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from issue no. 08 - 2008

The Apostle of deaf-mutes

Saint Filippo Smaldone devoted his whole life to deaf-mutes. A mission that continues through the Salesian Sisters of the Sacred Hearts. All over the world. And on their knees

by Davide Malacaria

A religious order dedicated to the assistance of deaf-mutes, according to the wishes of Saint Filippo Smaldone, a priest who lived in Naples in the last century (1848-1923), when this disability was synonymous with exclusion, not merely social. The deaf-mutes, who were often considered to be suffering from dementia, were generally associated with the pagans since they were deemed unable to receive basic knowledge of the catechism. A vocation born of chance, that of Don Smaldone, after he had witnessed, in church, the disconsolate crying of a baby in the arms of her mother, unable to calm him. An emotion that the Lord transformed into active charity. And that soon spread to cover a multitude of sick and, in particular, “his” deaf-mutes. An ardent love for the Lord, that of Don Smaldone, the heart of which was in Eucharistic adoration, so much so as to become founder of the Eucharistic League of adorer priests, and afterwards, of adorer Ladies. But his name is associated with the birth of a religious order of women he intensely desired: the Salesian Sisters of the Sacred Hearts. “No one can give what they don’t have”, says Sister Ines De Giorgi, vicar general of the Order: “attention to the poor, to those who have no voice, cannot be imagined without great sensitivity toward their suffering brethren, without a clear vision of a humanity in whom the face of Christ becomes visible. The career of Saint Smaldone was a journey of love, of intelligent care and confident hope, that now continues thanks to the sisters that he himself instituted to support his work”.
The Congregation, with its schools and its boarding schools for deaf-mutes, is spread throughout Italy, but especially in the South, where the life and works of Don Smaldone unfolded. Work that still today attracts many, especially young people, who help and support it. Recently Missione Effatà came into being (www.missioneeffata.it), a non-profit organization that has “the purpose of providing professional support for such works and encouraging the collection of the 0.8 per cent set aside for the Catholic Church from Italian income tax”, explains Giancarlo Fedele who was its promoter.
In 1972 the Congregation began the first mission abroad, in Brazil. Few sisters at the beginning, but soon institutions, vocations, works spread to embrace the Amazonian forests and the more developed and problematic cities of the State.
It was 1987 when the Salesians of the Sacred Hearts arrived in Africa. Here, among the lowliest in the world, the deaf-mutes, marginalized and poorly equipped for daily survival, represented the lowest of the low. In Rwanda, at the cost of much effort, a presence that though defenseless came through the horrors of the most terrifying genocide in Africa. Today there are three communities working in the small African State where, in addition to the usual care for children deprived of hearing, a post-scholastic path is developing, with training courses to help youngsters to enter the labor market. Also in Africa institutions in Benin (2007) and more recently in Tanzania have arisen.
The presence in Eastern Europe is less significant, namely in Moldavia, where the Salesians of the Sacred Hearts cooperate with the Regina Pacis, an institute set up by the Archbishop of Lecce, Monsignor Cosmo Ruppi, to look after the street children. Here, a publication says, the religious experience a new horizon because, “without the constraints of structural and managerial ties”, they are called to live “evangelical radicalism”. A condition in which, they add, “you learn, with small steps, to discover yourselves the Church itinerant, the poor Church, the Church on its knees, open to welcome and present the merciful face of God”.
This particular image of the Church on its knees has a charm. To be safeguarded.

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