May 1, 2020
Ionel is my newest friend in Rome. But he was so out-of-his-mind crazy with rage one day last week that I had to keep my distance.
He had left his place to go get some food, but when he came back everything he owned was gone. And he was so angry, almost to the point of becoming violent, that it was useless to even try to talk to him at that moment.
Ionel is a homeless Romanian migrant of perhaps 35 or 40 years of age who suffers from diabetes and probably other ailments, both physical and psychological. He lives on the streets around the Vatican.
And during the coronavirus lockdown he's made his home of cardboard boxes, blankets and a satchel of personal items in an outer nook of a floor-to-ceiling store window.
The window is part of high-end shop, shuttered for weeks now, that sells mosaics, icons and other religious goods.
And it is also right next to my "parking spot" on a corner next the Holy See Press Office.
Going to work and getting a workout
During most of coronavirus lockdown I've been cycling to the press hall almost every day. It's open from 11 a.m. till 1 p.m. And going there provides a valid reason for being out during the quarantine.
This privilege allows me to get some exercise. It's about a 15-20 minute trek to the Vatican from my flat, which is located between Santa Maria Maggiore and Saint John Lateran.
But the return route, because it's always more "creative" and much longer, can take 45-60 minutes at a good clip and with a lot of sweat.
One of the first mornings I went down to the press office, and as I was locking my mountain bike to a pole, someone said: "Ciao, caro" – that friendly, slightly chummier Italian greeting.
That is when I met Ionel.
He had moved his makeshift abode across to the pedestrian strip along the Via della Conciliazione and had perched himself up against one of those massive travertine lampposts that line the long avenue that stretches from the Tiber River to the outer reaches of St. Peter's Square.
"Ciao," I said, as I made towards the press office.
"Auguri!" he shouted back at me.
That's a festive or celebratory sort of exclamation usually used to express holiday or a birthday greetings. It's also used as a form of congratulation.
About the best way to describe the context in which Ionel used it is something like "best wishes" or "enjoy".
"Grazie," I said and reciprocated the greeting, "Auguri!" before going inside.
The few, the brave…
Now, during this entire COVID-19 shutdown, only three or four of us "Vaticanisti" have been going to the press office regularly.
When I joked with Matteo Bruni, the director, that I only come here to get out for exercise, he said: "That's good, because we keep this open so you all have a place to go."
The other two regulars take up their places at the opposite ends of a long table in the journalists' work area. I, instead, have made my "office" next door in the large theater-like hall where the press conferences are held – the entire room.
I only made this sacrifice to respect social distancing measures, of course. I sit comfortably in the very last row and edit articles, looking up from time to time over a vast sea of royal blue velour seats.
Then about ten minutes before 1 p.m. one of the fellows at the front desk announces over the loudspeaker that the press office will soon be closing. The three of us gather our things and head out.
"I'm already writing our hagiography," I say to one of them.
"Future generations need to know that we were among the few brave souls that kept the lines of communication between the Vatican and the outside world open during the plague," I say ridiculously.
Then we leave.
"The good Lord takes care of me"
When I was unchaining my bike to go home that day when Ionel first greeted me, he said hello again.
And that's when I went over and asked him his name. Now, weeks later, he and I are famous friends.
I can't say I know an awful lot about him. He's never asked me for money or anything else. And whenever I've asked him if he needs anything, he just lifts his eyes and points an index finger to the sky and says: "The good Lord takes care of me."
Then he shrugs and sighs. And he says, "What else can we do?"
Actually, the Lord also has some helpers who take care of Ionel, especially one my new friend calls "the padre". That's Padre Konrad (actually Cardinal Konrad Krajewski), the pope's almoner.
The Polish prelate helps Ionel get his necessary supply of insulin to keep the diabetes in check and he takes him to the doctor for check-ups.
"The padre said he can help me get my leg operated on," my friend told me the other day.
Padre Konrad, Caritas and Sant'Egidio
A few days later when I arrived he seemed unusually chipper and upbeat. And he looked a little different.
"Hey, you shaved and got a haircut," I said.
He smiled and pointed over to the colonnades of St. Peter's Square. That's where Padre Konrad's "salon" for the homeless is located – there are toilets, showers and first-aid facilities. And on certain days people can get a haircut.
I'm ashamed to say that I never really noticed my new Romanian friend – or his numerous "colleagues" – before the coronavirus emptied the Eternal City's streets and squares of all but those who have no home.
Except for that one incident when Ionel flew into a rage, no doubt because he felt deeply humiliated even more than he felt robbed, the street people down by the Vatican seem very calm.
For these past weeks the city has been theirs and their friends' – the pigeons and cats – with whom they share the food they get from Caritas, the Sant'Egidio Community and other folks who try to help them.
Meanwhile, my bicycle rides down to the press office, which were initially aimed merely at getting some exercise during the coronavirus lockdown, are now crowned with a blessing.
Being able to share a few words and thoughts each day with Ionel, one of God's favorite children.
Follow me on Twitter @robinrome