Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It is almost 8 p.m. and I just got home from the 19th General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis that has been meeting in the Eternal City since Sunday. Friday is the final day of the assembly and will be marked by an audience with Pope Benedict.

It was the Caritas Express, of course, that I wrote about on this page yesterday, the train ride that was a prelude to the general assembly and also a celebration of Caritas 60 years. You will have to be satisfied with reading the same column today, although in a day or two I will bring you more photos from that train ride to Orvieto and news about the Caritas meeting as Ill be back there tomorrow.

It was a joy to see so many friends at the meeting today especially from the United States, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Jordan, and Iraq. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was re-elected yesterday to a second four-year term as Caritas president. We briefly spoke today and I expect to be interviewing him for Vatican Insider tomorrow. So many wonderful people at this assembly, so many wonderful and touching stories.

The afternoon Caritas meetings were held in the Torre Rossa hotel which is about a 15-minute walk from the Domus Mariae Villa Carpegna Hotel that has been the central meeting place for delegates. As I walked over, I saw the amazing bronze sculptures that we saw last month on Via della Conciliazione. They were in the middle of a field between the two hotels and it was striking to see them there and I wondered when they would be making their way back to Chile.

As I arrived in the meeting hall, delegates were just about to take their afternoon break. I saw Latin rite Bishop Jean Sleiman from Baghdad and we chatted for a while over coffee. I then visited with several other friends and was on my way to the front desk to ask a question when I was stopped by a bishop I did not know who was wearing a huge smile on his face. He extended his hand, said welcome to Caritas. I started to say my name, when he said, you are Joan, you are EWTN you have many friends here and we all know you! He introduced himself Archbishop Souraphiel of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia! We had a great chat, and he said I must visit Ethiopia sometime. We both have a common friend in Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, whom I first met about 20 years ago when we both worked at the Vatican. He eventually was named nuncio to Ethiopia and is now in Geneva representing the Vatican at various U.N. offices.

What a big, beautiful yet so very small world we live in!


Saturday, May 21 was one of the most delightful experiences I have had in my years of working for the Holy See and now as I cover the Vatican and Holy See. I joined several hundred people on the Caritas Express as it chugged out of Vatican City State for a daylong trip to mark an anniversary and as a prelude to a quadrennial general assembly.

At precisely 10 a.m. the Caritas Express, a seven-car train convoy left Vatican City State for Orvieto, a picturesque medieval hill town in Umbria, where passengers began the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Caritas Internationalis. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiago, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras and president of Caritas Internationalis, blessed the train and led the guests - including diplomats, religious and civil authorities, personnel of the Italian State railway, journalists and supporters of Caritas - as they boarded the train.

As scores of TV crews and photographers recorded the historic moment, the huge sliding metal gates that separate the Vatican City State from Italy were opened and a century-old steam engine slowly began the two and a quarter hour journey to Orvieto. As it exited Rome, the locomotive gradually picked up steam, eventually pulling the seven vintage cars from the 1920s and 30s at a fast clip.

Six of the cars were named for saints known for their work among the poor, marginalized and vulnerable the charism of Caritas - including Saints Mary MacKillop, Catherine Drexel, Martin De Porres, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. This was the first train in nine years to leave Vatican City but the first passenger train in decades. In January 2002 Pope John Paul travelled to Assisi for a day of prayer for peace. Forty years earlier his predecessor, Blessed John XXIII, travelled to Assisi in the parlor car of Italys president, the same parlor car used Saturday to host Cardinal Rodriguez and other guests.

Caritas started its weeklong 19th general assembly in Rome Sunday.

The Italian Railway collaborates closely and concretely with Caritas on a number of projects at various Italian train stations, including the Father Luigi Di Liegro Hostel, a center for the homeless located at Romes Termini station.

Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful - not a cloud in the azure sky. Those of us who were to travel on the Caritas Express were asked to be at the Petriano Gate at 8:30 where we showed our ticket to board. We proceeded to the train station, an imposing and elegant white marble building with columns that once was a depot for rarely used trains and occasional shipments of goods and now houses a luxury goods department store, open to Vatican employees and retirees. The station opened officially in October 1934.

The steam engine was puffing away as we entered the area behind the station where 300 meters of track inside Vatican City led to the huge gates that open onto Italian territory and 531 meters further on, the San Pietro train station. Workmen were busy fitting flags from Vatican City and from Italy onto the front of the engine.

The guests included Vatican employees, members of the diplomatic corps, Caritas personnel, staff from the FS (Italian state railway) and members of the media. Photographers and I include myself here could not seem to get enough of the antique engine and the vintage cars or the fact that, for the brief period the gates were open, you could have one foot in Italy and the other in Vatican City.

Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of Caritas, blessed the train, speaking both English and Italian.

One of the prime movers in organizing Saturdays train ride to Orvieto for Caritas (money from the sale of tickets all went, in fact, to Caritas humanitarian aid), was Australian ambassador to the Holy See, Tim Fischer. An amiable, easy going representative from down under to the Holy See, Fischer is a retired Australian rail employee and an afficionado of old trains and train history.

Views of Vatican City from the rail station:

He told me early Saturday morning that when he first came to the Vatican two years as his countrys representative, he knew of the Vatican rail station and the very short line linking it to Italy and felt that something should be done to activate the links between the two States, in a real as well as symbolical way. Caritas 60th anniversary was the perfect solution.

He also told me that when Australias first saint, Mary MacKillop, first came to Rome, she arrived by train from Brindisi on the Adriatic coast of Italy on May 11, 1973 at 9:30 p.m!

It was fun to watch Ambassador Fischer throughout the day he was truly like the little boy at Christmas with a new set of trains!

Later that afternoon, as we travelled back to Romes Termini station (arriving at Track 1 that seemed only fitting!), the ambassador came to the last cars to chat with journalists. I told him I had been watching peoples faces all day and I saw joy and excitement and happiness and relaxation but most of all I saw a sense of wonderment. He smiled at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, Thats it! You have just captured the day!

He said the Vatican was very pleased at how things went. Here he is pictured with Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, who heads the governorate of Vatican City, and Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga.

One of the FS staff who was aboard the train was a man named Dario who works for the office that liaises with the media. I asked Dario if Pope Benedict, when he travels to Assisi in October, would be travelling on this same train. He said the climb was too steep for a steam engine to travel all the way to Assisi and said the Holy Father would be taking the FrecciaRossa the Red Arrow. The train will be brought into Vatican City for the days journey as it was for our trip Saturday. The FS has about 20 such cars that serve for special occasions throughout Italy.

Some of the vintage cars:

The trip to Orvieto took two and a quarter hours (we arrived five minutes ahead of schedule), with stops at the San Pietro Station, immediately outside of the Vatican walls, and another in Orte where our convoy received an electric locomotive albeit an old one.

An engineer in a uniform of a bygone era.

As we began the next stage of our journey, we all were wearing a fine patina of grey soot on our faces and hands of our trip, having kept the windows open for the ride through peaceful Italian countryside.

Once in Orvieto, we took a funicular to the center of this hilltop town where local buses then took us to the duomo, the stunning cathedral. That is another story for another day so stay tuned for Part Two of the Caritas Express and then a visit to this most splendid of churches. By the way, it was in Orvieto, centuries ago, that the feast of Corpus Domini originated.

Write to Joan at:


  News Home
  Joan's Rome
  A Catholic Journalist
in London
  Inside EWTN
  Power & Witness
  Journeys home by Marcus Grodi
  Seen & Unseen
  Vatican Insider Podcast
  Joan's Rome:Video