Father Eugene Hemrick

“Father, mark Jan. 4 on your calendar for Holy Rosary’s celebration of Befana.”

The friend who invited me is a parishioner of Holy Rosary, an Italian-American parish in downtown Washington, D.C. “Befana” is Italian for Epiphany.

Befana is a children’s festive day in which they come together to eat, have fun and then receive a special blessing after listening to the Magi story.

Upon entering the parish hall I was greeted with “buon giorno” — good day — and the familiar sounds of Italian that my grandparents, mother and relatives spoke. I felt at home again!

As I observed parents and children interacting, a friend nudged me, “This is education at its best! Going to school is one thing; it is yet another thing to immerse in your culture and imbibe in its richness.”

It was obvious that the parents of the children there were dedicated to preserving their Italian language, their respect for special feast days and their appreciation of Italian community spirit.


In my family I would sit around the kitchen table listening to my mother and her friends talk. It always amazed me that they all talked at once. It then dawned on me that Italians love to talk, especially using their hands. This was ever so apparent during the Befana celebration.

As I walked home I passed a shelter for the homeless two blocks from Holy Rosary Parish. A number of homeless people were sitting outside, some of them in rags. Some of them were just gazing out into empty space with nothing to do.

I wondered how many fewer homeless people would exist if they had grown up as those Italian children were growing up. Would they be homeless if they been able to imbibe in the warm, joyful community spirit I had just experienced?

In the Gospels, St. John the Baptist is asked who he is. He replies he is not the Christ but then reveals what he is about. He has an identity from which he derives his strength and mission. Within that strength is a vision filled with hope and a profound understanding of Christ that sustains his zeal.

I have to wonder how many homeless people possess the pride identity creates.

Our country is becoming increasingly multicultural. As a consequence, we are forever intermingling with various cultures in hopes of living together better.

To make this happen these cultures must maintain a strong cultural identity! It contains the hominess and consequent strength that are our best means for countering homelessness.