He has ‘changed our lives,’ say those in need about Francis, the ‘pope of the poor’

Pope Francis met people as he inaugurated a new shelter, day center and soup kitchen for the poor in Palazzo Migliori across the street from St. Peter’s Square Nov. 15, 2019. The shelter, funded by the papal almoner’s office, is staffed by volunteers from the Community of Sant’Egidio and was inaugurated in time for the World Day of the Poor 2019. (CNS Photo by Vatican Media)

By Paulina Guzik

ROME — It’s almost 7 p.m. in Rome. Silvano just arrived at Palazzo Migliori. He rushes to get dinner but since he still has 20 minutes left, he pulls out his phone and shows a picture that’s important to him.

“This is me, you see, on the cover of Corriere della Sera,” he said. In January 2020, an influential publication in Italy put Silvano — a homeless man from Romania — on the cover of its magazine, only two months after Palazzo Migliori, a Roman palace turned homeless shelter, was opened. In the front-page picture, he shows a view from his room overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica, only 1,300 feet away.

This is precisely where Pope Francis, celebrating 10 years of his papacy March 13, puts the homeless — on the front page.

“Do you know how much money he could make if he turned this place into a hotel?” Silvano asked. “Millions! But instead, he renovated it and gave this place to us, to the poor.”

Built at the beginning of the 19th century, Palazzo Migliori is named after a family that owned the building for more than a hundred years. In 1930, it was donated to the Vatican. For decades, it was occupied by the Calasanziane religious order. In 2019, the order relocated.

“You give away the best to the poor, you don’t give them the remains, but the best. That’s the logic of the Gospel,” Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, said.

“What the Vatican would get for a hotel in that location is probably 500 euros a night,” said Cardinal Krajewski, the papal almoner. “The pope was asked to give the building away for such investment to improve the situation of the Holy See’s finances. But he said the best improvement for the Vatican would be to give that place to the needy.”

“It’s not a shelter, it’s home,” Silvano, who only gave his first name, said.

When asked what the papacy of Francis changed for him, his eyes filled with tears. He said when Pope Francis arrived at the Vatican, “I was sleeping under the Colonnade. There were no showers, there was no food for us. Pope Francis changed my life.”

Palazzo Migliori shelters up to 50 people every night. They arrive in their rooms, head for dinner, pray together and then leave in the morning.

“You have to be humble to understand the poor,” Silvano said. “You can’t say, ‘I am the pope, I will look down on you’ — no, only with humility you will understand the poor people, and Pope Francis has humility,” he said.

For Silvano, what he experiences with Pope Francis is broader than just a helping hand for a homeless man; “It’s peacebuilding. Sharing a piece of bread with those in need, with women and children suffering amid war, but also with us here, it’s precisely what spreading peace means.”

When he arrived in Italy almost a decade ago, Silvano said he paid $1,100 to an organization that back in Romania promised him a good job in Italy.

“I got here and after three months, they fired me from my job. I didn’t have a job anymore, didn’t know the language, had no home, so I landed on the street,” he said. “And they hired another man who paid them the money. That’s how it works.”

He said for the last three years, with a warm bed and meal every night, he has hope. One of the happiest moments of the last few years was when he shared a meal with Pope Francis when the pontiff arrived to Palazzo Migliori for its inauguration Nov. 15, 2019.

“He took two slices of pizza. He told me, ‘Pray, your prayers will be heard,’ ” Silvano said.

Cardinal Krajewski said that the poor also work in Palazzo Migliori. “It’s a place where they can also make money and earn a living. They take care of the palace, clean it, do maintenance. It really matters for them.”

The cardinal, who runs the place along with the Sant’Egidio community, said Pope Francis changed the optics of the church and focused its lens on the poor.

“I myself could not live the Gospel the way I try to do if Pope Francis didn’t show me. He does what he preaches, that’s the key to understanding his actions,” the papal almoner said.

Cardinal Krajewski was among the cardinals celebrating Mass with Pope Francis in the chapel of Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel where the pontiff has lived since his election.

“He celebrated his 10 years on the throne of Peter just as he led his papacy for the last years — modestly,” Cardinal Krajewski said. “Had it not been the cardinals pressing, probably he would just celebrate holy Mass as any other day.”

Pope Francis focused his papacy on the poor and needy. In 2017, he established the World Day of the Poor, and since then the world has seen him dining with the poor, inviting them for ice cream on the feast of the pope’s patron saint, George, and, through the hand of his almoner, organizing entertainment for the poor from circus visits to film screenings.

“I would say that his words and his privileged relationship with the poor, for us in the Community of Sant’Egidio, have been a blessing, an encouragement, a push to be more and more on the side of the poor,” said Marco Imagliazzo, president of the Community of Saint’Egidio.

He added that “it is very nice that the colonnade of St. Peter’s, which symbolically represents the great embrace of the church for everyone, has been populated, during the years of Pope Francis’ pontificate, by so many homeless people, the poor, who have found a welcome there.”

For Impagliazzo, Palazzo Migliori, where Silvano and others who are homeless find shelter for the night, means that “just as the pope, the cardinals, his collaborators and the bishops have a home in the Vatican, so too, do the poor have one.”

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