All aboard the Caritas express

ABOARD THE CARITAS EXPRESS - Caritas Internationalis opened its 60th anniversary celebrations with a loud whistle, a puff of smoke and a plume of steam on a vintage train traveling from the Vatican's seldom-used train station for a day's outing.

The train, dubbed the Caritas Express for the May 21 journey, included the fancy parlor car used in the past by Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. It is the same carriage, originally designed for Italy's royal family, that will be used when Pope Benedict XVI travels to Assisi in October.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, the president of Caritas Internationalis, said that if trains had existed at the time of Jesus, the Lord would have told a parable that would have included the line, "I am the locomotive and you are the wagons" in the same way Jesus "used to say the sheep learn the voice of the shepherd and follow him."

In an interview aboard the train as it traveled to Orvieto, an Umbrian hilltown north of Rome, Cardinal Rodriguez said there were several reasons why a clickety-clack ride was a great way for a Catholic organization to celebrate its existence.

"First of all: movement. Dynamism is one of the characteristics of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not sitting, is not asleep, not on holiday, but is working and promoting movement inside the church," he said.

The second reason is because the slower pace and freedom of train movement - especially on a train that is a curiosity - promote community, he said. "In the wagons people are talking, leaving behind selfishness and egoism and individualism. Community is beautiful on a train," the cardinal said.

The train chugged out of the Vatican station the day before delegates from the 165 national Catholic charities belonging to the Caritas federation began a weeklong general assembly in Rome.

Tim Fischer, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See and a self-confessed "trainspotter," was a major promoter of the train trip and key to its organization. He said trainspotters are people devoted to energy-efficient travel and not just train geeks.

The ambassador said the Vatican had "a very lonely railway station" and he spoke to Vatican officials about ways to remedy that. The conversations eventually led to planning the Caritas Express.

In the modern world, "the art of casual conversation is almost a lost art," but a train ride can be a remedy to that, he said.

Msgr. Robert Vitillo of Caritas worked with Fischer to organize the trip. "He taught me more than I ever wanted to know about trains," the monsignor said.

The trip, Msgr. Vitillo said, was a fitting way to mark the anniversary because "Caritas Internationalis has been on a journey for 60 years to find the best ways to help the poor and victims of disaster. Also, we've used trains to deliver aid, including from the Vatican train station."

Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, an official at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also made the journey. He said, "I used to go to school on one of these in Montreal. We'd get cinders in our hair."

Dozens of ambassadors and other Caritas supporters made a donation to the international federation of Catholic charities in exchange for a ticket and climbed aboard the Caritas Express.

Miguel Diaz, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said besides supporting the work of Caritas, he was attracted by the idea of a ride on a vintage steam train departing from the Vatican.

"For every adult, I think, it sparks the imagination and brings us back to our childhoods," he said.

Anne Leahy, the Canadian ambassador to the Vatican, said, "My maternal grandfather was a station chief so I have a soft spot for trains."

The Rev. Trevor Hoggard, the Methodist World Council's representative to the Vatican, said, "I love steam engines. They have souls, but I don't think that makes me a trainspotter."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011