In what he described as a desperate gesture, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the pope’s almoner, climbed down a manhole last Saturday evening, May 11, to restore electric power to a building in Rome occupied by some 450 homeless people, including more than 100 children. They had been without electricity and hot water for almost a week.
The municipal electric company cut off the power supply because the occupants—who had lived in the state-owned property as squatters since 2013—had run up a substantial unpaid electric bill.
Asked if it was true that he personally lifted the manhole cover and climbed down to reconnect the building to the power main, Cardinal Krajewski told the newspaper, Corriere della Sera: “It was a special situation. Desperate. I repeat, I assume all the responsibility."
By reconnecting the building to the power supply and breaking the seals that prevented the building from having power, the papal almoner broke the law. But he was unrepentant, as the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, made clear this afternoon, noting, “It was a gesture of humanity carried out with an awareness of the possible consequences that he could face, in the conviction that it was necessary to do so for the good of these people.”
“If a fine should arrive, I will pay it,” the paper quoted him as saying.
By reconnecting the building to the power supply and breaking the seals that prevented the building from having power, the papal almoner broke the law. But he was unrepentant.
Once the electricity was cut off, the people were left without light or power to run refrigerators or to heat the water in the large building not far from St. John Lateran’s Basilica and the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Some of the children were afraid in the dark, and some people fell and hurt themselves.
It was, the 55-year-old Polish priest said, a situation that called for “an act of humanity,” given that the city officials who could have resolved this problem did not work over the weekend, and he could find no one to speak to with the authority to restore power.
“Don Konrad,” as he is popularly known, is the man Pope Francis chose in August 2013 to be his right hand in assisting the poor and vulnerable of Rome. Pope Francis made him a cardinal last year to emphasize that “the poor are a priority in this pontificate.”
The cardinal, who had been back in Rome less than 24 hours after visiting refugees in camps in Greece, knew the conditions in this building well and that people who live there had nowhere else to go. Many are without work and lack money to buy food. All week Cardinal Krajewski had been dispatching food and medical supplies to the building and had even provided an ambulance service.
“I'll pay it. No problem,” the cardinal told the newspaper.
La Repubblica, one of Italy’s main newspapers, labeled him “the Robin Hood of the Pope” on its front page on May 13, but Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy and the vice premier and leader of the xenophobic Northern League, did not share that view. He declared, “Supporting illegal behavior is never a good signal [to give people].”
Mr. Salvini said many Italians “also in difficulty” pay their bills. He told a crowd at a political rally on May 12 that the occupants of the building owed the electric company 300,000 euros (about $337,000), and he would be sending the cardinal the bill. As minister of the interior, Mr. Salvani has closed Italian ports to Middle Eastern and African migrants fleeing conflict and poverty from Libya.
The pope’s alms-giver said he would pay for the electricity for the squatting families until the situation stabilizes, but he emphasized that “money is not the first problem. There are children here, and the first question is: ‘Why are they in this situation?’”
The usually low-profile papal almoner had no regrets. “I accept full responsibility. If they fine me, I will pay. And I do not need to give explanations, as there’s little to say.” He noted that the last time there had been an electric blackout in Rome “it was a drama,” comparing it to this situation where 500 people, including 100 children, were without electricity for six days.
“We’re talking about human lives,” he said.
He noted that this is not the only dramatic situation in modern-day Rome in which residents go without a home, without work, sometimes even without food. “Where have human rights ended in Europe? Try going without electricity in your home for some hours,” he told Corriere della Sera.
At the pope’s request, Cardinal Krajewski reaches out to the poor in many ways every day, providing food, clothing, sleeping bags and medicine to them. He has undertaken many creative initiatives, too, with the pope’s full backing, like installing showers and barber’s services for the homeless people right under the window in the Vatican palace where the pope gives his Sunday greeting and recites the Angelus. He has also installed a medical service free of charge for the poor, and last week he went down to Lesbos to help migrants on that Greek island.
These acts in favor of the poor gain much approval from people but have also provoked a negative reaction from a small but vocal political minority who look to Mr. Salvini as their leader and who last Sunday staged a small protest near St. Peter’s Square.