LARGO, Fla. — When he's donated to the Peter's Pence collection in the past, Fred Kunder knew it was for the Holy Father, but he thought his money benefited the Vatican.

“To pay for the upkeep of all the museums and artwork,” said Kunder, a parishioner at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Largo, Fla.

He's half correct. The collection is for the Pope — but it helps him provide aid to the most disadvantaged people throughout the world.

Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., likened the collection to a familiar Church appeal.

“Peter's Pence is sort of like the Catholic Charities appeal that most dioceses have for the outreach ministries of the local Church,” said Archbishop Vlazny, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Economic Concerns of the Holy See, which oversees the Peter's Pence collection in the United States.

“This is for the outreach ministries of the Holy Father,” he said. “He has, as you can imagine, many people that appeal to him for help, especially in Third World countries. This is the money that is provided to him from countries that are more affluent to help him in the name of the Church.”

For instance, the Pope gives the money to bishops whose parishioners live in war-torn areas or who have been through natural disasters, he said.

“It's an important way for us to express our solidarity with the Holy Father in his ministry as the chief shepherd of the Catholic community,” Archbishop Vlazny said. “What's nice about this is when we give these moneys to people, we aren't asking them what church they belong to or if they go to church. We're seeing the face of Christ in the poor, and that's what it's all about.”

Donations to the collection increased to $53 million in 2002, a 2% improvement from the previous year, said Bruce Egnew, an associate general secretary at the bishops’ conference. The figures for 2003 have not been released yet.

Pope John Paul II has been “so present to so many parts of the world by his traveling that it's fully consistent that he would be as present in the charitable acts,” Egnew said.

The collection can be traced back to the ninth century when the King of England collected a penny each from English landowners to financially support the pope. In 1871, Pope Pius IX formally began the collection, which is held every year on the Sunday closest to the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which occurs June 29. This year the collection will take place the weekend of June 26-27.

One result of the collection was the construction of the Don Orione center in Rome's Monte Mario, which houses disabled pilgrims free of charge. The Pope wanted to help the handicapped visiting Rome have a place to stay, said Bishop Ramon Castro, who was in charge of the collection for three years until he was recently named auxiliary bishop of Yucatan, Mexico.

Bishop Castro said he didn't encourage publicity about the collection when he worked at the Vatican.

“The Holy Father doesn't like to ask for money,” Bishop Castro said. Instead, the Pope preferred that “Providence” provide, he said.

Bishop Castro said approximately 50% of all the donations from around the world come from the United States, while the next biggest contributors are from Italy and Germany.

Despite the United States leading the way in donations, Egnew acknowledged that the Church here also doesn't promote the collection well.

“If you provide people with the information and education, they can't help but respond because the needs of these kinds of things are so great,” Egnew said.

Egnew added that the accountability for this collection is different than all the other second collections in this country. He said the donated money doesn't go through the bishops’ conference — which is why it doesn't offer audited statements about it — but through the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C.

“It goes directly from the local diocese to Holy Father with no ‘federal’ middle man,” Egnew said.

Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the apostolic nuncio, did not return phone calls for comment.

Egnew said the collection operates differently than the other overseas collections, which operate more in partnership with Catholic agencies, such as Catholic Relief Services, and governments. Decisions about where the funds from those collections end up are made in the United States instead of by the Holy See, he said.

“But there are some things that the Holy See is uniquely able to see as needs around the world that these other agencies might not be able to see,” Egnew said. “They have to work in the parameters that the Holy Father doesn't.”

Now that he knows his donations go to help the poor and disadvantaged around the world instead of supporting the Vatican's treasures, Kunder, the parishioner from Largo, Fla., said he would give more money this year.

“I feel responsible for them [the poor], as all Catholics should,” Kunder said.

He added that he believes the Holy Father will dole out the money wisely.

“I trust this Pope,” he said. “I believe he's a man of integrity.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.