Pope Francis returns to his father’s northern Italian hometown Saturday for the first time since assuming the throne to celebrate the 90th birthday of a cousin who knew him simply as “Giorgio.”
Francis’ visit to the ancestral land is in line with messages from his papacy, such as honoring the elderly and being aware of the human cost of migration.
The visit on Saturday will be private, but there will be a public one on Sunday to celebrate mass for the local faithful, where he could reflect on his family’s experiences migrating to Argentina.
The pope’s father, Mario José Francisco Bergoglio, and his paternal grandparents arrived in Buenos Aires on January 25, 1929 to reach other relatives at the end of a massive emigration from Italy that the pope has honored with two recent saints: Saint Giovanni Batista Scalabrini and San Artedime Zatti.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Francis was called before he became pope, was born almost eight years later in Buenos Aires, after his father met and married Regina Maria Sivori, whose mother was also of Italian descent, from the Liguria region.
Francisco grew up speaking the Piemonte dialect of his paternal grandmother Rosa, who took care of him most days.
Bergoglio Sr. was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Asti, an agricultural town that lost population not only to foreign emigration but also to nearby Turin as it became an industrial center.
Today, the town has 2,000 inhabitants but it had more than 2,700 a century ago and reached 1,680 in the eighties.
The pope’s family emigrated after the peak of emigration when 14 million Italians left the country between 1876 and 1915 — a move that made Italy the world’s largest voluntary diaspora, according to Lauren Braun-Strumfels, a professor of history at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Francisco, who often talks about his own family history, has been known for preaching love for migrants, sometimes being criticized at a time when Europe in general and Italy in particular are in the midst of an intense debate on how to deal with migration.
Francis began his visit to Portacomaro on Saturday by having lunch at the home of his cousin Carla Rabezzana. Photos released by the Vatican show the pope having a good time, hugging Rabezzana and sitting at the head of the table. He then visited another relative nearby, stopping at a nursing home to greet and bless those in attendance.
“We have known each other forever,” Rabezzana told Corriere della Sera prior to the visit. “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 kept in touch.”
“We were always joking. When he told me he was coming to celebrate my 90th birthday, I told him it made my heart beat, and he told me ‘don’t go to die’. We fell over laughing.”
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