VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Continuing his Year of Mercy practice of going one Friday a month to visit people facing special struggles, Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to a community helping 20 young women get their lives back together after being rescued from prostitution.
The pope visited the house operated by the John XXIII Community in northeast Rome the afternoon of Aug. 12. The community members, the Vatican said, were “20 women liberated from the slavery of the prostitution racket. Six of them come from Romania, four from Albania, seven from Nigeria and one each from Tunisia, Italy and Ukraine.”
The women’s average age is 30, said a Vatican press statement. “All of them have endured serious physical violence” and are now being protected.
One of the young women, identified only as East European, told Vatican Radio she never dreamed she would be able to see the pope up close and “tell my story to a holy person like him. I was very emotional and kept crying because I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing.”
The young woman said she told the pope that she had been offered a job as a caregiver in Italy, but the offer was fake. Instead, “they kept me locked in an apartment for two weeks, drugged me, tied me up and the men, they did what they wanted with my body.”
She said she was taken to Italy in the trunk of a car and forced into prostitution. When she disobeyed her traffickers, she was beaten, cut with a knife and burned with cigarettes.
When volunteers from the John XXIII Community started visiting her on the streets, she said, not only did she not believe she could escape, but she did not think she was worth saving. “You feel like a sack of trash” thrown on the side of the road, she said.
According to the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis asked forgiveness of the women on behalf of all the men who had used and abused them and for the governments that continue to do little to stop human trafficking.
“You are witnesses of resurrection,” the pope told them.
Pope Francis’ visit, the Vatican said, is another call to combat human trafficking, a reality the pope has described as “a crime against humanity” and “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.”
The pope’s “Mercy Friday” visits are part of his personal observance of the Holy Year of Mercy; while leaders of the communities and structures he is visiting are given some advance notice, there is no publicity and no open press availability. Usually, the Vatican releases a few photographs and sometimes a short video clip afterward.
Since January, the pope has visited a home for the aged and a home for people in a persistent vegetative state; a community for recovering drug addicts; a refugee center near Rome and a refugee camp in Greece; a L’Arche community; and a home for sick and aged priests.
The Vatican includes among the Mercy Friday practice several of Pope Francis’ activities the last Friday of July in Poland: his visit to the Nazi’s Auschwitz death camp and to a pediatric hospital and his attendance at the World Youth Day Way of the Cross service, which involved young Iraqis and Syrians as well as youths from other war-torn countries and difficult situations.