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."