Pope Francis has ramped up the Vatican’s charity work, sending his chief alms-giver and a contingent of Swiss guards onto the streets of Rome at night to do what he usually can’t do: comfort the poor and the homeless.
A few times a week, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski takes a
few off-duty guards with him in his modest white Fiat to make the rounds
at Rome’s train stations, where charities offer makeshift soup kitchens
that feed 400-500 people a night.
Often they bring the leftovers from
the Vatican mess halls to share.
“Aside from their vitality, they
know at least four languages,” Krajewski said of the guards in an
interview Friday with The Associated Press. “Above all, poor people need
to be listened to.“
“And when we say we’re from the Vatican, and
that we’re doing this in the name of the Holy Father,” he said, “their
hearts open up more.“
Krajewski is the Vatican Almoner, a
centuries-old position that Francis has redefined to make it a hands-on
extension of his own personal charity. When he was archbishop in Buenos
Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used to go out at night,
incognito, to break bread with the homeless on the streets of the
Argentine capital to let them know that someone cared for them.
can’t do that so easily now that he’s pope, so he has tapped Krajewski
to be his envoy, doling out small morsels of charity every day: sending a
200 euro ($260) check to a woman whose wallet was stolen, visiting a
family whose child is dying.
“My job is to be an extension of the
pope’s arm toward the poor, the needy, those who suffer,” Krajewski
said. “He cannot go out of the Vatican, so he has chosen a person who
goes out to hug the people who suffer” in the pope’s place.
and longer-term charity works are handled by the Vatican’s
international charity federation. The almoner, Krajewski explained, is
more a “first aid” compassion station: quick, small doses of help that
don’t require bureaucratic hurdles, but are nevertheless heartfelt and
something of a sacrifice.
“Being an almoner, it has to cost me
something so that it can change me,” he told journalists a day earlier.
He contrasted such alms-giving with, say, the unnamed cardinal who once
boasted about always giving two euros to a beggar on the street near the
“I told him, ‘Eminence, this isn’t being an almoner. You
might be able to sleep at night, but being an almoner has to cost you.
Two euros is nothing for you. Take this poor person, bring him to your
big apartment that has three bathrooms, let him take a shower – and your
bathroom will stink for three days – and while he’s showering make him a
coffee and serve it to him, and maybe give him your sweater. This is
being an almoner.“
Krajewski gets his marching orders each
morning: A Vatican gendarme goes from the Vatican hotel where Francis
lives to Krajewski’s office across the Vatican gardens, bringing a
bundle of letters that the pope has received from the faithful asking
for help. On the top of each letter, Francis might write “You know what
to do” or “Go find them” or “Go talk to them.”
One recent letter
caught the attention of the pope: The parents of little Noemi
Sciarretta, an 18-month old suffering from spinal muscular atrophy – a
genetic condition that has no cure – wrote to Francis in October. They
were desperate because doctors could do nothing for their daughter.
few days later Francis called the father. On Nov. 1, Krajewski spent
the day with the Sciarrettas at their home near Chieti, in Abruzzo. Five
days later, with the child’s condition worsening, the family traveled
to the Vatican and met with Francis in person, spending the night in the
same Vatican hotel where he sleeps, eating with him in the hotel dining
room where he has all his meals.
Moments after they met, the pope
headed out to St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience. He
started off by asking the tens of thousands of people there to take a
moment of silence to pray for little Noemi.
The existence of the
Vatican Almoner dates back centuries: It is mentioned in a papal bull
from the 13th-century Pope Innocent III, and Pope Gregory X, who ruled
from 1271-1276, organized it into an official Holy See office for papal
Until Krajewski came along, the almoner was typically an
aging Vatican diplomat near retirement. Francis changed all that,
tapping the 50-year-old Pole who had been a close assistant to Pope John
Paul II in his final years, to be a more vigorous, hands-on extension
The almoner’s duties are two-fold: carrying out acts of charity and raising the money to fund them.
office funds its work by producing papal parchments, hand-made
certificates with a photo of the pope that the faithful can buy for a
particular occasion – say a wedding or baptism– with the name of the
recipient and an apostolic blessing written in calligraphy.
The parchments range from $8 to $40 apiece, plus shipping and handling. All proceeds go directly to the works of charity.
But Krajewski’s chief role, under Francis’ new vision, is to bring direct solace to the suffering.
month, Krajewski went to the island of Lampedusa after a migrant boat
capsized, killing over 350 people.
Over four days on Lampedusa,
Krajewski bought 1,600 phone cards so the survivors could call loved
ones back home in Eritrea to let them know they had made it. He also
prayed with police divers as they worked to raise the dead from the sea
“This is the concept: Be with people and share their lives,
even for 15, 30 minutes, an hour,” Krajewski said.
when asked if Francis himself had slipped out of the Vatican on his own –
“Next question!” he said.