Pope Francis on Friday asked an audience of homeless people to forgive those Christians who ‘look the other way.’

The Argentinian pontiff, who came into office promising a ‘poor church for the poor’ was given a standing ovation for his comments at a reception for hundreds of pilgrims from all over Europe, many of whom have been living on the streets.

Francis urged them not to give up their dreams and praised them for maintaining their dignity in the face of the obstacles they encountered.

‘Poor, yes; dominated, no; exploited, no,’ he said in Spanish.

‘I ask your pardon for those Christians who would look the other way when they are confronted with a poor person or with poverty itself.’

After hearing the personal stories of two of the visitors, one from Poland and one from France, Francis prayed briefly in silence as some of the audience reached out to touch him.

Among the crowd was Christian, a 62-year-old Frenchman who has only just got off the Paris streets -- sufficiently recently for him to have appreciated his bed on the overnight train that brought him to Rome along with some 600 others from France.

Seeing the Colosseum was a highlight of the trip. ‘It is very nice, I saw it once in a film,’ he said.

Etienne Villemain, one of the organisers of the French contingent, said the pope's invitation sent an important signal.

‘Everyone has their eyes on America, on Trump, on disasters, on Daesh .. and in the middle of all this media hype there is a little light: these poor people being welcomed and acknowledged as they are.’

 

- 'We exist too' -

Christian, 62, is a former printer. He lives on 500 euros a month and memories of his first night on the streets of Paris, in August 2014, are still fresh in his mind.

‘I was all alone but I had a feeling of freedom,’ he recalled as he walked through the streets of Rome. ‘You don't make friends among the homeless, in the refuges there are drugs, things get stolen.’

After two years on the streets, Christian managed to find a room in a Salvation Army centre and he is now on the verge of moving in with a new partner. ‘I have done well,’ he says with a smile, moving along briskly despite his walking stick.

The tough lives of the others accompanying Christian are written in their faces.

‘I was born in the shit,’ said Didier, 52. ‘My mother went out for cigarettes when I was four and never came back. My Dad died when I was seven.’

After years of casual labouring which eventually dried up, he found himself homeless. But after eight years on the streets Didier has recently found a spot in a refuge, a room with his own key. ‘Now at last I have some security.’

Eating a ham sandwich in the Rome garden of a French community of nuns, he admits to not being particularly religious. The trip to Rome was above all a chance to get out of his daily routine.

Christian is more conscious of what Francis is trying to do.

‘It is the year of mercy, the pope is drawing attention to human misery, that is important for people on the streets, that someone shines a light on them.

‘They exist too. They have paid their taxes, they have worked and society rejects them.’