Thousands of Rotarians, motivated by a special invitation from Pope Francis, gathered at the Vatican in Rome on April 30, to celebrate a message of compassion, inclusiveness and service to humanity.
At midmorning, the group — numbering some 9,000 members from 80 countries — made its way through the congested streets of Rome, past the tight security surrounding St Peter’s Square, and settled into the area reserved for Rotary in front of St Peter’s Basilica for the Jubilee audience.
Francis, a 79-year-old Argentine, urged the crowd of more than 1,00,000, which included members of the police and armed forces from around the world, “to build a culture of peace, security and solidarity around the world.”
His message of peace resonated with Rotarians, including R Asokan from Tamil Nadu, India. “His message about peace is about accepting. Rotary, which accepts all walks of life, can carry his message to all our clubs, therefore carrying his message to all our communities,” says Asokan.
Though Francis is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church his words often reach a wider audience. A poll published earlier this year found him to be one of the most liked and trusted world leaders.
That’s what made this event at the Vatican so appealing, says Adriana Lanting, who travelled from California, USA, to attend. “To have such a transcending figure together with a transcending organisation like Rotary in the same place is something I just couldn’t miss,” says Lanting, a member of RC Long Beach.
Whatever your tradition, whatever your faith, your opportunity in Rotary and your challenge are the same: to put Service Above Self and Be A Gift to the World.
— RI President K R Ravindran
Madrid Zimmerman, another Long Beach member, isn’t Catholic but says Francis has a knack for touching people’s hearts regardless of where they’re from. “Rotary has the same effect. We may have different ways of expressing it, but our action in helping others comes from the same place. This event is a reminder that we only have one goal and that’s to give service to those who need it. I think that’s the message I want to bring back to my club,” she adds.
After the Jubilee audience, Francis met with a small delegation of Rotary members led by RI President K R Ravindran. The Pope spoke to him about the importance of vaccinating children against polio and encouraged Rotary to continue its efforts against this disease.
Mitigating The Migrant Crisis
In the previous week, Rotary hosted a panel discussion in Rome to highlight efforts to alleviate the plight of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 60 million people, including 11 million Syrians, have been displaced by war and violence over the last four years. Such extensive displacement has not been seen since World War II.
In the discussion, moderated by Vatican Radio, experts from the World Food Programme, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) talked about ways to help migrants start over in their new countries.
The plight of today’s refugees is really a litmus test for today’s compassion.
— John Hewko, Rotary General Secretary
Rotary General Secretary John Hewko, speaking on the panel, pointed to several initiatives Rotary clubs have undertaken to integrate refugees into society, including computer coding schools and a vocational training project in Rimini, Italy.
“The plight of today’s refugees is really a litmus test for today’s compassion,” Hewko said.
He encouraged the audience and panelists to use their connections to provide the resources and funding needed to address the humanitarian crisis.
After the panel discussion, Bonaventure Fohtung of RC Upper Blue Mountains Sunrise in New South Wales, Australia, said that Rotary and the Pope have the same agenda when it comes to helping migrants. Recently Francis took 12 Syrian migrants, three families including six children, back with him to the Vatican after visiting a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“We need to go home from this event and set an example. Each club should do something. Just one thing to help these refugees can make a remarkable difference,” he added.
The two-day Rotary event in Rome, tied to the Vatican’s Jubilee of Mercy and dubbed the Jubilee of Rotarians by organisers from District 2080 (Italy), also included benefit concerts and three fundraising dinners for polio eradication.
In Rotary, religion unites
Excerpts from the address of RI President K R Ravindran at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore built by Michelangelo in 1562, Rome, where Pope Francis had a special jubilee for Rotarians from across the world.
I am very grateful to the Rotarians in Italy, especially DG ‘Pino’ Perrone and the Rotarians of District 2080, for organising not only a memorable, but a historic event … one that affirms the belief that we share with Pope Francis, in the importance of humanitarian service — for which the need is more vital, more relevant and more universal than ever before.
As we began the week with a panel discussion on the refugee crisis, I was reminded of a story of a young emigrant family from Italy, that of Rosa and Giovanni Bergoglio, and their six children. Fleeing fascism here in Italy, in 1927 they sold their house and coffee shop and bought steerage tickets on the Principessa Mafalda, bound for a new life in Argentina.
But the sale of their assets was delayed, and they had to change their tickets for another ship, sailing a month later.
Waiting in Italy for their departure, word reached them that the Mafalda had sunk — taking with it nearly all of the hundreds of passengers in steerage. Had the Bergoglio family not missed their departure, had they lost their lives at sea as so many other refugees have more recently, none of us would be here this evening.
Because the oldest son of Rosa and Giovanni was Mario, who grew up to be the father of Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now known, of course, as His Holiness Pope Francis.
In the months leading up to this event, many Rotarians, and even some outside of Rotary, questioned me regarding our decision to hold a Rotary event at St Peter’s Square at the invitation of Pope Francis.
After all we are not a religious organisation, we have no religious affiliation, so why are we having a Rotary event that involves a Catholic Mass?
To all of them, I have said, and I say to all of you again, that what makes Rotary unique is that it is a framework in which we serve others — not with, or through, or despite our religion — but in parallel to it. In Rotary, you can have a dozen faiths in one room, and all are respected; with one caveat that we will not allow religion to split us.
We do not isolate ourselves from religion, but instead welcome adherents of all faiths.
My Rotary Club in Sri Lanka has a Christmas party every year, at which the Hindus and Muslims are just as welcome, and which we enjoy every bit as much as the Christians. This is exactly and absolutely the spirit of Rotary — that by sharing our traditions, by welcoming each other into our lives, we only strengthen the bonds of service, and our common humanity.
As a Hindu, I am honoured and deeply touched to have had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis earlier today, and to hear him tell DG Pino and me that we must continue with our immunisation until polio is eradicated and that may God bless us. In fact, he asked us to pray for him.
This has given me even more pride in Rotary’s past, even more faith in its present, and even more optimism about its future, than ever before.
It has truly been a blessed day and as we leave this evening, we know that our paths will cross again as He wills. And we know that whatever your tradition, whatever your faith, your opportunity in Rotary and your challenge are the same: to put Service Above Self and Be A Gift to the World.