ROME — He may be one of the figures closest to the pope and a soon-to-be Prince of the Church, but Cardinal-designate Konrad Krajewski hardly spends most of his time moving in circles of wealth and power. Instead, his milieu is among those that don’t have anything: the poor, the homeless, the migrants.
Krajewski, 54, invites the poor every day into his Vatican apartment for lunch. Around 15 needy people eat in his dining room, surrounded by the old furniture of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Lunches – for the record, featuring perhaps one of the best pastas in the city – are cooked by a strong and tall former prisoner, who told me: “When you journalists write about the Church, you should write about what this man is doing.”
Right now seems an opportune time to do so, as “this man” was just promoted to the Church’s major leagues.
A native of Łódź, Poland, Krajewski is one of the few cardinals-to-be walking around the Vatican in a black soft-shell sports jacket. Affectionately known as “Don Corrado,” Krajewski has been a Vatican insider since the pontificate of John Paul II, at which time he was responsible for papal ceremonies.
Pope Francis appointed him Papal Almoner, a position which requires distributing Vatican charity funds and putting into action what the pope calls the “field hospital” of the Church. One could say, after observing him, it’s a job Krajewski enjoys to the core – in fact, one of the reasons Francis chose him may have been hearing stories about the Polish bishop in the Vatican who gives out blankets and food to the poor in his free time.
For that reason, Krajewski may be one of the best personifications of what the pope always says to priests, that they should smell like their sheep: “Once, I visited the Holy Father right after eating breakfast with the homeless,” Krajewski said. “All the guests in those elegant rooms could smell the Church!”
His life journey seems to be marked by words he once told me in his hometown of Łódź: “You don’t give people what they deserve, but what they need. When a kid has a fever, you don’t tell him, ‘You didn’t behave today, I won’t give you medicine.’ You just give him medicine, because that’s what he needs!”
Krajewski may well be the cardinal who’s physically closest to the pope. He lives just around the corner from Porta Sant’Anna in the Vatican. He organizes everything from dinners for the homeless to giving out food in Rome’s subway stations twice a week, as well as on-the-ground assistance for earthquake victims.
“You need to see Jesus in the face of every single person to whom you hand a can of tuna at Termini train station,” he said. And, whatever he does, he says he’s doing what the pope asked.
Krajewski rarely agrees to interviews: “The Holy Father appointed me almoner to help the poor, not to give interviews,” he said.
The philosophy of action for him is based on the Gospel: “If, in this homeless or poor individual, you see Jesus, what will you give him? Damaged clothes that you don’t need any more? Old food? No! You’d give Jesus the best you have!”
That’s precisely why those in need get a multi-course, homemade lunch every day in his apartment. To top it off, Italian coffee and dessert are included afterwards. He’s built showers and set up laundry and barber services for the homeless. The barber himself is a homeless person, one of many to find work through Krajewski’s handiwork.
“Many wealthy people come to the pope’s office and want to give money,” Krajewski said. “The Holy Father says, ‘Give them [poor and homeless] a job!’”
In fact, one of the homeless I encountered at Krajewski’s lunch table in Rome told me, “I’m starting a job at Hilton soon.” This very man was living on the street merely months ago.
Krajewski’s perspective regarding refugees and migrants cannot be more opposed to that of his mother country, Poland, which right now is anything but eager to welcome them.
“Jesus was not looking in anybody’s wallets. You can’t tell people they don’t deserve to look for a better life,” Krajewski said.
He’s a challenge to the Polish Church as well. A friend of Don Corrado in the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Grzegorz Ryś of Łódź (Krajewski’s hometown), commented on Krajewski’s nomination as a cardinal: “It reminded me of the first cardinals in the history of the Church, seven deacons who were acting every day in the service of mercy. His appointment is a day of happiness for us, but [also] a reminder that putting mercy into practice is our duty.”
Once, Krajewski gave up his apartment for a family of refugees, moving to his office for a while. He actually told the pope once that he may go to prison due to his work with refugees, which, he said, a lot of time is “not that compatible with the law.”
“I will pay you a visit!” he said Francis replied.
According to the joyful Christian philosophy of the Francis era, Krajewski is also the one who organizes divertimento – that is, entertainment for the poor and migrants. He distributed 3,000 ice cream cones to the homeless on the feast of St. George, because that’s how Francis wanted to celebrate his birthday. Krajewski also has organized a circus trip for refugees, as well as summer getaways by the seaside for the disabled.
Krajewski likes to refer to the pope’s words that his priests should have big hearts. He has a special devotion to Father Dolindo Ruotolo of Napoli, a 20th century contemporary of Padre Pio renowned for holiness, who used to say: “Jesus, you take over!”
Ruotolo, a Franciscan who was in trouble with the Vatican for years, and a man with multiple personal struggles, liked to call himself, “Mary’s little old man.” Today, Krajewski, on the cusp of joining the Church’s most exclusive club, visits Ruotolo’s relics as his time permits.
Just like Ruotolo, Krajewski is a tough cookie – he was not only surprised, but clearly angry with the decision of the pontiff to appoint him a cardinal. (As a friend of Krajewski explained, “He never liked anything that is exclusive. If I were to call him anything, it’s ‘walking humility.’ When we were hiking in the mountains, he often picked places to sleep with no water.”)
Krajewski said, however, that the basis for the pope’s decision was soon explained and justified to him by those he cares for the most – the poor. They told him at the Rome train station a few days ago, “It’s our red hat. It’s for the poor.”
Paulina Guzik was an organizer for World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland, and is co-author of WYD 2016 Krakow, The largest European Event of the 21stCentury.