Lending to the Lord

Vatican’s Secret Almsgiver Is The Pope’s ‘Soul On the Street’

By bringing a measure of dignity and cleanliness to Rome’s poor, Don Corrado looks has transformed the Church’s charitable giving.

02.01.15 5:00 PM ET

VATICAN CITY—If you ask any of the homeless men and women who seek food and shelter around St. Peter’s basilica in Rome who Don Corrado is, they will tell you he is the pope’s soul on the street—the man who carries out the charitable wishes of the first modern pope for the poor.

“He is an angel,” says Joe, a 60-year-old Serbian man who has lived on Rome’s streets for “at least ten years.” In the winter months, Joe tries to find a bed in the city’s shelters, and in the summer, he generally sleeps in the park behind Castel Sant Angelo in the shadow of St Peter’s Square. Last November, for the first time since he has been homeless, he started regularly showering and soon he will be able to have his hair cut—all thanks to Don Corrado, the pope’s almoner who has made hygiene for the homeless a priority. “Don Corrado is well known among the homeless,” he told The Daily Beast. “He is a uomo perbene [respectable man].”

Don Corrado, whose real name is Konrad Krajewski, is a 50-year-old Polish priest who has redefined the Vatican’s role of the papal almoner—a position that has existed since the 12th century, but has mostly been the office from which money is collected and distributed to official Vatican charities. But Pope Francis wanted a more active almoner who could find innovative ways to help the poor, and told Don Corrado the position was no longer a desk job. 

The almoner said his biggest problem now is that Pope Francis wants to go with him on his late night charitable runs, which he does with off-duty Swiss Guards who volunteer their free time. “But we saw right away that would be a logistical problem for security,” he said last fall, hinting that the Holy Father may have tagged along, despite denials from the Vatican’s spokesman.  

Perhaps the most innovative almoner project came last fall when Don Corrado invited a homeless Sardinian man called Franco to a restaurant for dinner. Don Corrado says at first the homeless man refused. “I can’t go with you to the restaurant because I smell,” Don Corrado recalled to La Stampa newspaper. “Here no one dies of hunger, it is easy to find a sandwich to eat every day. But we have nowhere to use the bathroom or take a shower,” the homeless man told him.

That conversation inspired Don Corrado, who came up with a plan to build free-use hot water showers for the homeless in St. Peter’s square alongside the public bathrooms used by hoards of tourists. So far almost a dozen Roman parishes have followed suit and have built or promised to build their own public showers through donations from the papal charity. The project is also funded by donations from tenor Andrea Bocelli’s Foundation and several Roman construction companies that are doing the work for free. 

Now Don Corrado has taken the hygiene for the homeless even further. Starting Feb. 16, a group of volunteer barbers will provide free haircuts and shaves to the poor every Monday—the traditional day off for barbers and hair stylists in Italy. So far, the Vatican’s office for charities has received hundreds of donated scissors, razors and towels to help facilitate the service. The haircuts will be given in St. Peter’s square not far from the homeless showers, which are unmarked and known only to those who need them.

“The first thing we want is to give dignity to the person,” Don Corrado told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire. “The person who does not have a chance to wash is socially rejected, and we all know that a homeless man cannot enter a public place like a bar or restaurant to ask to use services, because he will be refused. It’s not enough to take a shower and wash your clothes; you have to have your hair and beard in order, too. Not just for dignity but to prevent diseases.”

When Francis appointed Don Corrado to the job in August 2013, the Polish priest had already been well known for his charitable work sneaking leftovers from the Swiss Guard canteen and the papal table to the sizeable homeless community around Vatican City late at night. Before becoming the papal almoner, Don Corrado worked as an assistant of ceremonies in the papal house, appointed under Pope John Paul II. He says he was first inspired when he helped with the beautification of Mother Teresa who was well known for her charitable work with the poor. 

Speaking with journalists, Don Corrado said Francis told him he didn’t want him to do the almoner job from behind desk. Francis told him that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he regularly went out among the poor, but as pope, he could no longer do that himself. So he said he would go out “through me,” Corrado says. The pope also told him that the papal charity account was not a savings account. “The pope told me there shouldn’t be any money in the almony’s bank account,” he said. “He said I shouldn’t hold onto it or invest it, I should spend it. He asks me often if I need more money, and he tells me I have the best job of all.”

Don Corrado says the pope filters the initial requests—some 12,000 in 2014—and hands him the ones to investigate. Some requests come from poor families at risk of having their electricity or other utilities turned off. When he gets those, Don Corrado says he hops in his Fiat Qubo and checks out the situation for himself. If it is truly desperate, he writes a check to pay for the bills. In 2013, shortly after his appointment when more than 500 migrants died in shipwrecks, he went to Lampedusa and distributed rosaries, flowers and 1,600 international phone cards to refugees who had just arrived by boat so they could phone home. 

He says the papal charity offices have also donated more than a quarter of a million euro to pay for utilities for those who can’t make ends meet. In November, Don Corrado came up with the plan to raffle off the pope’s unwanted gifts to raise money to use for his projects. “We need to continue to find new ways to help people,” he told The Daily Beast when we caught up with him outside Vatican City on one of his charitable runs. “We will never meet the immense needs, but we can make a difference with even the most simple things most people take for granted, like showers and haircuts.”