Just a heads up to let you know that these pages might be Joan’s Rome-lite this week!  The agenda for coming days includes a number of press conferences and Vatican events hosted by several pontifical councils as well as by Caritas Internationalis as it meets in general assembly this week, starting with the opening Mass late tomorrow afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Francis.

I have a number of friends who are in town or about to arrive for these events. I’ve been invited to the papal Mass tomorrow and to other sessions of the Caritas general assembly  during which time I hope to interview some people for Vatican Insider. Some events are near or inside Vatican City while others are up the road a bit, as they say.

There was a lot of news over the weekend and today as well. Pope Francis had a number of meetings on his agenda but for now I want to focus on his historic meeting Sunday with Raul Castro, president of Cuba and brother of the ageing Fidel Castro. Pope Francis will travel to Cuba in September before he visits the U.S. where he will address the United Nations in New York, the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. and preside at the World meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

I’ll also bring you some of Francis’ greetings at Sunday’s Regina Coeli. By the way, I did post several other meaningful news stories on Facebook.

In a different vein: Don’t let anyone tell you computers don’t have a mind of their own!  I have no idea why (an expression I often use vis-a-vis computers) but I can only write in WORD today if I have closed my email accounts.


Sunday’s meeting between Pope Francis and President Raul Castro of Cuba was historic in quite a number of ways. Historic for the Pope as he rarely, if ever, receives people in audience on a Sunday. Historic in the time Francis dedicated to Castro – almost one hour (and almost unheard of). And even, as the press office statement said, “meaningful in the gifts exchanged.”

The president’s small motorcade arrived at the back entrance to the Paul VI Hall known as the “fungo,” or mushroom, where a central pillar supports a rounded roof area. This is just meters away from the Santa Marta residence where the Holy Father lives. Pope Francis asked that a small contingent of Swiss Guards be present, as it normally would be in the San Damaso courtyard where most heads of State are received when the Pope welcomes them to the Apostolic Palace. (photos:


The Holy See Press Office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi, gave some specifics about the meeting:

“This morning the Holy Father received in private audience the president of the Republic of Cuba, Raul Castro Ruz. The meeting took place in the Pope’s study adjacent to Paul VI Hall.

“Upon arrival, at 9.30 a.m., the president was received by the prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, accompanied by his substitute, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu and the secretary for Relations with States, Bishop Paul Richard Gallagher. A personal meeting with the Pope then took place in the study, which lasted more than 50 minutes and was very cordial.


“The president, as he declared before leaving the Vatican, thanked the Holy Father for his active role in improving relations between Cuba and the United States. He also expressed the sentiments of the Cuban people as they await and prepare for his upcoming visit to the island in September.

“The Pope and the president then proceeded to the adjacent room for the presentation of the delegation accompanying Raul Castro, composed of around a dozen figures including the deputy prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs and the ambassador to the Holy See.

“The exchange of gifts was very meaningful. The president offered the Pope a valuable commemorative medal of the Cathedral of Havana and a contemporary painting, depicting a large cross made up of wrecked boats, with a migrant in prayer in the foreground. The artist, the Cuban Kcho, was present and explained to the Pope that it was inspired by his great efforts to raise awareness in the world of the problems faced by migrants and refugees, beginning with his famous trip to Lampedusa.

“The Pope gave the president a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and a large medallion depicting St. Martin covering the poor man with his cape. The Holy Father observed that he was particularly keen to give this gift, as it recalled the commitment not only to protecting the poor but also to promoting dignity.

President Raul Castro and his delegation left the Vatican shortly after 10.30 a.m.”

Castro, 83, had asked the Vatican if he could meet with the Pope on Sunday on his way back to Cuba from Moscow. He told the Vatican he wanted to personally thank the Pope for mediating between Cuba and the U.S., a mediation that led to a thaw in the “cold war” between the two over the past 50 years and the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Castro later met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and, after that meeting, told reporters at a televised press conferenvce, he was “really impressed by (Pope Francis’) wisdom and his modesty.” The Cuban president also said:  e also told reporters“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”

Both of the Castro brothers were baptized as Catholics and educated by Jesuits before the 1959 revolution. Francis’ predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both visited Cuba where they met the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul.


Following his reflections on Sunday’s Gospel and the recitation of the Marian prayer in the presence of a jam-packed St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis had greetings for mothers, noting that, “today, many countries celebrate Mother’s Day.” He put aside his prepared remarks and, looking down on the vast crowd with a broad smile, asked, “Are there any mothers here?” The crowd’s reaction was immediate, they too smiled and said “yes” in many languages.


The Holy Father asked for a show of hands of the mothers present, and it looked like the wave was being done in St. Peter’s Square!  He then asked for applause for all mothers present in the square: “That applause embraces all mothers, all our dear mothers: those who live with us physically, but also those who live with us spiritually. May the Lord bless them all, and may the Mother of God, to whom this month is dedicated, watch over them all.”

(Vatican Radio) Also Sunday, during his Regina Coeli address, Pope Francis greeted participants in Italy’s fifth annual March for Life. “I greet all those participating in the initiative for life taking place this morning in Rome,” the Pope said. “It is important to work together to defend and promote life.”

Several thousand people from all parts of Italy and from around the world took part in the March through the heart of Rome’s historic centre. Among those taking part in the March was Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Speaking with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Burke said, “St. John Paul II urged us, in his wonderful encyclical letter on the Gospel of Life, to make public manifestations to demonstrate the incomparable beauty, the inviolability of innocent, defenceless human life.” He said the March is “very important in Italy as a sign of the Italian peoples dedication to the apostolate for the restoration of the respect for all human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.”

Cardinal Burke also mentioned the international aspect of the March for Life. “It’s wonderful to see the international participation” in the March, he said. “So many come from various countries because they want to join the Italian people in their testimony to the dignity of human life, created in God’s own image and redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law has paid another visit! My building had some work done two days ago on one of the main water pipes, and an announcement to this effect said there would be no water from 9 am to about 1 pm. However, it was not mentioned that the water would be drained from the pipes of all households linked to that side of the building, and that it would be wise to turn off washing machines, hot water heaters, or any other appliance that used water. Unaware of this, I had my water heater on, as I always do, and by the end of the afternoon, emptied of water to heat, it had burned out! This comes on the heels of three items – almost simultaneously – headed to the appliance cemetery: my wash machine, the fridge and my satellite decoder box (not, strictly speaking, an appliance). New items have been bought and installed (I did the decoder box myself).

Thank the Lord, I have a trusted plumber and he and an assistant spent several hours draining and removing the old heater, which is in the main bathroom, buying and installing a new one, in addition to which they fixed two problems in a second small bathroom and the kitchen.

After they left, I had a quick lunch at 4:15 and have had to put off appointments I had for this afternoon as well as the cleaning of all three rooms where Domenico had worked, to write this column, given the historic moment for the Vatican, Pope Francis, Cuba and the U.S.

I’ll start with a fascinating personal story today about Cuba that was directly linked to my work at the Vatican Information Service (VIS) in its early years, in the early- and mid-90s.

First, some background, to understand the story:

Sometime around 1989, Pope John Paul II asked Joaquin Navarro-Valls, then the head of the Holy See Press Office, if there was an efficient and timely way to get Vatican news to the nuncios – the papal ambassadors – throughout the world. The world’s bishops, nuncios and episcopal conferences had to rely on domestic newspapers, TV and radio for their news of the Pope and Vatican, although there was, of course, Vatican Radio and other Catholic news agencies. The Vatican paper, L’Osservatore Romano, which reprinted papal speeches and documents in their entirety and gave all the news not covered by secular or other media (nominations, daily papal audiences, etc) often took weeks or even months to travel to Church offices around the globe.

Thus, as a result of John Paul II’s request that Navarro-Valls explore the possibility of a way of daily communicating with nuncios and bishops, VIS was born. Nuncios and bishops had to pay for an annual subscription in the early, pre-Internet years, as each daily bulletin – first in Spanish and English, and later in Italian and French – was sent via fax. The subscription cost was not inconsequential. However, the money that came from the archdioceses and dioceses that could afford the full annual payment was shared with dioceses who wanted to received the VIS fax but could not afford to, thus efectively subsidizing them. We made sure that no nuncio, no bishop would go without VIS simply because they did not have the subscription money – or the equipment, a fax machine.

In time, VIS became known throughout the Church and individuals, schools, universities, parishes, and many other like groups subscribed to VIS. Its first transmitted news service via fax was December 21, 1990. The second was after the Christmas holidays, on December 28 and our regular, five-days a week transmissions began on January 1, 1991.

And, in time, the Internet became the vehicle for communicating. I must say here that VIS had a page on the brand new WWW (World Wide Web) even before the Holy See had its page,!

Once the idea was explained to Pope St. John Paul and he gave the go-ahead, Navarro Valls found office space in the building housing the press office and the proxess of interviewing staff began. VIS was transmitted in the early years in English and Spanish (these were the two languages most used by nuncios and bishops as either their first or second language) and there were five of us on staff. I was the English language writer and editor, in the early days Fernando Monge and then Alfonso Bailly Baillere wrote the Spanish version of VIS and Carmen Sanchez Asiain translated from English into her native Spanish, and back again! Carmen’s English was impeccable as she had spent considerable time in both Ireland and India where she always spoke English. She died tragically of a heart attack at age 56 on September 30, 1996.

And now my Cuba story, brief as it is:

Early in the 1990s, it became known to Pedro Brunori the Italo-Argentinian head of VIS from 1990 to 1998, that Church officials in Cuba wanted to receive the daily VIS bulletin but did not have a fax machine and they were not allowed by the State to have one. In addition the telephone line they had was under surveillance. The Vatican solved the problem by sending Pedro to Cuba on a diplomatic passport with a small suitcase that contained a satellite phone. That phone line served to received the daily VIS bulletin.

There were many similarly wonderful stories about VIS’ first years that I will tell someday in a book.

As I said on my Facebook page today, posting one of the Vatican stories about its role and that of Pope Francis in the just-announced rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, “St. John Paul II opened doors on his visit to Cuba in late January 1998 and now Pope Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, has opened the doors even further as it has become known of the Vatican’s role in the new U.S.-Cuba relations.

Before John Paul II would even consider travelling to Cuba, the Vatican set out a number of conditions that had to be met (another story for a day when I have more time). Months and months of behind the scenes talks and meetings took place to solve the issues and make possible the papal trip. Following the announcement yesterday of new U.S.-Cuba ties, many are asking now: Did the U.S. lay out any conditions concerning issues such as freedom, human rights, access to means of communication, etc. and say they had to be met first? We do not know now. We do know, in reports from Cuba, that the Catholic Church is the most trusted institution in the country by the people.

Here are some of the stories from the Vatican today: the Pope’s reaction, remarks by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the communique from the Vatican Secretariat of State, and a Vatican Radio summary of yesterday’s events. All stories are by Vatican Radio at


(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis on Wednesday offered his congratulations to the governments of the United States and Cuba, as they announced the two countries will start talks on resuming diplomatic relations. A statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State said that in recent months the Pope had written to both Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama, inviting them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.” The Holy See also met with delegations from both countries in the Vatican last October, providing what the statement calls “its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue.” The communiqué says the Holy See will continue to offer support for initiatives on the part of both countries to strengthen bilateral relations and promote the well-being of their respective citizens.

Here is that communique from the Secretariat of State:

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history. In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties. The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis spoke on Thursday at his joy over the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, two nations who have been estranged for many years, saying this was a result of diplomacy. His remarks came in a brief off-the-cuff address to new non-resident ambassadors to the Holy See as they presented their Letters of Credence: Bahamas, Bangladesh, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo. He said the work of an ambassador is to take small steps aimed at building peace, bringing the hearts of people closer together and sowing brotherhood between peoples and nations.

“I give you a warm welcome and I hope that every time you come here you feel as though at home. Our welcome and our respect (are) for you and also for your people and the heads of your Governments.  I greet you all and hope your work will be fruitful. The work of an ambassador is a job of taking small steps, doing small things but whose aim always is to build peace, to bring the hearts of people closer together and sow brotherhood between peoples.  This is your work, but done with small things, very small things. And today we are all happy because yesterday we saw two nations, who were estranged for so many years, take a step to bring them closer together. This was achieved by ambassadors, by diplomacy. Yours is a noble, very noble work. I hope it will be fruitful and may God bless you. Thank you.”

(Vatican Radio)  Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the (Vatican) Secretary of State, said on Thursday that Pope Francis played a very significant role in facilitating the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Parolin spoke of the Holy See’s satisfaction over the agreement between the U.S. and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties and praised the leaders of the two nations for their courageous decision.

Q: What was the specific role of Pope Francis – the first Pope to come from the South American continent?

A. I would like to repeat the satisfaction of the Holy See for this important step in the relations between the United States and Cuba.  And also to stress that the role of the Holy Father was very significant in this conclusion.  Of course, in the sense that since the beginning of his pontificate, he has stressed the importance for the person and the groups and people to meet together. What we have called the culture of encounter. I think that this is the proper word. But his teaching then, his teaching which also pointed out this importance and this necessity. At the same time, the help to the two parties, the United States and Cuba, writing to the two presidents and stressing the importance of finding a solution to their historical differences.

Q. What was the Holy See’s diplomatic role in these negotiations?

A. In this case, the Holy See has tried to facilitate the dialogue between the two parties according to the, let’s say, the objective that the Holy Father Pope Francis has given to the diplomacy of the Holy See. Which is of course traditional in its history, but now he (it) has (a) new  accent (emphasis)(sic) because of the situation, the particular situation of our world – which is to build bridges between persons and groups and nations.  And then it was, let’s say, a service of facilitating and of promoting the dialogue between the two parties.

Q. The roles of President Obama and the Cuban President were also important in these negotiations…

A. Of course, of course.  I would like to, just to highlight the courage they had in this decision.  It is a decision, I think…very important and of course, not everybody agrees with that but I think that it was important from the side of the two presidents to have the courage and the strength to make such a decision.  And I think that we have really, finally, at the end, to thank God who inspired such good sentiments and intentions (of) the two leaders.  Hoping that this example could be taken by many other leaders in the region and in the world and to try, really, to overcome differences and conflict through negotiation and through dialogue.

(Vatican Radio) After more than a half-century of hostility, the United States and Cuba are to work toward the establishment of full diplomatic relations – and U.S. President Barack Obama says that Pope Francis played an instrumental role in creating the conditions for the development.

The Secretariat of State of the Holy See issued a statement offering Pope Francis’ expressions of  “warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

The announcement of efforts to normalize relations came in the context of the release of U.S. aid worker Alan Gross and an exchange of intelligence officers being detained on the island and in the U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that Pope Francis played a role in bringing him and Cuban leader Raul Castro together.  “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case, and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years,” Obama said.

Raul Castro also welcomed the exchange and the move to normalize relations. “[President] Obama’s decision,” said Castro, “deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Relations between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorated rapidly and eventually disintegrated entirely in the wake of the takeover of the island by Communist revolutionaries led by current Cuban president Raul Castro’s brother, Fidel, in 1959.