VATICAN CITY (AP) — 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.
He 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.
Larger 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 Vatican.
"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.
A 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.
"It was a very emotional meeting because Pope Francis was close to Noemi," her father, Andrea Sciarretta, said afterward. "We could talk and pray together for Noemi. It was an emotional gift."
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 charity.
Until Krajewski came along, the almoner was typically an aging Vatican diplomat who was serving his final years before being allowed to retire at age 75. 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 of himself.
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 parchments range from six euros ($8) to 30 euros ($40) apiece, plus shipping and handling. All proceeds go directly to the works of charity. Last year, the office spent 1 million euros on 6,500 requests for help. Krajewski says the numbers have more than doubled this year.
But Krajewski's chief role, under Francis' new vision, is to bring direct solace to the suffering.
Last 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 floor.
"This is the concept: Be with people and share their lives, even for 15, 30 minutes, an hour," Krajewski said.
Krajewski demurred when asked if Francis himself had slipped out of the Vatican on his own — "Next question!" he said.
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