SHAFAQNA – Tramps in Rome are using special-issue papal sleeping bags after the Pope marked his 78th birthday by handing out 400 of them to the city’s homeless. The bags are equipped with a hood to ward off wind and feature the Pope’s coat of arms.
“This is a gift for you from the Pope on the occasion of his birthday,” a team of Swiss Guards said as they toured the city on a minibus on Wednesday night in plain clothes, handing out the sleeping bags.
Accompanied by nuns and volunteers, the guards left the Vatican at 6pm and visited spots in the city where homeless people are known to congregate, including the main railway station and the pavements around the Verano cemetery. The minibus returned to the Vatican after 11pm and officials kept the mission secret, not announcing details until yesterday.
“Almost 400 sleeping bags were distributed,” one volunteer said. “We gave one to each homeless person we met.”
As the minibus cruised the city, a lorry also delivered about 1,700lbs of chicken to Rome’s soup kitchens. The meat had been given to the Pope as a birthday present to help to feed the poor.
Earlier in the day, the Pope celebrated his birthday in St Peter’s Square, where hundreds of couples danced the tango, one of his favourite dances. He was presented with a birthday cake and mate — a traditional drink in his native Argentina.
Eight homeless people were said to be among the pilgrims he greeted at the end of his weekly audience, and four homeless people joined him for lunch at the Vatican.
Last year the Pope invited three homeless men and their dog to join him as he celebrated his birthday.
Francis has made charity for the homeless and poor a key theme of his papacy, and has put Archbishop Konrad Krajewski in charge of tending to Rome’s homeless population.
Archbishop Krajewski, who was on board the minibus packed with sleeping bags, has already convinced the Pope to turn three public toilets in St Peter’s Square into showers for tramps. Volunteers will hand out free soap and towels at the cubicles and plans are being made for barbers to offer free haircuts.
During his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Pope would travel on the city’s trains and was known as the “bishop of the slums” because of his visits to shantytowns.
After he became Pope, the Vatican quashed rumours that Francis was sneaking out at night to give alms to the poor, though Archbishop Krajewski was quoted as saying: “When I say to him ‘I am going out into the city this evening’, there’s the constant risk that he will come with me.”