Pope Francis returned to his father’s birthplace in northern Italy on Saturday for the first time since ascending the papacy. He also celebrated the 90th birthday of a second cousin.
The two-day visit to Francis’ ancestral homeland to renew family ties touched on keystones of his papacy: honouring the elderly and the human toll of migration.
The Pope made a private visit on Saturday followed by public one Sunday to celebrate Mass.
Pope’s father hails from Portacomaro
The pope’s father, Mario Jose Francisco Bergoglio was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Asti. Alongside his parents, he arrived in Buenos Aires on Jan. 25, 1929. He met and married Regina Maria Sivori, whose family was also of Italian immigrant stock, hailing from the Liguria region. The future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born nearly eight years later in Buenos Aires.
Francis grew up speaking the Piedmont dialect of his paternal grandmother Rosa, who cared for him most days.
Portacomaro is an agricultural town that lost a percentage of its population not only to emigration but also to nearby Turin as it grew into an industrial centre. Today, the town has 2,000 residents, but it numbered more than 2,700 a century ago.
Italian diaspora of the 19th century
The pope’s family emigrated after the peak of Italian migration, which saw 14 million Italians leave from 1876 to 1915. It was the largest voluntary diaspora in the world.
Pope Francis has made the welcoming and integration of migrants a hallmark of his papacy. Often citing his own family story, Francis, now 85, often criticises Europe with the debate over how to manage mass migration.
The pope recognised the historic significance of the emigrant experience with the recent canonisations of St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini and Artemide Zatti. Scalabrini was an Italian bishop who founded an order to help Italian emigrants at the end of the 19th century. Zatti, an Italian who emigrated to Argentina in the same period, dedicated his work to helping the sick.
At the time of the canonisation, Pope Francis denounced Europe’s indifference toward migrants risking their lives for what they hope will be better futures.