Isola del Gran Sasso is a small village with a population of less than 5,000 in the Abruzzo region of Italy. There resides an enormous sanctuary built in honor of their patron saint, Saint Gabriele.
Because he is known as the “saint of the young people,” thousands of pilgrims make their way to Isola each year to take part in mass, purchase rosaries and experience the sanctuary. In fact, the influx of summer pilgrims nearly doubles the population of the village.
The surge in population poses a unique strain on the town’s healthcare resources. The nearest hospital is over 30 minutes away, and the town depends on aid from the Croce Bianca, an association of volunteers similar to the Red Cross. These trained volunteers serve as first responders, and Isola greatly depends on them to provide needed healthcare support.
A small, 30-year-old evangelical church has noticed this great need. The pastor, Sergio D’Ascenzo, also works as a professional nurse for the nearest hospital and rides on ambulances for emergency calls. Seeing their town’s need for first responders, Sergio encouraged members of the church to go through the training process and volunteer as a service to their community. He even opened their church building to be used for training classes, and half of the church members have been involved in service searches on the ambulances every week.
Remember the town’s young summer pilgrims? Some of them take their revelry too far. Hundreds of high school seniors travel to the Sanctuary of Saint Gabriele in Isola exactly 100 days before the national high school exit exams. After the mass, the students crowd under the terrace and hold out the pens, paper, calculators and dictionaries they will use for their final exam as the priest sprinkles them with holy water.
Once these rituals end, the partying begins — and it continues throughout the night around the periphery of the sanctuary and throughout the town. Intoxicated young people are soon strung out on the ground alongside empty bottles and glass pipes.
Many Christians would consider this an opportune event to stake out on the sidelines holding signs of protest or passing out tracts condemning their hedonistic activities. Not the Saints of Isola del Gran Sasso. They dress in their paramedic uniforms, walk amongst the students and seek out those who need medical assistance.
Rather than closing themselves in their church building in prayer, these saints utter prayers beneath their breath as they search for young people passed out on the side of the road.
These students come to worship Saint Gabriele, hoping that he will be an advocate to a distant God on their behalf. Little do they know that the true saints, those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, walk amongst them as ministers of mercy.
As recipients of mercy, we too must become doers of mercy and a means of grace to others.
This example from our brothers and sisters in Italy leaves us with a few challenging questions.
First, with issues of sin in our cultural context, do we tend to be sideline protestors or instruments of peace from within?
Whether it is the fight against abortion or the legalization of gay marriage, we far too often maintain a moralistic distance. We think we are fulfilling our Christian duty by our rhetoric. They say the world knows what Christians are against more than what they are for; perhaps many Christians themselves know more what they are against than what they are for.
Yes, we are against taking the life of the unborn. But perhaps we could express that belief through proactive care and provision for both the child and it’s mother (instead of merely picketing abortion clinics). Yes, we believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. But perhaps we should be opening our homes and hearts to those in the gay community (instead of merely fighting about political legislation).
Secondly, are our service projects a means to gain an audience or do they truly alleviate a burden?
I recently heard a pastor make reference to a free car wash his church hosted in order to draw people in to then invite them to church. While there is nothing wrong with car washes or inviting people to church, service projects should never be based on bait-and-switch tactics or public testimony polishing. Instead, they should relieve the unique hardships of our neighbors and needs of our city.
In order to identify these needs, we must actually know our neighbors and our city — much like the saints of Isola del Gran Sasso knew theirs. How can you serve your neighbors?
This small group of saints are, like us, set apart to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. As recipients of mercy, we too must become doers of mercy and a means of grace to others around us.
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