“ROSA, take off your shoes; you are going to meet holy ground …” – it’s something Canossian Sister Rosa Vazzano tells herself almost every day.
Each time, it helps prepare her to meet one of the many migrant and refugee families in Woodridge, south of Brisbane.
The 75-year-old cross-cultural pastoral worker in St Paul’s Parish is one the Church’s friends to refugees from many parts of the world working hard to forge a new life in Logan City.
And, as she celebrates 50 years of religious life, she knows this is where God wants her to be.
“This is where the Church is supposed to be very, very attentive in welcoming them (the migrants and refugees of Logan),” Sr Rosa said.
“No matter what faith they have, we welcome Jesus (in them) …
“I deal mainly with the Catholics because they’ve chosen this parish to be part of the Church, but I welcome and I work with anybody.
“I feel that I am very privileged in this service.
“Even if it’s a challenge, even when I get in the car (to go to visit a family), I have to ask where am I going.
“If I’m going to an African family, you prepare yourself in a way.
“If you have to go to another family from another culture, you get to know … maybe they are timid, they are withdrawn …
“As Moses was approaching the burning bush, God said, ‘Take off your shoes, you are approaching holy ground …’ (cf Exodus 3:5)
“This is one of my attitudes when I go to somebody, ‘Rosa, take off your shoes; you are going to meet holy ground …’”
Sr Rosa said that was what she experienced among the people she met from all over the world – from parts of Africa – Burundi, Sierra Leone, North and South Sudan, Congo … Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Syria and Iraq.
She knows, too, what it’s like to leave her family and her homeland and move to the other side of the world; she’s done it herself.
There’s a difference, though. It was her choice to leave, so she could answer a call from God to become a missionary.
A few years after joining the Canossian Sisters, the young Italian woman from Sicily was sent to Australia.
She felt drawn to the Canossians as a teenager when she used to visit one of her sisters at a school run by the sisters.
“I got to know the Canossian Sisters – at that stage I was about 16 or 17 – and I was attracted by their style of life – the way they were praying, the way they were together, but mainly what attracted me was the way they were very caring,” Sr Rosa said.
Some of the young girls at the school had no families or were from families who were migrants so they lived there and the sisters cared for them.
“That attracted me very much to dedicate my life to those people who were in need,” Sr Rosa said.
That was what she described as her “first call” from God – to enter religious life with the Canossians – and then there was the “second call” – to serve God in overseas missions.
She joined the Canossians 50 years ago, left Sicily in 1966 to go to Rome for her novitiate, and completed a diploma in teaching.
After her final profession of vows in 1974, “the call – I call it a second call – was pressing on my heart – to go to the poorest place in the world would be my choice … among the people”.
More discernment followed before Sr Rosa put a formal request to the Canossian leaders to be considered for overseas mission work.
“But still I waited five years before I could leave the country to come to the mission,” she said.
She was sent to Australia, to work in a parish in Adelaide where there were many Italian migrants, and she arrived in 1980.
Still, the move did not change the essential focus of her vocation – “as our foundress (St Magdalen of Canossa) said, to make Jesus known in whatever you do”.
“The goal of any of the activities that we do is to make Jesus known and make people love Him, with the awareness that they are greatly loved,” Sr Rosa said.
That was the heart of her pastoral work in Adelaide, then Darwin, back in Adelaide again, and in Ingham, North Queensland.
“Obviously, the struggle was the language, and to help the Italians,” she said.
“Still at that stage they were, I would say, not always well accepted by the Australian people, the Australian Church.
“They were voiceless in many things and I supported them and made sure that the local Church would hear their voice, the voiceless, in many ways.
“And, little by little, I was more actively involved in the parish, always with attention to the migrants, where there were Italians especially.
“That was not easy for the Italians, and it was not easy even for the local Church, to realise that they were part of their parish.
“I remember … when I went to talk to the parish priest (in Adelaide), there were plenty of things that I asked, and I could feel that I was disturbing their quietness.
“And I used to say sometimes, ‘Father, don’t blame me. Ask God why you have more than 350 Italian families in your parish.
“‘Ask God why He sent these families to your parish, and see how you can serve them.
“‘I’m just helping you to serve them well’.
“‘They are parishioners as I am one of them’.”
Sr Rosa returned to Italy for a few years for family reasons, and when her father Rosario died at 99 years of age, she came back to Australia – about eight years ago – and was assigned to St Paul’s, Woodridge.
Dealing with so many people from so many different cultures, she has found that the first and most important thing was to “establish a human relationship with them”, to be empathetic and sympathetic, “and be present, be present”.
“Don’t expect to do anything but just be with …,” she said. “In that sense, I learn from Jesus. He became a man, and he died at 33 years – that’s what we think – and He preached … only three years.
“For 30 years, He was the Son of God present in the ordinary life of the people of Nazareth where He was living with his mother and Joseph, so ordinary a being that when He started to say something a bit divine, they said, ‘Where does he come from this man? Isn’t he the one that lives in Nazareth, the man who is with us? Where did he get this wisdom?’
“So this, for me, is the incarnation of any minister or any pastor.
“You have to be close, attentive to the human persons who are struggling, that are coming here traumatised – especially the refugees – with many, many sad stories of the life they’ve had.”
Sr Rosa said her eight years at St Paul’s had “changed me a lot”.
“I want to be where God wants me to be, but not in a selfish way, the way God wants,” she said. “At this moment, this is with the poor people.
“I know I don’t solve their problems but they know somebody cares. They can call when they want something and I am there.
“Do I solve their problems? No. I feel powerless. But I’m not powerless in loving them … and saying they’re important.
“And most of the time I put my hands on their head and say, ‘The Lord loves you. Lord, please, bless this beautiful lady and she needs to have Your strength to get through this struggle …’
“In the street, wherever I meet them, they know that I am there for them and I say, ‘Jesus is always there for us’.
“Human to human … Jesus to Jesus.”