Vatican City (AFP) - Dozens of homeless people were on Thursday treated to a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel, complete with a surprise appearance by Pope Francis himself, in the pontiff's latest gesture towards the most vulnerable in society.
Normally one of the hottest tourist tickets in town, the home of Michelangelo's celebrated ceiling frescoes closed its doors early to regular visitors to enable the group of around 150 street-sleepers to be shown around the chapel and adjoining Vatican museums and gardens.
In an unannounced visit, it was the pope himself who welcomed the group to the Sistine Chapel, taking the time to greet each of the visitors.
"This is a house for everyone, this is your home. The doors are always open to all," the Argentinian told them.
"Pray for me, I need the prayers of people like you," he added.
The pontiff had asked that there be no pictures of the meeting.
It was the latest in a string of highly symbolic initiatives sanctioned by Francis, who has made a focus on the plight of the homeless and other marginalised groups one of the defining themes of his papacy.
Last month a homeless man who died on the streets around St Peter's Square was buried in an exclusive cemetery within the Vatican that is usually reserved for senior German clerics.
The pope, who says he wants "a poor Church, for the poor," has had showers for the homeless installed in public toilets just off St Peter's square.
To mark his 78th birthday in December, he ordered the distribution of sleeping bags across Rome and some homeless people have been recruited to hand out copies of the gospels to the faithful attending Sunday audiences at St Peter's.