Next Monday, work will begin to renovate Vatican restrooms for pilgrims, but Pope Francis has also given instructions for showers to be installed where Rome’s homeless can wash.
Bishop Konrad Krajewski, or “Don Conrado” as he is familiarly known, is the Pope’s “almoner,” the person in charge of distributing alms on the Pope’s behalf. He recounts that it was a Sardinian homeless man named Franco who brought home the need for washing facilities.
Franco explained to the bishop that the greatest need for Rome’s homeless is a place to wash. “Nobody dies of hunger,” he said, “you can always find a sandwich to get by. But there are no places to go to the bathroom and wash.” This was a revelation for Don Conrado, who had always assumed that food was the number one concern.
So on November 17, three showers dedicated to the local homeless will be added to the restrooms for pilgrims under the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica. They can wash and change their bedding under the windows of the Apostolic Palace. The good idea is spreading, and at Don Conrado’s instigation a dozen parishes in the Roman neighborhoods most frequented by homeless people are also adding showers, paid for by the Pope.
Pope Francis chose Don Corrado for this exact task: to be the Pope’s feet on the ground in personally helping the local poor.
To be sure, there are other initiatives as well. The Sant’Egidio Community, for instance, has published an updated handbook titled “Where to eat, sleep, wash.” But the Pope’s man makes his presence felt.
Don Conrado is accustomed to immediate action for the poor rather than organizing major projects or fundraisers that can take months. “In the Gospel,” he says, “Jesus always uses the word ‘today,’ and it is ‘today’ when we have to respond to people’s needs.”
“It isn’t easy,” the bishop says, “because it is simpler to make sandwiches than take care of a shower service. We need volunteers, towels, linens.”
Don Conrado says that it is appropriate to be installing the showers beneath Rome’s most iconic church, under the imposing colonnade of Bernini. “The church exists,” he says, “because the Body of Christ is there. In the poor we serve the suffering body of Jesus. In all of Rome’s history, the poor have gathered around this basilica.”
For the Vatican showers there will be no sign outside. The service is designed to assist those who already live in the area, who will be familiar with the set-up. According to the bishop, being able to wash and keep clean makes the homeless less vulnerable to diseases that are transmitted with dirt.
Don Conrado is also trying to involve students of a local school for hairdressers, to provide an occasional haircut to go with the showers.