There is a lovely news item put out by Associated Press: “Pope ramps up charity office to be near poor, sick.” In a papal gesture that seems entirely characteristic of Pope Francis, he has transformed the ancient office of “papal almoner” – the Vatican official who traditionally makes small, personal financial gestures on behalf of the Holy Father. Instead of this office being assumed by an elderly cardinal working his quiet passage until respectable retirement beckons Pope Francis has given the role to an energetic 50-year-old Pole, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, telling him that it’s no sinecure.
Archbishop Krajewski explained that the Pope said: “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.” Again, this is typical of a pope who does not want a “self-referential” Church maintaining its institution and fronting a vast bureaucracy from behind a (symbolic) desk. It is much easier to shuffle papers – even papers about charitable giving – than take to the streets and seek out those who are needy.
I know he is meant to be a caricature of miserliness, but I am reminded of Scrooge. He loved his desk; he hated being accosted by the poor when he went on his way between his gloomy home and his business; “Are there no workhouses!” he would expostulate to those unfortunate enough to get in his way. As Pope Francis knows, if the Church isn’t showing the love of God – whether in spiritual or corporal works of mercy – in a direct and personal way, it is not doing an essential part of its job.
It seems that Pope Francis used to often patrol the streets at night in Buenos Aires, in order to spend time with the downtrodden in the capital, sharing food with them and accompanying them in their difficulties. Now he has given Archbishop Krajewski the same task. Daily the latter receives a bundle of letters from the Pope, with “You know what to do” or “Go find them” or “Go talk to them” written at the top. The archbishop visits people in their homes, writes cheques or gives other kinds of help. Being the papal almoner is a quiet life no longer.
The way the almoner’s office raises the money to pay for the Pope’s acts of charity also sounds quaint: it produces papal parchments, handmade certificates with a photo of the pope that the faithful can buy for a special occasion such as a wedding or ordination, with the name of the recipient and an apostolic blessing written in calligraphy.
My elderly mother has one of these parchment certificates framed on her wall and signed by Pius XI, in memory of her First Communion. In case zealous Protestants think this is a form of simony, it isn’t; it’s a pious way of raising money which goes directly to charity – and now via the hands-on activity of the official almoner himself.
This is not the only means of charitable giving in the Vatican. There are Caritas and Cor Unum, which handle large sums of money for international relief. And there is also Peter’s Pence, offerings sent to Rome by the faithful which are used to help the very needy. Anyone can send in an offering, addressed to His Holiness Pope Francis, 00120 Citta del Vaticano. Donations can be given by cheques, made out to “Obolo di San Pietro” and sent to Ufficio Obolo di San Pietro, 00120 Citta del Vaticano.
It’s time to get out from behind the desk.