It is not often that a cardinal goes to the circus, but it was not the first time for Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, to attend and to invite 2,000 poor to the famous Roman venue.

Polish Cardinal Krajewski invited the poor Feb. 11 to be entertained and forget, even for a brief moment, about life difficulties they endure.

What made this year's outing at the circus even more memorable is that the papal aide agreed to participate in what is called "passaggio della morte" -- "the passage of death" -- meaning that he laid down on the stage and let an elephant step over both him and two Ronny Roller circus performers.

"They asked me to join the stage performers, chanting my name in the circus," Cardinal Krajewski said in a voice message sent to OSV News.

The prelate is a much-loved cardinal among the poor of Rome. Any homeless person on the streets of the Eternal City recognizes the priest in a simple black jacket.

Since 2013, when Pope Francis asked then-Archbishop Krajewski to be his almoner, he's built showers for the homeless right next to the famous Bernini colonnade and transformed a Vatican-owned palace -- historical tenement house right off St. Peter's Square -- to a shelter.

The prelate, whom the pope named a cardinal in 2018, regularly dines with homeless people in his Vatican apartment. Cardinal Krajewski also coordinates food distribution to the poor of Rome and made headlines in 2019 for climbing down a manhole and turning on power in the building where it had been turned off for a week because the residents could not afford to pay the bills.

"Gospel is my law," he said at the time, rebuking criticism that he broke the law. The poor call him Don Corrado, Italian for Father Konrad.

"In the circus they started shouting: Don Corrado, Don Corrado, to encourage me to come to the stage," Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News in his voice message.

"I did not volunteer, and did not lose my mind," he joked.

In 2018, Pope Francis and Cardinal Krajewski were criticized by animal rights groups for inviting 2,100 poor people to the circus; they said the gesture involves the exploitation of nature's weakest creatures, Reuters reported.

This time the circus entertainment also sparked criticism from an international animal protection organization known as by its Italian initials as OIPA: "It's unfortunate that the pope is sponsoring the circus with animals," Massimo Comparotto, president of OIPA, said, as quoted by Il Messagiero. The organization is fighting against the use and abuse of animals by circuses.

Explaining why he again chose this form of entertainment, Cardinal Krajewski said, "The circus offers a different look at life -- what is impossible in human terms, is possible in the circus."

"And it shows the poor people that many things in their lives are possible -- overcoming a disease, addiction, overcoming the fact of being a constant fugitive -- which is often the case of the poor," the cardinal said.

Among homeless people, refugees -- including adults and children -- and squatters present at the circus were 150 prostitutes. Krajewski said it's important also for them to know that there is nothing impossible for God, and that "they can overcome their life challenges as well."

Referring to the scene with the elephant, papal almoner said in a message to OSV News that "sometimes we do silly things to make our children laugh. We do it for those we love. I love the poor. It brought them joy, and I don't care what other people will later say of me."

The Office of the Papal Almoner, renamed the Dicastery of the Service of Charity in 2022, is a charitable arm of the Vatican. It spent $10.7 million in 2022 for charitable works, of which $2.2 million alone was for Ukraine.

Cardinal Krajewski personally went to Ukraine five times in 2022, bringing closeness to the nation under Russian invasion, but also funds for dioceses, parishes and religious orders, thermal clothes and other supplies.

"We help hospitals, monasteries, foundations that care for the needy and poor," Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News.

Anyone who needs supplies or money asks the pope and nuncios around the globe, and parish priests throughout Italy check out the cause, and "when the cause is accepted, we help," the cardinal told OSV News.