The General Assembly is a great opportunity for member organisations to share knowledge and experience. Credit: Elodie Perriot

By Michelle Hough, communications officer

It took Sr Senolita Vakata two days to come to Rome from Tonga in the Pacific Ocean for the Caritas Internationalis General Assembly. She’ll make her return journey after just seven days in the Italian capital.

“I wake up at 3am every morning because of jet lag, but it’s worth it. I’m getting used to the long journey. I feel as though I’m part of the family,” says Sr Senolita.

Today, delegates have been working on the strategic framework for Caritas organisations for the next four years. It’s not an operational work plan, but offers guidance to members. Everyone is given a chance at the General Assembly to offer input into this important document.

I go and look at the flip charts where discussion groups have jotted down their ideas, thoughts and feelings:

“The vitality of Caritas is incomparable” “The poor have much to give us” “We as Caritas are like the gardener… we give life to the fullest.”

“The General Assembly is a great forum for sharing resources,” says Benedict D’Rozario from Bangladesh.

“Caritas Bangladesh is here to share its experiences as well as to learn from others’; for example, our president will talk about our successful climate change projects this afternoon.”

One of the Caritas confederation’s primary characteristics is its unity in diversity.

The unity comes in many forms, such as solidarity in emergencies, collaboration on advocacy campaigns and in the spirit that that runs through Caritas’ work. The assembly is vital for strengthening this unity among member organisations.

Msgr Carmel Farruggia from Caritas Malta explains why this is so important. “Coming from such a small country, the General Assembly gives me the opportunity to connect and share ideas with bigger members. We’re all one big family.”

Gilio Brunelli from Development & Peace (the Canadian member of Caritas), gives the perspective of a much bigger organisation and yet echoes Msgr Farruggia’s thoughts. “This is my fourth General Assembly and they are always very useful for my work,” he says.

“It’s a chance to get a sense of the size and scope of the confederation. From an operational point of view it’s the chance to meet the directors of organisations we work with around the world. This makes working with them when there’s suddenly an emergency much easier as we’ll have already built the beginnings of a relationship here.”

Laurence Banapour from Caritas Iran adds that the meeting is not just an opportunity to talk about projects, but also “to realise the importance of applying the gospel to our work.”

In the afternoon, the delegates break up into groups to discuss Caritas’ key areas of work such as emergencies, HIV/AIDS, migration and others. I sit in the emergency response session. Last year seemed to be the year of major emergencies: earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Pakistan, plus the long-term emergencies such as Darfur in Sudan. Emergencies are an essential part of the work of Caritas as it strives to continuously improve its work in them.

Peter Maduki from Caritas Tanzania is a facilitator for the emergency response session. He says, “This opportunity to come together is very important as we look at what has gone well and not so well in our recent emergency experiences. We take the suggestions to improve the strategic framework for the next four years. People are sharing their concerns and we need these opportunities to transfer knowledge and skills.”

It’s been an intense week and we’re only just over half-way through it. Both delegates and Caritas staff have been working very hard. Long days, but very fruitful ones from many points of view. I’m just glad that it takes me just half an hour to get home rather than two days like Sr Senolita.