Thousands of Rotary members, motivated by a special invitation from Pope Francis, gathered at the Vatican in Rome on Saturday 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 100,000, 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 Rotary members, 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 traveled from California, USA, to attend. "To have such a transcending figure together with a transcending organization like Rotary in the same place is something I just couldn't miss," says Lanting, a member of the Rotary Club of Long Beach.
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," she adds. "We may have different ways of expressing it, but our [Rotary] 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," Zimmerman says.
After the Jubilee audience, Francis met with a small delegation of Rotary members led by RI President K.R. Ravindran. The pope spoke to Ravindran about the importance of vaccinating children against polio and encouraged Rotary to continue its efforts against this disease.
"I have been honored and deeply touched to have had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis earlier today, and to have heard him tell us to continue our fight toward polio eradication," says Ravindran, who is Hindu. "It 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."
Mitigating the migrant crisis
On Friday, 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.
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 audience members and panelists to use their connections to provide the resources and funding needed to address the humanitarian crisis.
After the panel discussion, Bonaventure Fohtung, a member of the Rotary Club of 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 organizers from District 2080 (Italy), also included benefit concerts and three fundraising dinners for polio eradication.