Pope pays homage to northern Italian family roots with rare outing
On Saturday, he paid a private visit to relatives who still live in the area and celebrated the 90th birthday of his second cousin. On Sunday, he received honorary citizenship of Asti and celebrated mass in the city’s cathedral, where he assumed the role of a local priest tending to his flock.
“From those lands my father left as an immigrant to Argentina, and to those lands, made precious by the rich fruits of the soil and above all by the indigenous labor of their people, I have now returned to rediscover and savor my roots .,” he said at the start of his homily.
The Bishop of Asti, Marco Prastaro, told Francis he was always welcome at his home and recalled that when he was elected pontiff in 2013, Francis joked that his fellow cardinals went to ” ends of the earth” to find a new pope.
“Today we would like to think that Asti, the land of your family roots, is the beginning of the world,” Prastaro said as the pope laughed.
Francis has not returned home to his own birthplace in Buenos Aires since he acceded to the papacy nearly 10 years ago and he rarely talks about his family, siblings or childhood . The exception is his frequent reference to the important role that his paternal grandmother, Rosa, had in his education and in the transmission of his Catholic faith.
Francis used part of the Piedmontese dialect that Rosa taught him to thank the people of Asti for welcoming him and urged young people in particular not to “stand still thinking about ourselves, wasting our lives and to run after comfort or the latest fashions, but to aim for heights, to get moving, to leave behind our own fears to take someone in need by the hand.
Francis’ grandmother Rosa Vassallo and the Pope’s grandfather ran a cafe in Turin and left Italy to join family members who had settled in Argentina, as part of the mass migration of ‘Italians to the Americas at the Beginning of the Last Century. They and their only son, the pope’s father, Mario Jose Francisco Bergoglio, arrived in Buenos Aires in early 1929.
Once there, Mario Bergoglio met another descendant of Italian immigrants, Regina Maria Sivori, whom he married in 1935. A year later, the first of their five children was born: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope.
The Bergoglio family originally planned to leave Italy at the end of 1927 on the liner Principessa Mafalda, but their departure was delayed as they sold their house and the cafe in Turin. Eventually, the Mafalda sank off Bahia, Brazil on October 25, 1927, killing at least 300 of her more than 1,000 passengers and crew. The Bergoglios set sail the following year, on the liner Giulio Cesare, and always “thanked divine providence” for not setting sail on the Mafalda, wrote the future pope in 1990.
According to family legend, Grandmother Rosa came down from the Giulio Cesare in Buenos Aires wearing a long fox-trimmed coat, even though it was the height of summer in the southern hemisphere. In his biography of the pontiff “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” historian Paul Vallely explained, “Sewn into his lining was the entire proceeds from the sale of the family house and cafe in Piedmont.”
Winfield reported from Rome.