Rosetta Brambilla in the favela (da

The flood and Rosetta’s hope

For days she has been on the front line rebuilding one of the educational works set up thanks to her in Brazil, which was devastated by mud. Today she recounts what she is experiencing: "A great opportunity to touch the Lord with my own hands".
Davide Perillo

"Reality is something from another world. When you open wide and embrace it, you see. And you recognize Christ who makes himself present to you." Rosetta Brambilla, 77 years old, has been in Brazil for over fifty years (she was one of the first GS students to go there to help Fr. Pigi Bernareggi, who passed away last month). She answers the Zoom call at half past five in the morning in Belo Horizonte ("call me at that time, we usually say the Rosary, this time we will move it"). Her gaze is clear, serene, lit by flashes. Behind her is a window and you can see the light of day break through as the dialogue goes on.
It was at dawn three weeks ago that she set foot in the Creche Etelvina. It is one of the "Obras Educativas Padre Giussani" set up thanks to her: six educational realities, helping more than 1200 children and young people. The Etelvina nursery, in the Bairro Primeiro de Maio, hosts 124 children, from zero to six years old. It was about to reopen after months of lockdown. But the flood on February 7 came first. Benches and games, cribs and kitchen equipment... Everything was swept away, submerged in mud, destroyed. When Rosetta walked in the next morning, she felt like crying. "But what remains fixed in your eyes from such a morning are not tears: it is His presence."
She has said this often in recent days, even to the many friends who follow her from Italy and are helping to rebuild ("they are the arms of the Lord") and are giving a hand to the children’s families. "More than fifty people, like us, were devastated by the flood,” she says. "And many have lost everything.”

How is the situation now?
We went door to door, to see what people needed. About fifteen families no longer have a house, which was often a shed: destroyed. The Municipality made housing available, but many preferred to go to relatives or friends, they considered it more humane. To help them, we began to collect mattresses, sheets, food packages. In the houses left standing, we are seeing what is missing: stoves, fridge... Simple things, what is needed to live. We have made a list and are buying them.

What strikes you about what you see?
Being with people who are simple is always a grace. People’s houses are often bare. But even so you can see hope in people’s eyes. It is strange, you cannot explain it: but it is part of our people. They are religious by nature. They live a hope that maybe they cannot define, it is unconscious. But it is the waiting for Christ. That is why I say we are lucky to live here.

I have always been fascinated by the favela. And I have asked myself many times over the years: why? It is a poor, harsh reality. It almost seemed unnatural for me to feel this attraction. I remember a Christmas many years ago when this question was very strong. And there I understood: it is because Christ bent over this reality. He bent over us, over our wretchedness. The fact of being attracted to such a place is not the logic of the world, it is the logic of God. Many times it is hard, it is made up of difficult situations and people. But it attracts you because if you look, His presence is more evident. Inside reality, you see Him. We are helped to recognize Him.

Where have you seen Him these days?
The flood was on Sunday night. I got to the nursery the next morning at 5 am. It felt like a tsunami. Whilst I was walking from the front door into the building, I felt like crying: mud everywhere, cracks in the walls, people trying to save something... But there was a great silence. When I entered the hallway, to clean the bathrooms, I understood. I realised that within this silence that penetrated you inside, Christ was there. He was there, you know? With Marcella who was next to me, Rosi, Helena... These people and the silence were His presence. Tangible.

"From another world," you said earlier.
Something from another world within this world. In the face of such a thing, you are shaken. But if you are there, you experience that things are given to you. The impact may not be good, you may want to pull away, but little by little He emerges from the mud. He becomes present. And you are moved. You are even ashamed of the greatness you are feeling.... It is another world, a new world. But it is the real world, and you would always like to live it. Moments like this are a grace. That is why I am going to sound crazy, but I say we are lucky. Because we have a great opportunity to touch the Lord first hand.

How do you keep from losing it, from "pulling away" because of the harshness of the blow?
If you are loyal, reality becomes an arrow that shows you where to look. Your eyes are no longer fixed on the things that are in your head: you find yourself wide open. Arms wide open, heart wide open... everything. In some moments maybe you do not accept it, you stay still. But you really have to embrace reality. It sounds crazy, but it is simple. It is the experience I make with the Lord. He is here, He is present. Everything points to that: being alone, silence, problems, a person leaving.... They are all arrows that point towards Christ.

What helps your gaze look into the very depth of things?
The fact that you realize that you are loved. It is strange, but for me it is something I cannot seem to lose along the way. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, the first months, I felt this way... In the impact with reality, you discover this gaze of God on you. That is why I find myself looking at reality like this. With eyes that are not mine: they are His, Christ’s. But I feel them on me, because I feel loved.

But where do you find this love, this gaze on you?
I have lived alone for years. However, the house has always been full of people: friends, those who used to visit from Italy to help out... With the pandemic, everything came to a halt. Since March last year, I have been alone. But even loneliness is making me feel the presence of Christ. You really feel it. I arrived in Belo Horizonte in 1977, to keep Pigi company. After two years, he went to live with other priests. And I said to the Lord: why do you leave me alone, when I need companionship? Then I understood: the Lord takes everything away from you so that you may recognize Him. He leaves you naked before Him. It is the same experience I had as soon as I arrived in Brazil, in 1967. Many friends were already in crisis, those you leaned on were leaving... The Lord took away my crutches as soon as I arrived. But then you realize that He took them off to tell you: "You are here for Me". The experience of those first months was beautiful, but it is happening again now. It is as if the Lord in reality - amid the fatigue of the things that happen - is constantly questioning you. He takes things away from you so that He can manifest Himself.

How has this awareness changed over the years, Rosetta?
It has grown. Like when I entered the nursery: there is a tsunami, but inside it there is beauty. That is the experience you have on yourself. We are nothing, we are that mud. But it is God who looks at you, and then you understand the beauty that you are. I am a poor soul, but my limitation is an enormous treasure because it makes me depend, it makes me ask. It is a daily thing. He bends over you, and then you also bend over reality.

And what do you perceive in the others around you?
I have seen so many people immersed in that silence, in front of a great thing: like when you are in church. They experienced the Mystery within reality. Sonia, the director of the kindergarten, told me about the unity she experienced with others, how our work is not ours, but God's. And how this was visible everywhere. And of the fact that this was visible through how people are helping us. Yesterday we went to the home of two boys. There was nothing there anymore. One had a table with Our Lady of Aparecida and some colored stones. He lives off what he collects on the street and resells. He was practically naked, and all he had left was this table and a shelf, with pliers and a screwdriver on it. He did not have anything else. We said to ourselves, with Sonia: "We have to help him, he needs at least a stove". In the time we finished our rounds and returned to the nursery, we found a gentleman from the nearby neighborhood who had brought a stove for those in need... We ask, and the Lord answers. If your eyes are open, you see.

Have there been other moments like this in these fifty years and counting?
In terms of intensity, yes. For example, when certain people leave, and you feel flesh ripped from you, but you realize it serves both your and their path. Or that time I fell, and crushed my vertebrae. I sat still for a while and had to depend, physically, in a way I was not used to. Dependence on God is easy; dependence on others, less so. But it was beautiful. You learn to be docile, and you surrender your body to the other. Or when a person dies - there is immense pain, but at the same time great joy, because you always imagine what the party up there must be like. The Lord loves you. This is why there are situations in which you are almost forced to recognize Him, they make His face evident. For me they are a grace. It is like what Pigi said about the pandemic: blessed is the Coronavirus, because blessed is reality.

How much do you miss Pigi?
A lot. These days I have noticed this even more. He wanted to see God face to face, so I was happy. But being with Pigi was living the moment in front of the Mystery. He helped me a lot. I confronted him with problems, I told him things... And these days he was not there. I often feel down. But if the Lord takes something away from you, it is always to tell you: you have to look at Me.