Pope honors family roots in northern Italy in rare outing

ASTI, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis honored his northern Italian roots Sunday, celebrating a special Mass in his father’s birthplace and encouraging younger generations not to be indifferent to the poverty and misery all around them.

Thousands turned out to greet Francis during his rare personal getaway over the weekend in the province of Asti, near Turin, and he returned the favor by taking a long papal-mobile ride around town.

On Saturday he paid a private visit to relatives who still live in the area and celebrated his second cousin’s 90th birthday. On Sunday, he was given the honorary citizenship of Asti and celebrated Mass in the city’s cathedral, where he assumed the role of a local parish priest ministering to his flock.

“From these lands, my father started as an immigrant to Argentina, and to these lands, made precious by the rich fruits of the soil and above all by the innate industriousness of their people, I have now returned to rediscover and to enjoy my roots, “he said at the beginning of his speech.

Asti Bishop Marco Prastaro told Francis he is always welcome back home and recalled that when he was elected pontiff in 2013, Francis joked that his fellow cardinals had gone to the “ends of the Earth” to find a new pope.

“Today we would like to believe that Asti, the land of your family roots, is the beginning of the world,” Prastaro said as the pope smiled.

Francis has not returned home to his native Buenos Aires since assuming the papacy nearly 10 years ago and rarely talks about his family, siblings or childhood. An exception is his frequent reference to the important role his paternal grandmother, Rosa, had in his upbringing and in passing on her Catholic faith.

Francis used some of the Piedmontese dialect that Rosa had taught him to thank the people of Asti for welcoming him and urged the young in particular not to “stay still thinking about ourselves, wasting our lives and chasing comfort or the latest fads, but aim for the heights, move, leaving behind our own fears of taking someone in need by the hand.’

Francis’ grandmother Rosa Vassalo and the pope’s grandfather ran a cafe in Turin and left Italy to join family members who had settled in Argentina, part of the mass migration of Italians to America at the turn of the last century. Together with their only son, the pope’s father, Mario José Francisco Bergoglio, they 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 had originally planned to sail from Italy in late 1927 on the ocean liner Principessa Mafalda, but their departure was delayed as they sold their home and Turin cafe. In the end, the Mafalda sank off Bahia, Brazil, on October 25, 1927, killing at least 300 of its more than 1,000 passengers and crew. The Bergoglios set sail the following year, on the ship Giulio Cesare, and always “thanked divine providence” that they were not left in Mafalda, the future pope wrote in 1990.

According to family legend, Grandma Rosa walked out of Giulio Cesare in Buenos Aires wearing a full-length coat decorated with a fox, 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 were all the proceeds from the sale of the family’s house and cafe back in Piedmont.”


Winfield reported from Rome.

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