Trainspotting at the Vatican for Caritas’ 60th anniversary

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, President of Caritas Internationalis, blesses the 1915 locomotive which heads the Caritas Express

By Michelle Hough, Caritas Communications Officer

21st May 2011

Of all the things you can do at the Vatican on a Saturday morning, catching a train isn’t usually one of them. In fact, apart from a few Popes, not many people have ever travelled on the Vatican railway – the shortest in the world. But there I was at 8am this morning showing my pass to the Swiss guards and heading up behind St Peter’s to the Vatican Station.

Thanks to big a helping hand from Ferrovie dello Stato – Italian State Railway – and the Vatican, Caritas has been able to kick off its 60th birthday celebrations in style. Vatican officials, ambassadors, families, and of course, train enthusiasts, joined people from Caritas organisations from Europe, America, Asia and Oceania for a steam train trip to Orvieto in Umbria.

The locomotive that would take us on our trip was a big, shiny, black one from 1915, while the carriages were from the 1930s. But the real jewel in the convoy was the “Parlour Car” which Pope John XXIII travelled in almost 50 years ago. All very elegant compared to today’s train travel.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, President of Caritas Internationalis, arrived and spoke to dignitaries and journalists. Then he climbed up into the locomotive with Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo from the President of the Vatican’s Governorate. When he came down, Cardinal Rodriguez gave a blessing to the train and all those present and then we were off. The massive iron gates slowly opened and the train huffed and puffed out of the Vatican and into Rome.

Steam train travel is filthy work. In the tunnels the smoke has nowhere to go but in the open-windowed carriages. At one point, our own Msgr Vitillo discreetly advised me look at myself in a mirror. I went to the loo to find that I looked like I’d just come back from a shift down the pit with my sooty face. As I spoke to people in the carriages they all seemed very happy to be on such a momentous trip.

For the train buffs, the day was particularly magical. One such enthusiast, Ambassador Tim Fischer from the Australian embassy to the Holy See, had been instrumental in getting the project off the ground. Half an hour into the journey the Caritas volunteers started giving out sandwiches courtesy of consulting firm Deloitte. The volunteers did a fantastic job of shuttling up and down the narrow corridors with armfuls of boxes.

As we neared Orvieto I went to the Parlour Car to ask Cardinal Rodriguez if he’d mind if I brought a Vatican Radio journalist to interview him. He said, “Where are they? I’ll go to them.” And so I accompanied the Cardinal down the length of the wobbly train to do the interview. As soon as he sat down for the interview he was surrounded by journalists and photographers wanting to talk to him. He spoke to all of them, giving interviews in English, French, Spanish and Italian.

A number of journalists wanted to know why Caritas had chosen a historic train trip for its 60th anniversary. Cardinal Rodriguez said, “It’s a spiritual sign. A train has many wagons, Caritas has 165 members. Caritas is like a big train of charity and love.” And with that thought, we arrived at the medieval town of Orvieto. The mayor received us all in the square in front of the beautiful cathedral which we later all visited. As I watched the news this evening I saw that that Pope Benedict had a conversation with astronauts in space earlier today. I thought to myself, “Now there’s a good destination to celebrate Caritas’ next 60 years…”. Another spiritual sign: Caritas reaching for the heavens.

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