He is known to have sent money to struggling pensioners and poverty-stricken immigrants, but Pope Francis may have taken his charity efforts one step further, secretly sneaking out of the Vatican at night incognito to distribute alms to the poor.
Pope Francis ventured out unannounced when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires to meet the homeless on the streets of the Argentine capital, and now comes the suggestion – couched in a familiar Vatican mix of opacity and reading-between-the-lines – that he has been doing the same thing in Rome.
The intriguing possibility emerged from an interview with Konrad Krajewski, an archbishop and trusted confidante of the Pope who is the Vatican "Almoner" or alms-giver – a little-known but centuries-old post that involves distributing some of the Holy See's vast wealth to the poor and marginalised.
The South American pontiff has encouraged Archbishop Krajewski to be much more pro-active in the job than his predecessors, roaming the streets of Rome at night and offering help to people down on their luck. When asked if Pope Francis had ever insisted on accompanying him in his modest white Fiat Qubo, the 50-year-old archbishop became elusive but smiled enigmatically.
"Next question, please," he told a group of Vatican correspondents. The implication was that the South American Pope, who has described himself as a priest of the streets, had snuck out of the walled city state on at least one occasion, before Vatican authorities told him it was too grave a security threat.
The Pope, who clearly chafes at the constraints imposed upon him by his office, had often expressed a desire to come along on the nocturnal sorties, the archbishop said.
"When I say to him 'I'm going out into the city this evening', there's the constant risk that he will come with me," the Polish cardinal said. "That's what he's like – at the beginning (of his papacy) he didn't think of the awkwardness that he might create."As archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he was known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pontiff "would go out at night . . . to find people, talk with them, or buy them something to eat. He would sit with them and eat with them on the street. This is what he wants from me," said the cardinal.
"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'."
The post of Vatican Almoner dates back to at least the 13th-Century.
Cardinal Krajewski's alms-giving office, officially known as "Elemosineria Pontificia", employs 11 people. Last year the office donated €1m to around 6,500 people, but those numbers will probably double this year, after the Pope was elected in March. Donations have included a cheque for €200 that the Pope had sent to an elderly woman in Venice last month after she wrote to tell him a pickpocket stole her purse, and money for people who could not afford to pay their rent. (©Daily Telegraph, London)
Nick Squires Rome