ROME — There is an old saying: Once consecrated, a bishop will never again eat a bad meal, nor get a straight answer.
Pope Francis found out on Saturday that’s not true when dealing with children.
Nearly 400 children living in the towns in central Italy damaged by a series of earthquakes arrived at the Vatican train station at midday on the “Treno dei Bambini” – the children’s train – an annual initiative by the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Francis told the children he didn’t want to give a speech, but listen to them: “Tell me something!”
“I want to go to a restaurant,” came the first reply.
“You are hungry? You want to eat?” the pope asked.
“Yes, and then go home.”
After this, the pope said it was a sign he shouldn’t keep them long.
The next child – six years old – at least wasn’t asking to go to a restaurant: Her mother had promised her they would go to the beach after meeting the pope.
After this, the older children told Francis about the earthquakes which damaged and destroyed their homes and schools.
Between August and October last year, a series of earthquakes killed over 300 people in central Italy, and destroyed hundreds of buildings. Another earthquake in January this year killed 34 more.
The children spoke of how they now go to school in tents and temporary buildings, and how their teachers worked immediately to get the schools running.
“We have to start again, you know? When these disasters arrive, there’s strength to start again,” Francis said.
“What you have gone through is an ugly thing, because it’s a disaster. It’s true, isn’t it? It’s a disaster,” – the pope told the children – “and disasters injure the soul. But the Lord helps us to start over. Do you trust in the Lord, or not?”
After the the children said ‘yes’ the pope gave them a blessing, and asked again if they were hungry.
“Yes!” the children replied, and Francis told them their lunch was ready before telling them goodbye.
The first “Treno dei Bambini” arrived at the Vatican’s train station in 2013, under the patronage of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, a dialogue project of the Vatican’s Council for Culture.
Since then, the train has brought underprivileged children from different parts of Italy for a meeting with the pope.
Last year, the train brought children from the southern region of Calabria, which is in the toe of Italy.
Francis told the story of a little girl who died as she tried to flee to Europe across the Mediterranean as it was recounted to him by a rescue worker who had attempted to save the child, only to succeed in saving her life jacket.
“He brought me this jacket,” the pontiff said at the time, showing the life jacket to the children, “and with tears in his eyes he said to me, ‘Father, I couldn’t do it – there was a little girl on the waves, and I did all I could, but I couldn’t save her: only her life vest was left.’”
This year, the Maré do Amanhã orchestra, made up of children from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, played during the event.