Pope Francis gives sleeping bags to the homeless for his birthday

Pope Francis blowing out candles on his birthday cake as he arrived at his weekly audience at the Vatican, December 17, 2014.Reuters

Pope Francis gave 400 sleeping bags to the homeless for his 78th birthday on Wednesday.

Volunteers delivered the sleeping bags, which had the Vatican's coat of arms printed on them, to homeless people in Rome.

"This is a gift for you from the pope on the occasion of his birthday, we ask you to pray for him," the recipients were told.

The volunteers, including nuns and members of the Swiss Guard, were led by Konrad Krajewski, the Polish archbishop known as the papal almoner, who is responsible for the pope's charitable work.

The pope was given a birthday cake at his weekly audience in St Peter's Square and met eight homeless people among the pilgrims he greeted at the end of his public appearance. Four homeless people then joined him at the Vatican for lunch.

Francis has made concern for the poor around the world one of the defining features of his papacy.

Last month the pontiff announced that he would have showers for the homeless built in St Peter's Square, in a refurbishment of the public toilets by St Peter's Basilica.

The decision came as a result of conversations between a Kajewski and a homeless man called Franco. It follows the instalment of similar showers across ten parishes in Rome, decreed by Krajewski.

In November the Vatican also advertised a raffle to raise money for the poor, including items in the raffle that the pope had received as gifts.