VATICAN CITY – When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was known to sneak out at night and break bread with the homeless, sit with them literally on the street and eat with them, as part of his aim to share the plight of the poor and let them know someone cared.
That’s not so easy to do now that he’s pope. But Francis is still providing one-on-one doses of emergency assistance to the poor, sick and aged through a trusted archbishop. Konrad Krajewski is the Vatican Almoner, a centuries-old job of handing out alms – and Francis has ramped up the job to make it a hands-on extension of his own personal charity.
As Americans gathered for Thanksgiving on Thursday, Krajewski described how Francis has redefined the little known office of papal almoner and explained the true meaning of giving during a chat with journalists over coffee and pastries a few steps from the Vatican gates.
“The Holy Father told me at the beginning: ‘You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor,’ ” Krajewski said.
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.”
And so Don Corrado, as he likes to be called, hits the streets of Rome and beyond.
He visits homes for the elderly in the name of the pope, writes checks to the needy in the name of the pope – even traveled to the island of Lampedusa in the name of the pope after a migrant boat capsized last month, killing more than 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 floor.
“This is the concept: Be with people and share their lives, even for 15, 30 minutes, an hour,” Krajewski said. The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio “would go out at night in Buenos Aires, not just to find people, talk with them, or buy them something to eat. … He would eat with them. He would sit with them and eat with them on the street. This is what he wants from me.”
The almoner’s duties are two-fold: carrying out acts of charity and raising the money to fund them.
Krajewski’s 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, baptism or priestly ordination – with the name of the recipient and an apostolic blessing written in calligraphy.
The amounts given out aren’t high: Recently, Krajewski sent a check for $270 to an elderly woman from Venice who wrote to Francis lamenting that a pickpocket had stolen $75 from her.
Larger and longer-term charity works are handled by the Vatican’s international Caritas federation or Cor Unum, a Vatican office.
The almoner, Krajewski explained, is more a “first aid” charity station: quick, small doses of help that don’t require bureaucratic hurdles but are nevertheless heartfelt and something of a sacrifice.