In an effort to literally practice what they preach, the Vatican has opened its own homeless shelter near St. Peter’s Square, offering up to 34 impoverished men a place to sleep every evening.
According to Vatican Radio, last week the Holy See unveiled a new local shelter called “Gift of Mercy” that will be run by Jesuits, an order of priests that includes Pope Francis himself. The building previously housed a travel agency, but will now host needy patrons in a dormitory for up to 30 days at a time.
The project joins another homeless shelter in the area called “Gift of Mary,” which is administered by nuns from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and has provided refuge for homeless women since 1988. Together, the homes offer 84 beds for those with no place to sleep, a small but important step to helping assist Rome’s 3,276 homeless people.
The Catholic Church has long been a crucial provider of housing for the homeless worldwide — including in the United States. Catholic Charities, a Church-run group that is also one of the largest charities in the country, reportedly operates 238 shelters with 33,000 housing units nationwide that take in roughly 524,000 people each year.
Yet despite their work, Catholic Charities and scores of other faith-based groups often struggle to keep up with the demands of America’s needy. Several cities are grappling to muster enough resources to assist homeless populations, including Washington, D.C., which is only just making headway toward addressing its massive homeless crisis. Consequently, faith groups that work with the homeless are often heavily subsidized by the U.S. government: the majority of Catholic Charities’ operating budget is provided by federal funds.
The Vatican’s new effort appears to be part of Pope Francis’ attempt to raise the profile of homeless issues during his tenure as pope. Shortly after addressing Congress during his recent visit to the United States, he traveled down the street to eat and mingle with homeless in Washington. He also gave sleeping bags to the less fortunate around Rome to celebrate his birthday in 2014, has plans to install showers in St. Peter’s Square for those without bathing facilities, and promised in January that the Vatican will begin offering free shaves and haircuts to impoverished people.
His concern for the poor is also part of a larger theological framework outlined in his first papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. That document made headlines for its progressive take on economics, and President Barack Obama quoted it in 2013 during a major economic speech, when he cited the pontiff’s question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”