— -- The Vatican opened its doors today to the homeless of St. Peters’ Square, allowing the people who usually only see its steps outside to observe its beauty inside, and were greeted by Pope Francis himself.
A group of 150 homeless men and women took a guided tour of the museum and gardens and received dinner in the Vatican Museum’s cafeteria. They also were invited to pray in the Sistine Chapel, where the pope made an unannounced visit.
“This is everyone’s house: it’s your house. The door is always open for all,” Francis reportedly said as he shook their hands.
The Vatican says the pontiff spent 20 minutes with the visitors, meeting each one individually. He asked them to pray for him saying, “I need prayers from people like you."
“It was a great surprise meeting him,” said Graziella, one of the homeless visitors, to the Italian news agency ANSA. "The pope was smiling a lot but above all I was struck by his humility. Who else would have done this? Nobody. I always go to church but I have never experienced such humanity and humility."
The tour passed the Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis chose to live instead of the stately Papal apartment, and included a stop at a recently opened room in the museum that houses the pope’s historical carriages.
The invitation is just one of a string of actions taken by the pontiff to reach out to the poor. To mark his birthday in December, Pope Francis had sleeping bags distributed to the homeless in and around St. Peter’s Square. In February, the Vatican built showers and hired barbers for the homeless around the square.
And in mid-June, Francis will lunch with some of Turin’s homeless on a visit there, the Vatican announced yesterday.
Pope Francis’ outreach to the poor echo one of the central messages of his papacy. "Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent," Francis said in 2013.
The Vatican has called on the homeless to help distribute gospels or prayer booklets to the faithful in the square on Sundays during the Pope’s noontime prayer.
The tour and dinner was organized by the Office of Papal Charities, which regularly distributes meals to the homeless who live in Rome.
The Vatican said Francis did not want any official photos of videos taken of the event.
Phoebe Natanson contributed to this report from Rome.