By Colleen Barry and Gianfranco Stara | Associated Press
PORTACOMARO, Italy — Pope Francis made a rare personal getaway on Saturday, returning to his father’s birthplace in northern Italy for the first time since assuming the papacy to celebrate the 90th birthday of a second cousin who had long known him simply as “Giorgio.”
Francis’ two-day visit to his ancestral homeland highlighted some of the pillars of his pontificate, including the importance of honoring the elderly and the human toll of migration. The Saturday private visit will be followed by a public one Sunday, during which Mass will be celebrated. for the local faithful, during which Francis will be able to reflect on his family’s experiences 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 who had joined the end of decades of mass emigration from Italy, which the pope honored with two recent saints: St. . John Batista Scalabrini and St. Artedime Zatti.
The future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born almost eight years later in Buenos Aires, after the elder Bergoglio met and married Regina Maria Sivori, whose family was also of Italian immigrant descent. Francis grew up speaking the Piedmontese dialect of his paternal grandmother Rosa, who took care of him most days.
Elder Bergoglio was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Asti, a farming town that had lost population not only to emigration abroad but also to nearby Turin, which had become an industrial center.
Today the city has 2,000 inhabitants, but a century ago it had over 2,700, and in the 1980s it fell to 1,680.
The pope’s family emigrated after a peak in which 14 million Italians left between 1876 and 1915 – a move that made Italy the largest voluntary diaspora in the world, according to Lauren Braun-Strumfels, a professor of history at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Often citing his own family history, the 85-year-old Francis has made the reception and integration of migrants a hallmark of his pontificate, often drawing criticism as Europe in general and Italy in particular are caught up in the debate on how to manage 21st century mass migration.
The Pope recognized the historic significance of the emigration experience through the recent canonizations of St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, an Italian bishop who founded an order to help Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, and Artemide Zatti, an Italian who emigrated to Argentina around the same time and dedicated his work to helping the sick.
He used this opportunity to reiterate Europe’s indifference to the migrants who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean and their hope for a better future.
Francis began his visit to Portacomaro on Saturday with lunch at the home of his cousin Carla Rabezzana. Pictures released by the Vatican show Francis clearly enjoying himself, hugging Rabezzana and sitting at the head of the table. He later visited another cousin nearby, stopping at a nursing home along the way to greet and bless the visitors.
“We’ve known each other forever,” Rabezzana told the Corriere della Sera newspaper before the visit. “When I lived in Turin, Giorgio – I always called him that – came to me because I had an extra room. This is 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 beat faster. 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 still many distant cousins in the area,” said Carlo Cerrato, former mayor of Portacomaro. He said the election of Francis as pope almost a decade ago was a “big surprise” for everyone in the city.
“Everyone knew there was a prelate who became Cardinal of Buenos Aires, but it was something that relatives knew, not everyone in the city,” Cerrato said.
After nearly 10 years as pope, Francis has yet to return to his birthplace in Argentina. He didn’t really explain why he stayed away. He recently confirmed that if he resigned as pope, he would not return to Buenos Aires to live, but would remain in Rome.
Barry reported from Milan. Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.
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