Vatican homeless shelter continues long history of the Church’s charitable works


Talk about a breath of fresh air. NPR spent some minutes reporting that Pope Francis had turned a one-time palace near the Vatican into a shelter for homeless people in Rome.

The Church has had so much bad publicity recently. This story was a relief.

For centuries, an Italian noble family had occupied this building, with all its grandeur and elegance. In 1930, the Holy See bought the property, and a community of nuns took possession of it to be a residence for single mothers.

Recently, the nuns moved elsewhere, along with the shelter.

Plenty of news, and comment, has circulated, now for a while, about the fact that the Vatican is having trouble paying its bills. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that someone in the papal accounting office suggested a plan to turn the old palace into a gold mine.

Realizing that the palace sits on prime real estate, the plan proposed that it be leased to a major luxury hotel operator. Once renovated, each room in the hotel would go for a pretty penny, the bar and restaurant would rake in the cash, and the Vatican would collect plenty of money in rent.

Pope Francis defined prime real estate in another way. Everyone in Rome, and any visitor with observing eyes, knows that homelessness is a serious problem in the city. People sleep on the streets, cuddling their meager possessions in a bag beneath their heads, as if the bag were a pillow, at times using discarded cardboard boxes as tents to protect themselves from the weather.

Food is another issue, as is sanitation.

When the nuns left the former palace, the Vatican did not make an offer to Hilton or Sheraton. Instead, it remodeled the building, installing, among other things, modern bathrooms. Then, when all improvements had been finished, the building opened to the homeless, come one, come all.

NPR interviewed one elderly man, down on his luck, who said that he could look from the window of his compact, but clean and warm, room onto the street below and see the spot where he once slept at night.

It is more than a collection of beds, running water and nourishing meals. Many cases among the homeless involve psychological issues. This new center employs mental health professionals. Access to medical doctors is available, as is counseling to help residents get back on their feet economically.

Since religious men and women are becoming few and far between, the Vatican enlisted a lay organization to operate the facility.

Who pays for the shelter? The Vatican pays for it. Where does it get its money? Catholics donate, in part through the Peter’s Pence collection held annually in every parish.

Criticism has come that Peter’s Pence is handled slip-shod or worse at the Vatican. Pope St. John Paul II instituted safeguards and reforms, as did Pope Benedict XVI, and as Pope Francis has continued.

This “palace for the homeless” is right out of the pages of the Gospels, one of thousands upon thousands, literally, of services and activities for the helpless, sick and troubled that the Catholic Church maintains and has maintained throughout the world since ancient times.

The first of hundreds of Catholic hospitals in what today is the United States was founded by French Daughters of Charity, who willingly left everything near and dear to care for the sick poor in New Orleans. Nuns cared for the hopeless lepers in Hawaii and on the mainland. Alexian Brothers built their hospitals. Good Shepherd nuns founded their places for troubled young women. Little Sisters of the Poor came to care for the elderly poor across the country.

Every diocese still spends very much for Catholic Charities.

So often the one word to describe the Church’s attention to people in need has been heroism. It is true to this day.

I listened to the NPR story, proud to be a Catholic.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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