These Volunteers Make the Best Neighbors

The best neighbors anyone ever had live in Heart’s Home. They’re the people you can drop in on, and they won’t try to get rid of you. They are the type you can call on for a ride when your car breaks down. If you’re sick, they’ll get up in the middle of the night and bring you to the hospital and wait with you there.


Just where do you find these dream neighbors? You find them in the slums. They live among the poor for one purpose: to love them and by doing so, show them that God loves them. Natalia Fassano is a lay consecrated member of Heart’s Home ministry. Eleven years ago, she left her native Argentina to serve a standard one to two years as a volunteer. She has since served in Brazil, France, and Italy and is now serving in Brooklyn, New York.


Why did Heart’s Home begin?

Heart’s Home was born from two cries: the cry of young people wanting to give themselves to God and the cry of the poor. These young people go in groups of four or five to live among the poor. We go live with the people in their neighborhoods. We want to be the presence of Christ among them. We want to complete the work of the family, which is absent many times in the neighborhoods where we are. Fathers are in prison, or absent because they’ve never taken care of their kids, or away working because there are no job possibilities where they are.


How did it grow?

The first missionaries were French. The first two houses opened in Argentina and Brazil and then the movement spread. Since beginning 25 years ago, we have had more than 1,500 volunteers. There are now more than 45 houses in 25 countries. The core of our experience is offering young people, ages 18 to 32, a strong experience of prayer, service to the poor, and community life. Some, like myself, are called to continue this ministry for the rest of our lives. We have 40 consecrated laypeople who are volunteers for life. We have more than 30 who became sisters and are called the Servants of God’s Presence. They wear a brown habit. We have more than 30 priests who are called the Fraternity of St. Damien of Molokai (after the saint who took care of the lepers). We also have some people who don’t live with us but continue working to spread this compassion in their jobs, and so another fraternity was born, the Fraternity of St. Maximilian Kolbe. It is made up mostly of former volunteers, and sometimes their spouses or friends.


What is your charism?

We want to be the presence of Mary at the foot of the cross. We could say she couldn’t do much because her Son died anyway. But her presence there brought consolation to the heart of her Son and allowed him to fulfill his mission. The heart of our mission is compassion. We want to be instruments of Mary’s compassion, giving of ourselves so those who suffer know they are not suffering alone. We know we cannot take their suffering away, so we have to come back to Adoration and offer everything up.


Do you evangelize?

Yes, but not directly with people. It comes little by little. Sometimes it takes months or years, but they do know who we are. The burning desire in our hearts is to bring people to Christ.


What is your canonical status?

We are considered a movement. It is mostly lay, but it also encompasses other vocations—priests, sisters, and lay consecrated. We are recognized at the diocesan level. We always must have the permission of the bishop to be installed and to have the Blessed Sacrament—the most important member of our house!


Do you go to the local parish?

Yes. The local priest doesn’t have the time to visit the people and know them as we do, so we bring their needs to him. For instance, in our housing project there was a 13-year-old boy and a 70-year-old man who wanted to receive the sacraments but never had. So we told the priest, and we found someone to prepare them. It’s a way to serve our parish community. We don’t work for the priest. We don’t teach catechism. We point things out.


What do volunteers get out of the experience?

They have a life-changing experience. When they go back to their lives, whatever their vocations are, they know what suffering is, and they are able to recognize it wherever they are. If they are doctors, they are able to see it in their patients. If they are teachers, they observe it in their students. Some are like me. I didn’t go on a mission to discern a vocation, but I found one there. Some go precisely because they are discerning and they want to take some time to give themselves totally.


When you join, do you have your choice of locations?

You can say where you would like to go, but it depends on many factors. Our houses are small since we want to recreate the family structure. We don’t have more than six or seven people in each house. We pray a lot for the Lord’s will be done. He knows best. I would have never chosen Naples for my first mission. I am thankful today that this was the first place I was called to serve because it shaped my way of looking at life and my limited vision of poverty. When I first joined Heart’s Home, poverty for me was limited to poor kids who have nothing to eat. I was thinking of Africa and India. But in Naples, I realized that poverty has to do with a lack of values, a lack of education, a lack of family structure. Otherwise I would never be able to be in Brooklyn.


Why do you have a house in New York?

Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited New York and said, “New York is the city that needs compassion the most in the whole world.” That provoked us to come. The poverty of New York is a tremendous cry of loneliness. Here it’s not so much kids. We volunteer more to the elderly or to homeless women who have psychological problems. The elderly are so utterly lonely. They have no one to visit them. The homeless women cry, “I want to be normal. I want to be loved.” Even in Manhattan, so many people are trying to make it. They are busy, busy, busy trying to build a network, but when it comes to true friendship, they are starving. We have met people who have had successful careers but by age 50 have lost everything and realize they have nobody on their side.


Is it possible to visit one of the houses and discern whether to volunteer?

Absolutely! Almost every month we hold a “Come and See” weekend. There are three talks on the three pillars of our life: the life of prayer, the life of compassion for the poor, and the life of community. You can come and visit the housing project with us, you can visit the nursing home, and you can share our prayer life (which is pretty intense).


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