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The story of Pope John Paul II and the mysterious homeless man

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In a new interview, Pope Francis tells a well known story in the Vatican about his saintly predecessor

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is not the first pope to have a heart for the homeless, as he himself attests.

In a new interview with an Italian magazine run by homeless people, “Scarp de’ tenis” [i.e. “Tennis shoes” or “Sneakers”], Pope Francis recounts a famous story told in the Vatican about Pope John Paul II and a mysterious homeless man.

As the story is perhaps less well known outside the Vatican walls, here we share it with our readers. Below is the exchange from the interview.

Question: Your Holiness, when you meet a homeless person what is the first thing you say to him?

Pope Francis: “Good morning. How are you?” Sometimes one exchanges a few words, other times one enters into relationship and listens to interesting stories: “I studied at a Catholic boarding school; there was a good priest….” Someone might say: why should this interest me? But people who live on the street understand immediately when there’s real interest on the part of the other person, or when there is — I don’t want to say ‘that feeling of compassion’ but certainly one of pain. One can see a homeless person and look at him as a person, or like a dog. And they are well aware of these different ways of looking at them.

There is a famous story in the Vatican about a homeless person, of Polish origin, who usually stayed in Piazza Risorgimento in Rome. He didn’t speak to anyone, not even the Caritas volunteers who brought him a hot meal in the evening. Only after a long time did they manage to have him tell his story: “I am a priest. I know your pope well; we studied together in seminary,” he said. Word arrived to St. John Paul II, who heard the name, confirmed he was in seminary with him, and wanted to meet him. They embraced after 40 years, and at the end of the audience the Pope asked the priest, who had been his companion in seminary, to hear his confession. “Now it is your turn,” Pope John Paul II said. And his companion from seminary went to confession with the Pope. Thanks to the gesture of one volunteer, a hot meal, a few words of comfort, and a look of kindness, this person recovered and resumed a normal life that led him to become a hospital chaplain. The pope helped him. Certainly this is a miracle, but it is also an example to say that homeless people have a great dignity.

At the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, under a doorway between the grates there lived a family and a couple. I met them every morning on my way out. I greeted them and always exchanged a few words with them. I never thought of driving them away. Someone said to me: “They dirty the Curia,” but the dirt is inside. I think we need to talk to people with great humanity, not as if they had to repay us a debt, and not treating them as though they were poor dogs.

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