A key reason for Pope Francis’ popularity is his warm and welcoming approach to those on the margins of society, particularly the poor and afflicted. It’s part of his vision of a “poor church for the poor” that acts as a merciful mother to all.
This effective outreach was witnessed again on Thursday evening when, on the Pope’s instruction, the papal almoner, Bishop Konrad Krajewski, invited 150 homeless persons to the Vatican museums.
They entered the Vatican via a side entrance normally used by cardinals where they were then divided into three groups, each one assigned a guide including earphones to hear the explanations. They then first visited the Vatican Gardens before passing through St. Peter’s basilica. On arrival at the Vatican museums, they were taken through the various galleries and finished their tour at the Sistine Chapel.
Pope Francis met them in the famous Michelangelo-frescoed chapel where he was elected two years ago. The Pope shook the hand of each homeless visitor, saying: “Welcome. This is everyone's house, and your house. The doors are always open for all."
After thanking Bishop Krajewski for having arranged the visit, he described it as a “little caress” for each of the guests.
Eyewitnesses said the emotion “was alive, deep, indescribable” when the Pope entered the chapel, and that it was like a “family occasion” between a father and his children.
As he does at the end of each audience, the Pope asked them all to pray for him. “I'm in need of prayers by people like you,” he said, and blessed the group, saying: “May the Lord protect and help you in the path of life and make you feel his tender love of a Father."
The Pope spent at least 20 minutes conversing with the special visitors, after which he said farewell and left them to dine in the museum restaurant. He asked that no cameras or photographers be present during the meeting.
"This is the most beautiful Easter gift I could receive," said a 65 year-old homeless man from Rome who had never seen those places.
The visit was just the latest of many benevolent papal gestures directed towards the poor and the marginalized.
Last month, the Vatican installed bathrooms and showers for the homeless in St. Peter’s square, complete with a barber to cut their hair every Monday. On the day of his 77th birthday, the Pope also invited three homeless people, along with a pet dog, to have breakfast with him at his residence.
Last weekend, Francis dined with about 120 male and female inmates in a jail in Naples. Among the prisoners lunching with Francis were 10 transsexuals and AIDS sufferers chosen to represent those sectors of the local prison population, according to the Vatican.
On Thursday next week, the Pope will continue his outreach by washing the feet of male and female inmates at a prison near Rome. Churches around the world wash the feet of 12 parish members, as Jesus did for the apostles, on Holy Thursday, although traditionally they should all be men.
This will be the third time he has visited a prison as Pope to wash the feet of prisoners, something he also used to do as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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