While Rome is under lockdown, one person drives hundreds of miles a day through the empty streets of the Italian capital, picking up food from factories and businesses and delivering them personally to the city’s poor.
Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Polish prelate that leads Pope Francis’s charitable efforts, says he once dreamed of being a milkman.
“Now my dream comes true,” he laughs, after loading another truck full of dairy products.
Only this week the Polish cardinal drove cars full of food to two Roman convents where dozens of sisters are infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus. He also brought supplies to a senior home named after St. John XXIII.
“Companies are giving away tons of food. We have to deliver it before it goes bad,” Krajewski told Crux.
The Pontifical Villas Dairy Production from the Vatican’s Castel Gandolfo property outside of Rome donates fresh milk and yogurt every day.
“Only on Saturday, I did 250 kilometers around the city – at least with empty streets I can drive without obstacles,” the cardinal said.
For anyone who is worried that the cardinal himself could be infected – the incubation time for the coronavirus can be up to 14 days – he told Crux he was tested for COVID-19, and the results were negative.
“I did it for the sake of the poor and people who work with me – they need to be safe,” he explained.
Krajewski – known in the Vatican as “Don Corrado” – is the Papal Almoner, a post in charge of almsgiving in the city of Rome on behalf on the pope.
The position has been given a new prominence under Francis, and Krajewski is widely seen as one of the pontiff’s closest collaborators.
This has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Italy hard.
His influence was demonstrated March 13, when he opened his titular church for Eucharistic adoration in defiance of a decree issued the day before, closing the doors of the churches in the Diocese of Rome.
“Home should always be open to its children,” he told Crux immediately after his rebellious action. However, the decree was reversed later that same day, after an intervention by Francis.
Krajewski’s parish is the street, and no virus will stop him from helping the poor.
“I made a tour around the Roman parishes today,” he told Crux on Sunday. “I told them that washing the feet of those in need is like consecration during Eucharist.”
He urged priests under lockdown to open their showers to the poor, “respecting all procedures of protection” from the coronavirus.
“I went to one friary – I asked – how many of you are there? They said 20. It is 20 men that can serve the poor! We don’t need to put our lay volunteers in danger, the Churchmen can do it!” Krajewski told Crux.
The Polish cardinal stressed that prayer without alms these days is “incomplete,” adding that Francis has set the example.
“Before Urbi et Orbi on Friday, the Holy Father gave 30 respirators to hospitals, then he prayed for the world,” the Papal Almoner said.
Krajewski also has a special message to the hundreds of priests from around the world studying at the pontifical universities in Rome: “Put away the theology books for now – there is a Gospel in the making on the streets.”
The cardinal says that “miracles are happening these days,” recalling one parish pastor telling him on a Sunday morning: “I needed your kick to get into action.”
He practices what he preaches, even in his own apartment.
Two homeless people and a Muslim woman regularly prepare sandwiches for the city’s poor in his home above the Almoner’s office inside the Vatican. His furniture once belonged to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now known as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI: “It is a home church,” the cardinal added with a smile.
“For the first time I heard from the poor these days – we are hungry,” he said during his Sunday Mass, said privately in the Vatican. “There is no place to go for them to ask for help – bars and restaurants are closed.”
Urging priests to go out and serve the poor, he said: “We have two hands, the intelligence of the Gospel: We only lack a little courage.”
Krajewski finding creative new ways to help the poor and keep safe from COVID-19 at the same time. He has adjusted the distribution of meals for the needy and homeless he was organizing twice a week at Roman trains stations, so they are now packed ahead of time into “bags from the heart” and don’t require volunteers to hand out individually.
When asked whether he was afraid of being infected during his work, he jokingly answered with a Polish proverb: “There isn’t a risk that the devil will touch the bad guy.”
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