PORTACOMARO, Italy — Pope Francis took a rare personal getaway on Saturday, returning for the first time since his rise to the papacy to his father’s birthplace in northern Italy to celebrate the 90th birthday of a second cousin who had long known him only as a “Giorgio” knew.
Francis’ two-day visit to the homeland of his ancestors underscored some of the cornerstones of his papacy, including the importance of deference to the elderly and the human toll of migration. Saturday’s private visit will be followed by a public Sunday to celebrate Mass for the local faithful, where Francis had a good time to reflect 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 other relatives who had joined the end of a decades-long mass emigration from Italy that the Pope recently honored with two has 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 also came from Italian immigrants. Francis grew up speaking the Piedmontese dialect of his paternal grandmother Rosa, who looked after him most days.
The elder Bergoglio was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Asti, an agricultural town that was growing in population not only because of emigration abroad but also because of nearby Turin, which became an industrial center lost.
Today the city has 2,000 inhabitants, but a century ago there were more than 2,700 and in the 1980s only 1,680.
The pope’s family migrated after the peak, when 14 million Italians emigrated between 1876 and 1915 – a movement that made Italy the world’s largest voluntary diaspora, according to Lauren Braun-Strummels, an associate professor of history at Cedar Crest College in Allentown , Pennsylvania.
Francis, now 85, often cites his own family history and has made welcoming and integrating migrants a hallmark of his papacy, often criticized as Europe in general, and Italy in particular, engages in the debate about how to face the 21st century are mass migration.
The Pope underscored the historical significance of the émigré experience with the recent canonizations of St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, an Italian bishop who lived in Argentina in the late 19th century during the same period and dedicated his work to helping the sick.
He took the opportunity to once again denounce Europe’s indifference to migrants who are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean hoping for a better future.
Francis began his visit to Portacomaro on Saturday with lunch at the home of a cousin, Carla Rabezzana. Photos released by the Vatican showed Francis visibly amused, hugging Rabezzana and seated 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 guests.
“We’ve known each other forever,” Rabezzana told the Corriere della Sera newspaper before the visit. “When I was living in Turin, Giorgio – I always called him that – came to see me because I had an extra room. That’s how we nurtured our relationship.
“We always joked. When he told me he was coming to celebrate my 90th birthday I said it made my heart race. And in response I was told, ‘Try not to die.’ We burst out laughing.”
The Pope has many other third and fourth cousins in the area.
“It was a big family and there are still a lot of distant cousins in the area,” said Carlo Cerrato, former mayor of Portacomaro. He said it came as a “huge surprise” to everyone in the city when Francis was almost elected pope a decade ago.
“Everyone knew there was a prelate who had become a cardinal of Buenos Aires, but it was something that the relatives knew, not everyone in the city,” Cerrato said.
After almost 10 years as pope, Francis has yet to return to his own birthplace in Argentina. He didn’t really explain his reasons for not attending. He recently confirmed that if he resigned as pope, he would not return to live in Buenos Aires but would remain in Rome.
Barry reported from Milan. Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.