Cardinal Konrad Krajewski gives candy to children as he visits the Hope and Peace Center for refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Cardinal ‘Fix It’

  • May 23, 2019

During his visit to a centre offering respite and food to refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos this month, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski followed a sign that said, “Broken? Fix it here.”

The sign led to a shack where several refugees were working together to fix a bicycle, but “fix it here” could just as easily be the motto on Krajewski’s coat of arms. (Instead, it is “Misericordia,” mercy.) 

The 55-year-old Polish cardinal holds the title of papal almoner, an ancient office devoted to mostly small, direct acts of almsgiving.

Twenty-four hours after returning to Rome from Greece, the cardinal went to a government building occupied by some 450 people, including close to 100 children. The power company had cut electricity to the building because no one was paying the bill.

Krajewski fixed it.

While he did not explicitly admit to climbing down a manhole to reconnect the power, he has taken full responsibility for overriding the electric company’s decision to cut service to the building. And he knows it can have legal consequences.

“It was a special situation. Desperate. I repeat, I assume all the responsibility,” Krajewski told the newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy, said the occupants of the building owed the electric company 300,000 euros (about $453,000 Cdn) and he would be sending the cardinal the bill.

“I’ll pay it. No problem,” the cardinal told the newspaper. “And if one arrives, I’ll pay a fine as well.”

The office of papal almoner has existed since early in the 13th century. While the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Caritas Internationalis, along with its national partners, are responsible for large-scale development, relief and advocacy projects, the almoner’s office is focused on person-to-person charity.

The direct contact with the poor is so important to the Catholic Church that the papal almoner is one of a handful of top Vatican positions that is not suspended when a pope dies. As a sign of the Church’s constant love for the poor, the almoner is to continue his work distributing charity “in accordance with the criteria employed during the Pope’s lifetime,” say the rules governing the interregnum, or period between popes.

Pairing both small and large-scale approaches to charity has been part of Catholic tradition for centuries.

As then-Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2005 encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”): “Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.”

While the Church’s charitable organizations must be professionally competent, he said, professionalism is not enough. “We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”

Krajewski, who has been papal almoner since 2013, is not naive. He spent hours with government officials in Greece May 8-9 trying to promote humanitarian visas for some of the 70,000 asylum-seekers in the country.

But he spent more time in three camps on Lesbos and at three small, privately run centres that offer migrants and refugees a place to relax, to get new clothes, to drink tea or coffee with their friends, to watch a movie or borrow a book and to watch their children on a playground.

He gave little bags of candy to the children and rosaries to the adults, although the majority of them were Muslims. He also handed out small containers of dates and nuts, which the adults would eat when they broke their day’s Ramadan fast that evening.

Pope Francis sent him to Lesbos with more than $100,000, mostly for Caritas Hellas, the Greek Catholic charity. But he had cash in his pockets, too, and he quietly made donations to the small charities assisting the refugees. One gift was met with stunned, open-mouthed gaping. Another elicited a spontaneous burst of tears.

Krajewski did not ask for grant proposals or budget reports or a future accounting of how the cash was spent. He saw people helping people in need and, in Pope Francis’ name, gave them resources to do more.

Justice for the asylum-seekers is a big, long-term project. Personally showing them someone outside the camps knows they are there and sees them as human beings, not case numbers, requires presence, which is Krajewski’s mission. 

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