Pope visits the immigrant father’s hometown for a birthday party

PORTACOMARO, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis returned to his father’s hometown in northern Italy for the first time since ascending to the papacy on Saturday to celebrate the 90th birthday of a second cousin who had long known him as just “Giorgio.”

The two-day visit to Francis’s ancestral homeland to renew family ties touched on the cornerstones of his papacy, including the importance of honoring the elderly and the human toll of migration. Francis’ private visit on Saturday will be followed by a public Sunday to celebrate Mass for the local faithful, where he will be able to reflect deeply on his family’s experience of migrating to Argentina.

The pope’s father, Mario Jose Francisco Bergoglio, and his paternal grandparents arrived in Buenos Aires on January 25, 1929, to reach out to other relatives at the end of a decades-long mass emigration from Italy that the pope has honored with two recent saints: St Giovanni Batista Scalabrini and St Artedime Zatti.

The future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born in Buenos Aires almost eight years later, after the elder Bergoglio met and married Regina Maria Sivori, whose family was also of Italian immigrant descent, originating from the Liguria region. Francis grew up with the Piedmontese dialect of his paternal grandmother, Rosa, who took care of him most days.

The elder Bergoglio was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometers (6 mi) east of Asti, an agricultural town that lost inhabitants not only to emigration abroad, but also to nearby Turin as it became an industrial center.

Today the city has a population of 2,000, but a century ago it numbered more than 2,700 and in the 1980s it dropped to just 1,680.

The pope’s family emigrated after the peak, which saw 14 million Italians leave from 1876 to 1915 — a move that made Italy the largest voluntary diaspora in the world, according to Lauren Braun-Strumfels, an associate professor of history at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Francis, now 85, often quotes his own family story and has made welcoming and integrating migrants a hallmark of his papacy, often drawing criticism for Europe in general, and Italy in particular, being caught up in the debate on how to manage mass migration. .

The Pope has recognized the historical significance of the emigrant experience with the recent canonizations of St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, an Italian bishop who founded an order to help Italian emigrants in the late 19th century, and Artemide Zatti, an Italian who emigrated to Argentina in the same period and devoted his work to helping the sick.

He took the opportunity to once again denounce Europe’s indifference to migrants who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean for what they hope will be a better future.

Francis began his visit to Portacomaro on Saturday with lunch with a cousin, Carla Rabezzana. Photos released by the Vatican show Francis clearly enjoying himself, embracing Rabezzana and sitting at the head of the table.

“We’ve known each other for ages,” Rabezzana said in the run-up to the visit to Corriere della Sera newspaper. “When I lived in Turin, Giorgio – that’s what I always called him – came to stay because I had an extra room. That’s how we maintained our relationship.

“We were always joking. When he told me he was coming to celebrate my 90th birthday, I said my heart raced. And in response I was told, “Try not to die.” We burst out laughing.”

The Pope has many more third and fourth cousins ​​in the area.

“It was a big family, and there are many distant cousins ​​in the area,” said Carlo Cerrato, former mayor of Portacomoro. He said it came as a “big surprise” to everyone in the city when Francis was elected pope nearly a decade ago.

“Everyone knew there was a prelate who had become cardinal of Buenos Aires, but it was something that the relatives knew, not everyone in the city,” Cerrato said.

After nearly 10 years as pope, Francis has yet to return to his hometown in Argentina. He hasn’t really explained his reasons for staying away. He recently confirmed that if he resigned as pope, he would not go back to live in Buenos Aires, but would stay in Rome.


Barry reported from Milan.

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