Making his way to the podium in front of the Basilica before his weekly general audience, Francis asked his driver to stop to allow the kids – who come from Syria, Nigeria and Congo – to jump into the backseat.

As they zoomed around St Peter’s Square, the children waved and gave a thumbs up before bidding Francis goodbye with hugs and a selfie.

Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the Holy See Press Office, told journalists that some of the kids had arrived in Italy from Libya through a “humanitarian corridor” on April 29, while the others arrived on a migrant boat a few months ago.

Gisotti added that they are currently hosted and cared for, together with their families, by a humanitarian organisation on the outskirts of Rome.

The children were all wearing t-shirts that said “Welcome, protect, promote and integrate”, the motto coined by Pope Francis in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

Francis has clashed with Italy’s populist coalition government about the need to welcome and integrate migrants, and his latest gesture followed rising tensions with right-wing politicians ahead of European Parliament elections May 26.

Another recent row unfolded when the pontiff’s top charity aide climbed into a manhole at the weekend to restore electricity to a building housing 450 squatters after the power company pulled the plug over unpaid bills.

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, slammed Cardinal Konrad Krajewski’s move, saying that if the Vatican was so concerned about the people living in the squat, then it should settle the unpaid bills.

In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Krajewski said he had no regrets about intervening.

“I don’t want it to become a political row,” he said.

“I’m an alms-giver and my job is to help the poor.

“Those families and children at last have light and hot water again.

“From now on, I'll pay the bills.”