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Vatican's centuries-old almoner role continues with modern twist

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:15 p.m.
Mons. Konrad Krajewski, the Vatican Almoner, talks with The Associated Press during an interview in the 'Elemosineria' , the office of the Vatican Almoner, at the Vatican, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. 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. Pope 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. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY — 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 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. Often they bring the leftovers from the Vatican mess halls.

“Aside from their vitality, they know at least four languages,” Krajewski said of the guards in an interview. “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, 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 $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.”

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: 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.”

Until Krajewski came along, the almoner was typically an aging Vatican diplomat who was serving his final years before being allowed to retire at 75. Francis changed all that, tapping the 50-year-old Pole who had been a close assistant to Pope John Paul II, to be a more vigorous, hands-on extension of himself.

Krajewski gets his marching orders each morning: A Vatican gendarme goes from the Vatican hotel where Francis lives to Krajewski's office, bringing a bundle of letters that the pope has received from the faithful. On the top of each letter, Francis might write: “You know what to do” or “Go find them.”

One recent letter caught the attention of the pope: The parents of Noemi Sciarretta, an 18-month-old suffering from a genetic condition that has no cure, wrote to Francis in October. A few days later, Francis called the father. On Nov. 1, Krajewski spent the day with the Sciarrettas at their home. Five days later, with the child's condition worsening, the family traveled to the Vatican and met with Francis in person.

Krajewski demurred when asked whether Francis himself had slipped out of the Vatican on his own. “Next question!” he said.

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