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.
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.
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.
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.
Krajewski has also enlisted others to help out: Off-duty Swiss Guards now get called into duty, helping drive a stranded person home, or recently helping to box 27,000 rosaries that Francis handed out to the general public one recent Sunday as spiritual medicine.
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 or baptism – with the name of the recipient and an apostolic blessing written in calligraphy. Last year, the office spent $1.4 million on 6,500 requests for help.
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.
Being an almoner, it has to cost me something so that it can change me, he said. 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.’