Archbishop Konrad Krajewski serves as the Vatican almoner, an official of the Holy See that supervises papal charity. Pope Francis has revitalized the centuries-old post, using Krajewski, 50, as a more hands-on extension of himself.
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Archbishop Konrad Krajewski serves as the Vatican almoner, an official of the Holy See that supervises papal charity. Pope Francis has revitalized the centuries-old post, using Krajewski, 50, as a more hands-on extension of himself.

Pope shepherds aid to sick, poor

By Nicole Winfield

The Associated Press

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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has ramped up the Vatican’s charity work, sending his chief alms-giver and a contingent of the Swiss Guard 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 guardsmen 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 guardmen. “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 incognito at night 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 such as sending a 200 euro check (an amount equalling about $260) to a woman whose wallet was stolen or 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.”

Larger and longer-term charity works are handled by the Vatican’s international charity federation. The almoner, Krajewski said, is more a “first aid” compassion station. He provides 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 recently.

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.

Said Krajewski: “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 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, Italy, a city about 120 miles northeast of Rome. 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 Pope Innocent III, who ruled from 1198 to 1216. 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, making 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.

Last month, Krajewski went to the island of Lampedusa after a migrant boat capsized, 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.

Krajewski demurred when asked if Francis himself had slipped out of the Vatican on his own.

“Next question!” he said.