A year ago, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the head of Pope Francis’s charitable office, became the pope’s Robin Hood when he broke the law to help those most in need.
A year later, those he helped sent him a video in thanks with a heartwarming message: “You are our light.”
On May 12, 2019, the Polish prelate climbed down a manhole to restore electricity to hundreds of homeless people squatting in an abandoned building.
Though he technically committed a crime, and Italy’s anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was not shy about expressing his anger over the incident, Krajewski was never charged nor officially admonished.
The building has been occupied since 2013 by a group of homeless people, including migrants and Italians. At the time, it housed some 450 people, including about 100 children. The disused state-owned building had been without power for almost a week because over $300,000 in electricity bills had not been paid.
In order to climb down the manhole and re-connect electrical circuit breakers, Krajewski broke a police seal.
Asked about the illegality of what he had done, the cardinal answered: “Gospel is my law.”
To mark the one-year anniversary, several of the migrants living in the building, most of whom are Muslim, sent him a thank-you video.
“You know what’s amazing? I turned the light on for them and their thank you message says – we want to pray with you,” Krajewski told Crux after receiving the video, which was composed of several mobile-phone recorded messages of the people living in the building. “They’re inviting me to their house and want me to pray with them. And almost all of them are Muslims.”
“Ciao. Padre Konrad,” is the first line of the video, delivered by a teenage girl who uses the cardinal’s given name, just as he’s often asked the poor and homeless people he serves on the streets of Rome to call him.
Krajewski, 56, is the papal almoner — “almsgiver” — and the focus of the job has always been on distributing the pope’s charitable offerings to the poor in Rome. He’s the person behind the showers for the homeless under the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, as being responsible for a shelter for the poor located in a palace that is across the street from the Vatican.
The Polish cardinal also took dozens of homeless people to the Vatican Museums; gave them umbrellas and sleeping bags on a rainy, cold winter; and earlier this month gave money to a small community of transgender people in the outskirts of Rome who had approached parish priest asking for help.
“We felt the need of recording this message – youth, children, old and sick – because now we’re happy,” the girl in the video tells “Padre Konrad.”
“Because along with turning on the light, you brought our hope back,” she said.
Since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic broke, the cardinal went back to the building several times to bring fresh dairy products from the papal farms in Castel Gandolfo.
“Today we want to embrace you and tell you that we will always defend you,” the girl in the video says. “We want to keep our promise of Muslims and Christians praying together.”
“It’s 600 people in the city center without any legal status,” Krajewski told Crux on Tuesday. “They’re invisible, I can’t even pay that bill because it doesn’t belong to anybody.”
And it’s a bill he’s been offering to pay since he broke the police seal to turn on the lights, causing an uproar from Italy’s populist politicians.
“Defending illegality is never a good sign,” Salvini, who has often clashed with the pope on migration and other social issues, said at the time.
“There are many Italians and even legal immigrants who pay their bills, even if with difficulty,” he contineud. “People can do what they please but as interior minister, I guarantee the rules.”
Krajewski told Crux that at the beginning of his term as an almoner he told the pope: “They will put me in prison for what I do.”
“His reply was – I will pay you a visit.”
In the video sent to Krajewski moves on to show several families from different backgrounds, most wearing face masks due to the pandemic, speaking in an Italian that is far from perfect: “Our house was cold and our children were crying. We’re Muslims, but we’re all brothers. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts – you saved our lives,” one mother says.
A cardinal since 2018, Krajewski has never been one to follow the rules. During the coronavirus lockdown, he has been bringing food and other goods to the poor in Rome and other communities, even when he didn’t have a permit.
The prelate also a decree that ordered the churches in Rome to remain closed during the pandemic, opening his titular church in the capital to all those who wanted to visit for private prayer, saying simply that “a home should always be open to its children.”
A few hours later, the Diocese of Rome reversed itself, and the churches in city remained open, even if public liturgies were not allowed. (They will begin again on May 18.)
A month ago, he encouraged priests in Italy to not be afraid to help the poor and go out on the streets despite the pandemic and lockdown: “There is a Gospel in the making on the streets,” he told Crux.
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