Hundreds of people gathered in St Peter’s Square on Thursday evening to pray for Alfie Evans. It was the second night in a row lay people, religious men and women, and clergy gathered at the obelisk that stands in the centre of the square to offer prayers for the 23-month-old child who is severely ill and clinging desperately to life in a Liverpool hospital.
A great deal of controversy surrounds the boy and his circumstances, much of which has in the past few weeks played out in English courts, where Alfie’s young parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, have sought thus far without success to vindicate their right to determine the course of care for their boy. The medical facility where Alfie is being kept, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, has decided to apply an end-of-life plan.
The Vatican-run Bambino Gesù Hospital – which specializes in paediatric care for the severely ill, disabled, and dying – is prepared to continue Alfie’s treatment, but the courts have not allowed Alfie to return to his parents. Italy even granted Alfie Italian citizenship in an effort to facilitate his transfer to the Roman facility. The courts have also allowed Alder Hey staff to extubate Alfie. Some expected he would die soon after. As of this morning, Alfie Evans lives.
Many of the faithful gathered at the obelisk, beneath the window from which Pope Francis has made numerous appeals for the boy and almost within earshot of the Papal apartments in the Casa Santa Marta where Pope Francis has been praying for Alfie, are appalled at the circumstances. “Who should say that this boy, whose life is so precious, should cease to live?” said 22-year-old Filippo, one of the many young people in the throng on Thursday. “Alfie’s life has an immense value, even in the conditions of illness in which he suffers,” Filippo told the Catholic Herald. “I feel pity for this person,” he said, “I’d do everything to help him live [as] well [as he can], rather than say to him, ‘your life is so, therefore it does not deserve to be lived.’ That is absurd (è una cosa che non esiste).”
Nevertheless, the organisers of this grassroots vigil were adamant in their insistence not to speak to the controversy. Veteran Vaticanista Saverio Gaeta of the leading Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana is one of the organisers. He told the Catholic Herald, “We are not interested in the political and diplomatic questions — in anything that could be part of the [surrounding] polemic. What interests us is that there is a child who deserves to continue to live.” This purpose was one clearly conveyed to participants. “The organisers,” explained Gregory DiPippo, editor of the New Liturgical Movement journal and one of the faithful on hand Thursday evening, “asked at the beginning that people pray especially for the conversion of the heart, for ourselves, and for all those responsible for Alfie.”
There were no speeches, no placards, no slogans printed or shouted or chanted. There were only candles, and handouts with the set prayers printed to aid the people taking part. “A child is dying,” explained Fr Dominic Buckley, a priest of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, who was one of several clerics on hand, “and the need is for the community to [give] support. We don’t have all the answers. There’s a great mystery here, with suffering, but all we want to do is express our closeness, and to see that this is beyond politics. It’s personal, involving this little boy and his young parents, and we wish to support them.” The organisers also enlisted Fr Buckley to help lead the prayers.
The vigil was very much a grassroots effort. “It all started with a phone call Wednesday morning, in which I proposed this thing,” Gaeta explained to the Herald. “We talked through the day about how to do it, and then at 7 pm on Wednesday a WhatsApp message was sent out, saying, ‘anyone who wants to come is welcome, we’ll be here.’ We thought we’d be maybe twenty people. Instead, we were three hundred.” Police sources on hand Thursday told the Herald the crowd that evening was visibly larger than the one that had gathered the night before.
There were also thousands of shares of video from the Wednesday gathering across social media platforms, and on Thursday, Gaeta told us, similar vigils were taking place roughly contemporaneously in city squares up and down the Italian peninsula.
People will be in St Peter’s Square again Friday evening, this time to pray not only for Alfie, but also for Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five children who has been in jail in her native Pakistan since 2009, convicted of blasphemy charges and sentenced to death. Her appeal is expected finally to be heard very soon, after the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Saqib Nisar, promised he would be personally responsible for guaranteeing her case is heard. Bibi and her bishop, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, have asked for solidarity in the form of prayer and fasting this Friday. The Herald has learned the small but growing group of faithful, who may be fairly described as the Rome contingent of Alfie’s Army, are ready to answer.