Abe Keita (Franciscan priest)
Franciscans, during their formation, visit the sites where their Founder spent his life. Recently I had the opportunity to participate in such a visit. I belong to the Franciscan Order. Our founder, St Francis of Assisi, had ties not only with the town of Assisi but with many other areas of Italy. One of these is Rieti, a region called “Cammino di San Francesco d’Assisi,” a pilgrimage course often crowded with people on weekends.
La Foresta is a unique pilgrimage site along that route. It is said that St Francis not only spent time in prayer there but performed his famous miracle of grapes, and as is often true at pilgrimage sites, the quiet surroundings invite people to prayer. Thus, the pious atmosphere provides a special attraction for visitors. On the other hand, what makes the place different from other pilgrimage sites is that it is also the site of a rehabilitation facility for drug addicts and others with various social stigmas. This institution has become known in recent years because of the life-style programs it offers, quite different from other similar facilities.
The staff running the institution and implementing the rehabilitation programs are the drug addicts and other patients interned there. Since the facilities belong to the Franciscans, a Franciscan Brother is the supervisor, but the internees, besides running the rehabilitation programs, work in the fields for their self-support and serve as guides for visitors. The patients themselves painstakingly maintain the fields and the pilgrimage site.
In Italy there are a number of rehabilitation facilities in natural surroundings. Nevertheless, I heard that most probably this one in La Foresta is the only one located at a pilgrimage site and employing its own internees.
The daily schedule of the internees starts by rising early in the morning for prayer in common and continues with time for reflection, work, and prayer. Afterwards, the institution staff attends to the pilgrim visitors. There is evening prayer and a time for sharing at the end of the day.
They explained to me that after three or four years the drug addicts are tentatively allowed to leave, but in case they cannot re-adapt to society, they are received back for a longer period. Many, in fact, stay in the institution for six or more years. There are cases of former patients that return again looking for a quiet environment.
What makes it different from other rehabilitation centers is that, even though the rehabilitation is conducted according to a monastic life-style, the number of applicants does not decrease. No one is willing to enter a rehabilitation center, and most people do not want to return once their rehabilitation has finished. Rationally speaking, drug addicts can have better treatment in medical institutions, but if they are interested in more than simply overcoming their symptoms and addictions, many feel attracted to enter this institution at La Foresta. In many instances, patients really want to change, and because they feel the need to confront themselves in prayer, they desire an atmosphere conducive to peaceful prayer in addition to their rehabilitation programs. This institution, located along a pilgrimage course, answers their needs beautifully.
The La Foresta institute proves that, in order for social offenders to overcome addictions and attain social rehabilitation, medical care and counseling or programs of rehabilitation alone do not solve their problems. There is need for other factors.
It is unusual for pilgrimage sites to provide such facilities, but during my visit to this rehabilitation center I felt that further possibilities were open at pilgrimage sites and prayer centers, like churches and convents, for the evangelization of people who are suffering in various ways.