ROME -- A bus was carrying 42 homeless people Wednesday from Rome to see the Shroud of Turin, regarded by many to be the sacred burial cloth of Jesus Christ, and Pope Francis was picking up the tab.
The group included not just Catholics but also Orthodox Christians and Muslims. What they have in common is that they all frequent a soup kitchen run by the Santa Lucia parish, near the Vatican.
Don Pablo Castiglia, deputy parish priest, was traveling with the group, along with seven volunteers. He said after the parish had organized the trip, the pope's almoner, Bishop Konrad Krajewski, announced that Francis wanted to contribute money to cover the expenses.
Krajewski used donations given to the pope for his personal charities to help fund the trip.
"There's an atmosphere of great interest" among the travelers, said Castiglia, adding that the group was being prepared during the bus trip with a video explaining the shroud.
Krajewski was there Wednesday morning when the homeless boarded the bus to Turin. According to Castiglia, Krajewski gave each person a small sum of pocket money, calling it a "caress" from Pope Francis.
The group was to spend Wednesday night in Catholic shelters in Turin, and then visit the shroud Thursday morning.
Next week a second group, about 70 poor and homeless, was to make the same journey. Krajewski told an Italian newspaper that the two groups "will prepare the way for the pope's visit. His poor will arrive before him."
Pope Francis is to venerate the shrine on June 21.
Francis' concern for and outreach to the poor has been a hallmark of his papacy.
He has had showers and barber facilities built under the colonnade of St. Peter's Basilica for the exclusive use of the homeless.
For several years in a row he has chosen to celebrate his own birthday with Italy's impoverished. Homeless people have had dinner in the Vatican museum and sat at the best seats in the house at a Vatican concert.
One homeless man has even been buried in a cemetery inside the Vatican under Francis' tenure, which for centuries had been a final resting place only for royalty and luminaries.
Anna Matranga is a CBS Radio News correspondent in Rome.