ROME (RNS) In a narrow alley a few miles from the center of Rome, around 250 migrants gather at sunset.
Half a dozen are playing cards and some kids are kicking a soccer ball. Others have already begun lining up for their evening meal in the informal refugee camp known as Via Cupa.
Most of these migrants have fled from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, part of the wave of exiles who have landed on Italy’s shores in recent years, and they are a mix of Muslims and Christians.
Whatever their religion, they may be surprised to learn that their host tonight in this nondescript alleyway is going to be Pope Francis.
The pontiff isn’t actually joining them for dinner, though he’d probably like to. Instead, he’s done the next best thing by sending the Vatican’s almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, a Polish cleric responsible for dispensing the pope’s charity funds, to make sure no one misses out.
“They are hungry. We are bringing them food from Pope Francis,” Krajewski tells Religion News Service. “These meals come directly from the pope. They are his offering. Just like the gospel says.”
It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening in late September. Krajewski has just pulled up in a large gray van with a small group of nuns and priests. They begin to unload heavy containers filled with steaming risotto, fresh fruit and drinks for the men, women and children who will soon bed down in the open alley for the night.
Krajewski, 52, has spent most of his ecclesiastical life in Rome but he hardly comes across like a career Vatican official. This evening he is dressed in a plain black shirt and pants with a black vest, his collar open and the distinctive white neck band of a priest nowhere in sight.
While many in the Vatican have chafed at Francis’ penchant for upending age-old customs and privileges to focus on the poor, Krajewski seems to take to it with a holy passion.
After the pope was elected in 2013 Francis appointed him almoner and told him flat-out: “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.”
That’s just what the tireless Krajewski has done. He has earned a reputation for showing up at homeless shelters and migrant camps around Rome distributing food, sleeping bags and other supplies with the pope’s blessing — not the sort of things a papal almoner normally did. They usually just sent a check.
Krajewski also played a key role in the pope’s decision to erect showers and provide clean clothes and haircuts for the homeless in St. Peter’s Square.
Most mornings a Vatican gendarme delivers a bundle of letter from the pope that detail requests for help that the faithful have sent to Francis. On top of each letter, as Inside the Vatican magazine reported, Francis might write “You know what to do” or “Go find them” or “Go talk to them.”
So Krajewski, who is known as “Don Corrado” on the streets of Rome, heads out, handing out food in the pontiff’s name or taking small groups of homeless for pizza and a trip to the beach as he did this summer.
“We are certainly not saving the world with these initiatives, we are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are giving them back a little dignity,” Krajewski, who disdains the spotlight and rarely speaks to the media, said in an Italian interview in August.
As Krajewski and his crew dish out vegetable risotto, boiled eggs, bread and fruit to the migrants on a balmy evening last month, 28-year-old “Simon” from Eritrea — he is reluctant to reveal his real name — tells RNS how difficult it is to survive on the streets of the Italian capital.
“Everything is stressful,” he says. “They (the Italian authorities) told us we had rights but we haven’t seen any. That’s why everyone wants to escape to Germany and other countries. What can we do? Everyone is worried we are going to be sent back home.”
Ayanle, 21, came from Somalia, traveling overland through Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Slovenia to arrive in Italy. He says he fled from the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab, which is active in east Africa.
“I asked for asylum in the Netherlands. They sent me back to Italy so I am now here,” Ayanle says. “Life is very difficult here. There is nowhere to stay and no food. ”
Volunteers from the nonprofit group Baobab Experience, whose motto is “protect people not borders,” come to support the migrants every day. Sonia Manzi, a 48-year-old single mother and member of the group, says their situation is dire.
“The borders have closed so there are few departures now and those who cross the border into France or Switzerland are sent back,” she says.
“They sleep on the ground or on the cartons or tiny mattresses we give them. This is impossible.”
But sometimes things get even worse for the refugees, and there’s little the pope, or Krajewski, can do.
Indeed, a day after the papal almoner brought food, the authorities shut down the camp and cleared out at least 100 migrants. They were taken away to have their identification checked, and police said the site was “in a very serious state of neglect.”
But what will happen to them is unclear since local authorities say most shelters in Rome are full.
“The tents you are carrying away were those donated by citizens. The food you’re throwing out was donated by Father Konrad, the almoner of the pope,” the Baobab group said in a sharply worded statement on the group’s Facebook page.
“Shutting down the camp doesn’t solve the problem. There will still be migrants looking for a place to sleep tonight,” Baobab co-founder Andrea Costa told Reuters.
And Krajewski will be out again looking for them.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)