie said of the organization working to support pregnant women and prevent them from seeking an abortion.

Brusie and her husband of seven years and their four children, ranging in age from 6 months to 6 years old, belong to Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Lapeer, Michigan. She said that when she was faced with an unplanned pregnancy seven years ago, she embarked on an unknown path. She persevered in finding support and assistance, completing work for her degree and giving birth to her first child, now a student at Bishop Kelley School at the family’s parish.

“I found a huge lack of information about choosing to have your baby and continue building your skills and start your career and establish your place in adulthood,” Brusie said.

“I interviewed a lot of women and talked about issues such as finishing school, delaying school, the relationship with the baby’s father and what to do on campus to support other women in a similar situation,” she said.

Brusie described her book as inspirational and practical from a pro-life perspective.

“I hope to get it in conference attendees’ hands and they can use the stories for inspiration to share with their own clients,” Brusie said.

Convent in Phoenix offering lodging for Super Bowl fans

University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.    (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

“A feeling of home, plus the amenities of a hotel … Benedictine hospitality awaits you in the desert!”

That’s the welcoming message on the website of Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in Phoenix. The sisters’ decision to rent out some rooms for Super Bowl fans has created a bit of a media buzz with coverage on a local TV station and in The Arizona Republic newspaper.

The monastery is 5.5 miles from the site of Super Bowl XLIX — the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Sister Linda Campbell told The Arizona Republic that after hearing some residents were renting out rooms in their homes to football fans to make some extra income, the sisters decided to go for it, too, and use it as a fundraiser. Besides, according to the newspaper, they had tried it once before — for the Super Bowl in 2008, which brought in $12,600. “I think there are people who just like a quiet atmosphere, that seemed to be the people we drew,” Sister Linda recalled.

The monastery had eight guest rooms to rent out — two in a room for $300 — and accommodations included WiFi and a continental breakfast.

Notes on peace and justice

Ann O’Connor of Syracuse Catholic Worker dies

Ann O'Connor

Ann O’Connor

The Catholic Worker community in Syracuse, New York, lost one of its stalwarts with the death of Ann O’Connor, 81, Jan. 17.

In 1971 she became involved with Unity Kitchen Community in Syracuse, where she met her husband, Peter King. They married in 1980. Together they assumed major roles in operating the kitchen, which offered twice-weekly meals to the city’s poor and homeless residents to go along with Sunday Mass.

“She was 18 years older than me, but we met and formed an alliance,” said King, who with his wife called themselves “hospitallers,” those who provide hospitality. “We both thought the other was extremely humorous. We spent a lot of time making each other laugh. We became pretty good friends, best friends, before we got involved romantically.

“Marry your best friend, that’s my advice,” he said.

A funeral Mass was scheduled for Jan. 24 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

O’Connor was influenced by the writings of Catholic Worker co-founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and brought her organizational skills to Unity Kitchen. A story in the Syracuse Post-Standard said she was attracted to the kitchen as an anti-Vietnam War activist because its founders, Bob Russell and Father Ted Sizing, were involved with sit-ins at Syracuse’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Born in Syracuse in 1933, O’Connor lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio as her father’s railroad job took him to other communities. The family returned to Syracuse in 1949, where O’Connor lived the rest of her life. About that time, at age 16, she contracted severe arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair for the next 65 years, but the disability did not stop her activism and drive to care for the city’s poor residents.

King said the meals will continue. The community provides hospitality on beautifully set tables with matching silverware and china. Each table is named for a saint. Guests are served by volunteers. King said Unity Kitchen hardly provides a soup kitchen atmosphere.

“It’s built along the idea of lavish hospitality,” he explained, referencing the monks of the Middle Ages who felt that it was important to treat the hidden Christ at their door with only best.


Pax Christi International turns 70

pax_website_bannerPax Christi International turns 70 this year and will celebrate its founding with a special series of programs in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

The Pilgrims on the Path to Peace event will take place May 13-17 with programs on the major milestones of Pax Christi’s history, challenges to realizing justice and peace in the Holy Land, and planning for the future, as the Catholic peace organization heads toward its 75th anniversary in 2020.

There also will be a peace festival holding up the work of local and international peacemakers. The 2015 Pax Christi Peace International Award will be presented at the event.

The organization said Bethlehem was chosen as a symbol of its commitment to peace and reconciliation.

Pax Christi members and others working for peace in the world are invited to join the celebration. More information is available at the organization’s website.


Education for Justice

The Education for Justice program of the Center of Concern has assembled a set of resources to commemorate African American History Month, which is observed in February.

The package includes for use by groups, classrooms or prayer groups wishing to understand the importance of the civil rights movement and the struggle still being faced by people of color in the U.S. today.

Among the items included are an interview with Donna Toliver Grimes, assistant director, African-American affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, who shares her experiences of racism and how her faith has empowered her to end all forms of discrimination; Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace message focusing on modern day human trafficking and migration around the world; a video in which Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, discusses Catholic social teaching and world economic systems; prayers for racial justice; and a discussion guide to the film “Selma.”

To access the resources, individuals or institutions must subscribe. Costs vary depending on the type of subscription desired.

Pope, at Mass with millions, tells Filipinos to protect the family

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Rizal Park in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Rizal Park in Manila, Philippines, Jan. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

MANILA, Philippines (CNS) — At his last major event in the Philippines, Pope Francis told a crowd of millions gathered in a Manila park to protect the family “against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture.”

The pope’s homily at the Jan. 18 Mass also reprised several other themes he had sounded during the four-day visit, including environmental problems, poverty and corruption.

Despite continuous rain, the congregation in Rizal Park began to assemble the night before the afternoon celebration. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila canceled other Masses throughout the archdiocese to enhance turnout. The crowd was so dense in spots that people passed hosts to fellow worshippers unable to reach priests distributing Communion.

The government estimated total crowd size at 6 million-7 million people. According to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, that would be the largest number of people ever to gather to see a pope. A Mass with St. John Paul II in the same place 20 years earlier is believed to have drawn 4 million-5 million people, often described as the largest live crowd in history.

For his final scheduled public talk in the country, Pope Francis stuck to his prepared English text and did not improvise in Spanish, as he had done at several emotional points during the visit. Yet his voice rose with emphasis during the passage about protecting the family.

Those words echoed his warning, during a Jan. 16 meeting with Filipino families, against “ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family” through such practices as same-sex marriage and contraception.

In his homily, Pope Francis said Christians “need to see each child as a gift to welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets.”

The pope praised the Philippines, whose population is more than 80 percent Catholic, as the “foremost Catholic country in Asia,” and said its people, millions of whom work abroad, are “called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia.”

Yet he warned the developing nation, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, against the temptations of materialism, saying the devil “hides his snares behind the appearance of sophistication, the allure of being modern, like everyone else. He lures us with the promise of ephemeral pleasures, superficial pastimes. And so we squander our God-given gifts by tinkering with gadgets; we squander our money on gambling and drink.”

Pope Francis, who had urged a group of young people earlier in the day to address the challenge of climate change through dedication to the environment, told Mass-goers human sinfulness had “disfigured (the) natural beauty” of creation.

Other consequences of sin, the pope said, were “social structures which perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption,” problems he had emphasized in his Jan. 16 speech at Manila’s presidential palace.

A quick introduction to the Santo Niño

MANILA, Philippines — Today, in the Philippines, it is the feast of the Santo Niño, the Holy Child Jesus.

Faithful hold the image of the Santo Nino. (photo courtesty of CBCPNews, Dominic Barrios)

Faithful hold the image of the Santo Nino. (photo courtesty of CBCPNews, Dominic Barrios)

The figure was to be enthroned before the Mass at Rizal Park. And Catholics from the Archdiocese of Cebu were to lead the people in accompanying the procession with the Sinulog rhythm and dance.

The Missal prepared for the pope’s visit by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines explained:

“The devotion to the Sto. Niño (Holy Child) is the oldest and the one of the most popular in the Philippines. When Miguel Lopez Legazpi landed on the island of Cebu in 1565, one of his soldiers found an image of the Child Jesus. It is believed to be the same statue Magellan had given to the wife of the chieftain of the island after her baptism.

“The image is venerated today in the Basilica in Cebu. For Filipino Catholics the Holy Child represents a God who is accessible to all and can be approached without fear. The devotion instills the virtues of simplicity, obedience, and trust in God. At the same time it calls for mature discipleship and loving service at all.”


Pope: Respond to suffering with eyes cleansed by tears

MANILA, Philippines — The realities of life described by young people, especially the tearful question of a 12-year-old girl about why God allows suffering, led Pope Francis to set aside the text he had prepared for a meeting Jan. 18 with the young people of the Philippines.

Pope Francis hugs Glyzelle Palomar and Jun Chura. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis hugs Glyzelle Palomar and Jun Chura. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears,” the pope said Jan. 19 after listening to Glyzelle Palomar, who used to live on the streets but now has a home thanks to the foundation for street children Pope Francis had visited in Manila Jan. 16.

Palomar spoke after Jun Chura — a 14-year-old rescued from the streets by the same foundation — described life on the streets as a struggle to find enough to eat, to fight the temptation of drug use and glue sniffing, and to avoid adults looking for the young to exploit and abuse.

Covering her face with her hand as she wept in front of the microphone, Palomar asked the pope, “Why did God let this happen to us?”

As some 30,000 young people looked on at the University of Santo Tomas, the pope kissed the top of Palomar’s head and pulled her close for a big hug, then embraced her and Chura together.

He also listened to the testimony of two other young men and their questions: How do young people discover God’s will for them? What is love? and How can young people become agents of mercy and compassion?

The pope’s gathering with the youths was emotional from the beginning. Opening the encounter, the pope spoke about 27-year-old Kristel Padasas, an employee of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, who died after being struck by speaker stand knocked down by the wind Jan. 17 at the pope’s Mass in Tacloban.

She was “young, like yourselves,” the pope told the youths, asking them to join him in praying for her and for her parents. “She was the only daughter. Her mother is coming from Hong Kong (and) her father has come to Manila to wait,” he told them.

Although he had received the texts of the young people’s testimonies and questions in advance, and had prepared a response, he set them aside and asked Msgr. Mark Miles from the Vatican Secretariat of State to translate as he spoke off the cuff in Spanish.

One of the first things he commented on was the fact that Palomar was the only female on the program.

“Sometimes we’re too ‘machista’ and don’t allow room for the woman,” he said. “But the woman is able to see things with a different eye than men. Women are able to pose questions that we men are not able to understand.”

“Pay attention,” the pope told the young people. Palomar was “the only one who posed a question for which there is no answer. And she wasn’t able to express it in words but tears.”

“When the next pope comes to Manila,” he told them, include “more women” on the program.

Speaking directly to Palomar, he told her, “you have expressed yourself so bravely.”

While it is impossible to explain why God would allow children to suffer, he told the young people, “only when we, too, can cry” can one approach a response.

“I invite each one of you here to ask yourself, ‘Have I learned to weep and cry when I see a child cast aside, when I see someone with a drug problem, when I see someone who has suffered abuse?” the pope told them.

Being moved to tears out of compassion and in the face of the mystery of suffering is holy, he said. It is not the same thing as crying to manipulate or get something from someone.

“Jesus in the Gospel cried, he cried for his dead friend,” Lazarus, “he cried in his heart for the family that had lost its child, he cried in his heart when he saw the old widow having to bury her son, he was moved to tears of compassion when he saw the multitude of crowds without a pastor,” Pope Francis said.

“If you don’t learn how to cry you cannot be good Christians,” he told them.

In the face of suffering like Palomar’s and Chura’s, he said, “our response must either be silence or the word that is born of our tears.”

“Be courageous, do not be afraid to cry,” the pope said.


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