Sister Benedetta, born Maria Adele Carugati

Armenia: Mission and the stars

"I was looking for a friendship that would help me live my faith.” From her years at university to her vocation. From the February issue of Tracce, the story of Sister Benedetta, head of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity in Spitak.
Paola Bergamini

At the University of Varese a young man asked students entering the university, "Would you like to buy Il Sabato, a Catholic magazine?" A girl observed him; there was something that intrigued her in his attitude: it seemed that that gesture was everything for him at that moment. She approached, bought the newspaper and asked, "Excuse me, but who are you?" "Sergio Segato, I study Medicine, I am from CL, a Catholic movement." "How do you do, I am Maria Adele Carugati, a freshman. Can I get to know you?" This was 1980. "That request came out of the blue. Confused, detached from my parish group, I was looking for a friendship that would help me live my faith. I thought: this is for me," recounts 60-year-old Maria Adele, who is now Sister Benedetta and head of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Missionary Sisters of Charity in Armenia.

After that first meeting, Maria Adele attended a gathering of the movement at the Certosa in Pavia for the centenary of St. Benedict. A phrase of John Paul II was written on a banner: “It is necessary that the heroic becomes daily and that the daily becomes heroic.” Her choice of the name "Benedetta," when she entered the order, came from there. She was invited to the Beginning of the Year day for university students and heard Fr. Giussani speak for the first time. She did not understand everything, "but how he spoke of faith was attractive.” That was the beginning. From that moment, Maria Adele threw herself into the life of the movement at the university. She was elected to the faculty council for six years. Faith, lived out in her family and parish, took on a new concreteness. "I was struck by Giussani's clarity, particularly in regard to certain points: freedom, memory, sharing, friendship," she recounts.

During those years she became engaged to a young man from the community. One day, she told him how Fr. Giussani had come across two lovers embracing in the street, and he asked them, "Does what you are doing have anything to do with the stars?" That question became a staple of their relationship, something that kept coming back. In 1984, during a pilgrimage together to Medjugorje, Maria Adele had her engagement ring blessed with the prayer, "May our love help us fulfill our destiny." Five months later, the young man told her he wanted to become a priest. "My first reaction was: this has something to do with the stars." But accepting that decision was not easy; thankfully her friends were there to support her. "When I finished crying, I found the ability to trust the Lord again. As a child I used to constantly say that I wanted to be a missionary. The desire to offer my life to Him resurfaced." She asked her friend Don Angelo to guide her on this journey. And she decided to go to Milan to the meetings Giussani held for those who wanted to begin a journey of vocational verification of total dedication to God. "Once again I was struck by the clarity and serenity with which Giussani spoke to us. Especially about freedom. The foundations of my vocations were laid there.”

At an assembly of CL university students, a charitable work was proposed of going to Mother Teresa's sisters. Maria Adele read about the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, and she was attracted by the work of helping the poorest. Thus every week she went to their house in Baggio, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Milan. One day, a friend told her, "Your smile is like theirs." "I feel at home here. This is my path," she thought to herself. She confided her desire to be a missionary with Fr. Angelo. "Do you have a specific choice in mind?" the priest asked her. She did not hesistate: "The Sisters of Mother Teresa." "It is a very hard path. Have a go." In 1987 she graduated from medical school and in February the following year she joined the congregation. Friends from the movement threw her two farewell parties. Some were shocked by her decision, for others it was more simply a testimony that radical life choices can come out of the experience of the movement that are a sign for the world.

In 1991 her first destination was Beirut, where war had destroyed everything. Together with seven nuns she helped disabled children. "Lebanese people are extraordinary, they have a 'lively humanity,' as Fr. Giussani would say. They perceive whatever happens in life to be connected to God." Friends from Italy visited her, first in the Lebanese capital, then in Amman, Jordan from 1999, where she was entrusted the role of regional superior for the Middle East. The role involved taking care of 98 nuns scattered in 20 houses. But what did it consist of? "Looking at the person in front of you, the nun or the poor person, as God looks at them, in their entirety. I had experienced that gaze with friends from the movement in the CLU (university students) and then with the novitiate teachers." In Jordan she met Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, a Syrian, who accompanied her on this journey of responsibility. "It was a great blessing to have him beside me. The Lord asks and then offers you the answer."

In 2012 she received a phone call: "Sister Benedetta, get ready, you are to transfer to Yerevan." In the moment she has understood "Germany," but within a short time she discovered that it was the capital of Armenia. She left and looked after disabled children for five years, and then, as head of the House, moved to Spitak, to the village of shacks built after the 1988 earthquake. There she found a situation of extreme poverty: there were no health facilities, no jobs, children roamed the streets, and the crime rate was extremely high. Sister Benedetta was tempted to ask her superior to change her destination. "I felt a strong responsibility to the sisters and to the community. Then I thought: you put me here. This is the source of my peace: to be where God has put me. He's got it covered. And Armenia is a wild and beautiful land. I fell in love with it, as happened with Jordan." She would surely say the same about the North Pole.

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The sisters welcome adults with various disabilities in their house in Spitak,. But their work is mostly among the people they meet on the streets and in the 250 families to whom they take monthly food parcels. The Church, absent for years because of the regime, is still felt as something distant and the sacraments are mostly unknown. "There is no moral law. They have faith, so to speak, which is spontaneous. So if you ask to pray to Our Lady many come and then, after the recitation of the Rosary is over, they go back to stealing, to prostitution. We try to give them a human education and educate them to real life. What we care about, which is part of our charism, is to witness that God has not forgotten about them, that they are made in His likeness. That is the 'care' we have for these people." That is why the sisters began catechizing children and accompanying adults to Baptism and Marriage.

In these 30 years, the movement's companionship has taken different forms: new encounters, the relationship with Italian friends, albeit far away. "The experience of living the Christian faith that we encountered in CL has taken root in our hearts. And it has generated, in me and in them, sometimes unimaginable fruits. Today I realize that the open-mindedness and freedom to which the movement educated me was a fundamental help. Over time, I have discovered that Fr. Giussani and Mother Teresa have so much in common. For example, I found that insight of Giussani’s, which he had while climbing the steps of the Berchet, in our foundress’ thought: Christ is the keystone, He is “All in All.” The Church calls this the Communion of Saints.