True and Professional Beggars in Rome, The Anchor, August 9, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor

August 9, 2013

In July I was in Rome for five days to help launch a new summer sabbatical program for women religious from various American congregations.

It was the first time I had been to Rome since the conclave that elected Pope Francis. But while most things in the eternal city had unsurprisingly remained the same, there was one conspicuous difference: the number and attitude of beggars on the streets.

It’s possible that the rise is just coincidental, but it seems to me more likely that Pope Francis’ obvious love for the poor, his hosting a dinner for 200 homeless people in the Vatican, and his frequent preaching on the need to care for the poor in Christ’s name, have brought not only many more truly poor to Rome but also others who seeking an easy buck.

Like any big city, Rome has always had her beggars, generally the homeless who depend on the generosity of strangers to survive. The Church has many shelters and food pantries in Rome to care for those in need, but many there, as here, prefer the independence of the streets to the minimal rules of a shelter or pantry.

Rome also has more than her share of gypsies, including many Academy Award winners who creatively fake all types of injuries, paralyses, and desperate situations only to be miraculously cured at the end of each day when a Mercedes arrives to pick them up — a sight that always leaves tourists incredulous.

To walk in priests’ clothes in Rome is to be a targeted man. It’s a blessing when everyone expects you to be a Good Samaritan, but it’s also a burden. I’ve always tried to have something ready to give the ones who were not obvious charlatans. When a priest gives or doesn’t, it’s not just a personal act, but an ecclesial one.

My preference has always been to try not to give money, but to buy the beggar a sandwich or piece of fruit with some water, to engage the person in conversation and to ask for his or her prayers. This is a more time consuming and expensive alternative, and sometimes it’s just not possible to do when I’m in a hurry, so I always carry a pouch of euro coins to distribute when asked.

During the conclave in March, I was being approached three-to-five times a day, about the same in past visits and my years as a student in Rome.

This visit I was being asked more than twenty times a day.

The day of my arrival, jet lagged and surviving on double espressos, I was asked six times alone on my initial 25-minute walk to the residence where I was meeting the sisters. I probably had 10 euro worth of coins in my pouch from my last visit and it was quickly depleted. I went into a cafe during the afternoon and asked for change. On my return visit, I was stopped several times again.

When I explained to a woman who stopped me on the Via della Conciliazione that I had already given what I had to give to others before meeting her, she declared, “Pope Francis would be ashamed of you. He would give me something!” Fatigued and flabbergasted, I replied, “Then maybe we should both go and ask Pope Francis!”

I was approached three other times on my way back to the apartment where the sisters were housing me.

The next day I went to a café early to have some coffee on my way to the convent and filled up with coins. I would need them.

Almost immediately, I met a homeless Polish man who in broken Italian begged me for some money for him to get a bite to eat. Because I was running tight for Mass with the sisters, I put a few euros in his hand and asked him to pray for me. He began to shout with joy, “Sono ricco! Sono ricco!,” — “I’m rich!” — and then just kept repeating, “Grazie, Padre!”

Expressions of gratitude, I hate to admit, were rather rare.

I met a man as I was approaching Campo dei Fiori, the morning open-air fresh produce market. He asked me for some money to get some bread — the standard pitch — and I told him that I would buy him something at the Campo. “I don’t have time for that,” he stated, “please just give me some money.” “Food is all I’m offering,” I replied. He looked at me with disdain and kept moving in the opposite direction.

Later I had brought the sisters to Santa Maria sopra Minerva. I met a young man dressed only in a sheet. He asked me in a thick accent for some bread money. I gave him a few euro. Twenty minutes later, as we headed toward the Pantheon, the same guy approached with hand outstretched. “I just gave you three euro, fratrello,” I said. His response was classic: “And I used them all. Now I’m ready for dessert!” I had obviously been played by an actor.

Another man was sitting with an open basket near one of the main bus stops. He cried out “Padre, Padre!,” and asked if I could help him get some food. I told him to get up and I would go with him to buy some for him. He refused to budge. “Thanks for the try, Father, but I’ll do better if I just sit here and wait for someone else to give me money.”

A woman met me while I was standing outside the door of my apartment. After she asked me for money for food, I told her that I live inside and that I’d go to get her some bread, fruit and water from the refrigerator. “No, Padre,” she replied, “Money instead.”

I told her that I wasn’t going to give her money but I would very happily give her food. “Jesus would be very angry at you,” she declared. “He said that whatever you do for others, you do to him.”

I complimented her on her knowledge of Sacred Scripture but clarified, “Jesus told us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food,’ not ‘I asked you for money and you gave what I wanted,’ so if you want food, I can definitely help.” She shook her head and left disappointed.

Another woman started yelling to get my attention as I was crossing a street. I waited for her and she asked for bread money. I had already given out all I had that day, but I reached into my bag to pull out for her some wrapped cheese that friends from Reggia Emilia had brought me. I had been planning to give it to the sisters, but I figured this woman might be able to use it more. When I handed the cheese to her, she said, “I asked for money for bread, not cheese,” and gave it to me. I replied that I was a priest, not a banker, and headed off with the cheese toward the convent.

It’s always wonderful to be in Rome and I had a great time with the sisters, but this last trip was one of the most challenging experiences of my priesthood. Every time I headed out, I was being approached several times, and each day I was distributing $50 or more in alms, but it wasn’t enough, as those who accosted me after my pouch was empty reminded me. Even though I wanted the exercise, on some occasions I opted for the bus, just to cut in half the number of requests when my resources and patience were getting low.

Next time, I’m resolved to bring a bigger money pouch and a lot of granola bars to pass out. In the meantime, however, I hope Pope Francis may be able to assist the genuine poor and convert those who are taking advantage of his emphasis on the poor to divert the limited pool of alms destined for them.