published Friday, November 29th, 2013

Pope ramps up charity office to be near poor, sick

Pope Francis grabs a shirt thrown to him by faithful as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
Pope Francis grabs a shirt thrown to him by faithful as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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 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.

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."

Krajewski demurred when asked if Francis himself had slipped out of the Vatican on his own -- "Next question!" he said. But there was a clear suggestion that the pope may very well have snuck out before Vatican security got wind of it.

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 eight euros ($11) 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 ($1.4 million) on 6,500 requests for help. Krajewski says the numbers will likely have doubled this year.

The amounts given out aren't high: Recently Krajewski sent a check for 200 euros ($270) to an elderly woman from Venice who wrote to Francis lamenting that a pickpocket had stolen 54 euros ($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.

"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."

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."

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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