– Marco Carvalho
The globalization of the indifference towards the suffering of the others is a defining trait of our times and it is a challenge that can only be answered through a renewed sense of fraternity. The work developed by the Holy House of Mercy of Macau during the last four and a half centuries is seen by Father Vítor Melícias as the most suitable example of the spirit of unity one should cultivate to build a more supportive and compassionate society. The Honorary President of the International Confederation of Mercies is fully convinced that the experience acquired by Macau’s Holy House of Mercy can be of great value to the People’s Republic of China.
More than celebrating the past and the 450th anniversary of Macau’s Holy House of Mercy, the Congress that was held this week in this Special Administrative Region was a good way to put the future in perspective …
A House of Mercy that has this history, this sort of cultural insertion in the midst of a people with so many traditions – well-used to look to the future and to build its future, adapting, of course, to the several changes brought by history – is a House of Mercy, a time and a people that have no reasons to fear the future. This Congress was organized in Macau with a very particular intention: to learn how we can re-establish ourselves in Asia. There were once many Houses of Mercy in Asia and almost all disappeared. Only Macau remains. We want to learn with Macau how we can remain in Asia. And how we can remain with such an overwhelming capacity, so well-suited to the modern times. We are in Macau to share experiences, to discuss our concerns, but also to build the foundations for a future in which we can meet the people’s needs. The moment we are living is a moment of blessing. It is certainly also a moment prone to challenges, but the example of Macau strengthens us. Macau offers us the guarantee that it is possible to subsist, that new solutions are attainable. The Holy House of Mercy of Macau proves that by cultivating fraternity, we can all treat each other, in all circumstances, as brothers.
You have repeatedly emphasized the idea of fraternity in your interventions. The Houses of Mercy are still seen as Catholic institutions, but this element is no longer a defining trait of its nature …
Exactly. We can’t and we should not be oblivious to the suffering of the others. Pope Francis has recently considered the globalization of indifference towards the suffering of the others as one of the biggest dramas of our time. The Houses of Mercy emerged more than five hundred years ago – in Italy they were born seven hundred years ago – precisely as a reaction to indifference. They were founded with the purpose of motivating people so that, in the face of human suffering, they could not stay aloof. The individualism that pervades our societies today made it more and more urgent to cultivate a spirit of unity, to cultivate a renewed sense of fraternity and sensitivity to the suffering of the others. We need to answer the conflicts that surround us, the increasing marginalization of those who get discarded by society with fortitude and hope. This shouldn’t happen only due to a religious background or motivation. It can be done in a philanthropic regime, as it is the case in Brazil. But it can also be done by religious institutions in which non-religious people can participate as it is more and more the case in Portugal. In Portugal, anyone can take part in the works of the Houses of Mercy, regardless of their religious belief. They can offer their contribution as long as they respect what we call the Christian principles of commitment. The Houses of Mercy are not exclusive of the Church and they don’t work for the Church. As a matter of fact, I have a very interesting episode to tell you about.
A few years ago a new House of Mercy was launched in a Portuguese village called Benedita. My presence there became known and a local citizen approached me and asked: “O Father, this House of Mercy thing belongs to the Church, isn’t it?” And I said: “Look, no. It belongs to the people.” His reaction was quite meaningful: “Oh, is that so? Then I want to be in.” People don’t have necessarily to be believers or non-believers. The head of a House of Mercy doesn’t need to be a saint or a “holy man,” nor to attend Mass everyday. He needs, nonetheless, to know how to manage solidarity and how to cultivate that sense of fraternity I was telling you about.
China faces some of the same problems that Portugal and other European countries are facing nowadays. Everywhere we look, societies are growing old and this is, probably, one of the biggest challenges the governments have to deal with. Could the multi-secular experience acquired by the Holy House of Mercy of Macau be of any use to the People’s Republic of China?
I am quite certain it can. Macau’s own House of Mercy has evolved. It began as a hospital, “open to the sea,” as they used to say back then. It was, therefore, a hospital open to all those who needed, Christian or non-Christian, as Bishop Melchior Carneiro envisaged at the time. The Holy House of Mercy has been able to able to adapt, through time, to the most impending needs of the population, whether they be related to disease, to poverty or to the abandonment of children. One of the dramas humanity faces nowadays is, as you were saying, senescent societies. It is not so much the attention to childhood and the education of the younger generations, but the fact that societies are growing old. People are living longer, but they are living in health conditions which are increasingly challenging.
There’s a common trait to the history of the Houses of Mercy around the world – in Portugal, in Brazil and in Macau – and that trait is the ability of paying attention to what people need the most. China is a huge country, with a huge capacity and it’s undergoing a wave of development and progress, but I am quite sure that the Chinese authorities are very well aware of what the most pressing needs of its population are. To resort to instruments of the civil society, these or others of its kind, is certainly the way.
Aging is one of the challenges that the Houses of Mercy are facing around the world, but it is not the only one. What are the others?
Where do I start? The challenge of health. The challenge of the so-called dementias, which are a result of aging and are increasingly evident: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other diseases. Then, we also have marginal poverty. This is a challenge that is different from country to country: one thing is Brazil, another is Portugal and another one is China, but any of them can benefit with the social work that the Houses of Mercy have been carrying on for the last five centuries.
The Houses of Mercy have always been an important supplement to the action of the State and to the action of the Governments. Will this status be reinforced in the future? Are they still important partners in fighting inequality?
It is absolutely necessary to keep that partnership status untouched: the civil society should be a partner of the State and the State should be partner to civil society. They are collaborative entities, with collaborative action . No one can solve the problems that plague humanity alone. The State and the civil society institutions must develop their activity in a loyal and responsible cooperation. They don’t need to compete among themselves. That would be crazy. The problems we face won’t get solved with competition. We all need to run in the same direction, to elect the same objectives and join hands, so we can achieve the best results possible.