VATICAN CITY — While several Vatican buildings are embroiled in scandal, a few meters away from the colonnade of St. Peter's Square the "Palazzo Migliori" is becoming a symbol of goodness and generosity. Pope Francis has effectively "donated" it to the poor. Various entrepreneurs were interested in acquiring it and transforming it into a five-star hotel, but instead it has been transformed into a dormitory for the "invisibles of the night," the homeless who find refuge by wrapping themselves in wool blankets or cardboard boxes.
"We've restored dignity to the destitute through beauty," said Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who oversees the Vatican's office of Pontifical charity.
La Stampa met with the Cardinal at 4 p.m. on a recent sunny day at the structure at 28 Largo di Alicorni, an 18th-Century abode bearing the name of the family who lived in it until the 1930s, before offering it to the Holy See. And herein is the beauty Cardinal Krajewski was talking about. "The place where we help the destitute" should be, he says: "simple and beautiful. We can almost call it ‘luxurious.""
Those in need are shown to the first floor. There are desks, armchairs and a T.V. available for use. There's also a computer room, where they can use Skype to see and talk with their far-away families. Under the frescoed vaults, the crenelated ceilings, and Art Deco stucco, walking along the marble floor, those who might just need a chat or a shoulder to cry on will discover the human warmth they may have been missing for so long.
We want to give the needy the best that we have. That is the Gospel.
On the walls hang paintings and works donated by Pope Francis, including the portrait depicting him greeting the poor on the Greek island of Lesbos. And for those who want to pray, there is an ornate chapel.
"When I entered the first time I thought it was a joke," said Giuseppe, 47, who is divorced, unemployed and homeless. "So I asked the volunteers, ‘Why are you offering a place like this to us, who live on the street?" Giuseppe reflects the typical profile of those who knock on the door of Palazzo Migliori: Italians between 30 and 50 years old, often separated and unemployed. Many do have a home, but with the gas or electricity cut off due to unpaid bills.
Cardinal Krajewski explains the regal choice of location. "We want to give the needy the best that we have, not the scraps or the leftovers. That is the Gospel."
The refectory is on the third floor. Guests are not squeezed into makeshift benches of long wooden planks. They're spread around the spacious rooms, seated in ancient, richly carved wooden tables taken from Vatican storage. Every evening, eighty people dine here under wrought-iron chandeliers.
Sharing a meal with homeless and others at Palazzo Migliori— Photo: Sant'Egidio
Then there are three terraces decorated with flower vases that during summer will color those quiet moments spent gazing at the view of Bernini's colonnade. "See that? You can almost touch it!" exclaims 59-year-old Dennis, who's lived on the street for as long as he can remember. "Here I finally feel like a person, and no longer like a stray animal."
The dormitories are on the fourth and fifth floors, with rooms ranging from one to four beds.
Cardinal Krajewski is very careful to turn off the lights wherever the motion sensor doesn't do so automatically. "I got it from Pope Francis. When he came here, he made sure to turn off every unused light: ‘Nothing must be wasted!" he said."
There are the women's quarters, with more airy rooms, and mirrors everywhere. All in all, space for 50 people that could easily be made to accommodate 100, because the beds can be transformed into bunks: there's no question here of cramming in on cots.
Stay with them, eat with them and, if necessary, sleep among them.
Then, the crown jewel. We climb an iron staircase to the highest terrace and are greeted by a breathtaking view. Saint Peter's Basilica stands before us, magnificent, bathed in the red light of the setting sun.
It is here that Krajewski opens up. It is necessary "to be among the poor. For this reason, the Pope tells me, ‘Stay with them, eat with them and, if necessary, sleep among them. Then you will understand what they really need. The important thing is not to stay at your desk, because there you may well come up with incredible things, but for you, not for them!"
When we meet Andrea, a 49-year-old man struggling with life's daily hardships, he is smiling: "Here they make us look presentable again. We leave here holding our heads high, without the fear that people might move away from us because we may smell bad."
The part of the job that gives Cardinal Krajewski the greatest satisfaction? "When the policemen around Saint Peter's no longer recognize the homeless who have passed through our doors."
Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.
If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.
The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.
Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.
This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.
It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."
In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.
Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.
Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.
But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.
In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.