:In a down-to-earth and deeply intimate portrait of Pope Francis, children's advocate Mark K. Shriver embarks upon a personal quest to understand the Pope's humble origins as a Jesuit priest in Argentina and his emergence as a transformative world leader-an...
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:In a down-to-earth and deeply intimate portrait of Pope Francis, children's advocate Mark K. Shriver embarks upon a personal quest to understand the Pope's humble origins as a Jesuit priest in Argentina and his emergence as a transformative world leader-an extraordinary figure who has renewed the author's own faith in the Catholic Church.
Many of us who have an interest in our families’ immigrant pasts have visited the port or the town where our forebears arrived, lived, worked, and struggled. We try to imagine the day of their arrival, the weather, the smell, the crowds, the anxiety. I have wandered the streets of Boston looking at the same sights my Irish maternal relatives must have seen; I have wondered what they must have felt when they read signs that said irish need not apply.
I have also walked through the rambling homestead of my German-­Irish paternal forebears, a place nested in the rolling hills of Union Mills, Maryland, alongside a rushing creek that powered a gristmill employing generations of Shrivers. I wondered how they came to such a site, and how they survived the Battle of Gettysburg just a few miles up the road—­how Shrivers fought on both sides of that bloody conflict yet somehow remained a united family for generations to come.
Argentina has a great deal in common with the United States of America in this way—­millions upon millions of Europeans made the long, stormy voyage there in search of a better life. In the case of Pope Francis, his paternal grandparents, Rosa and Giovanni, came accompanied by their only child, Mario.
Like most families whose ancestors immigrated to the country where we live now, the Bergoglio family has its myths and amazing stories. Indeed, the Bergoglios almost didn’t live to see Argentina. The family had purchased steerage tickets on a ship, the Principessa Mafalda, which sank off the coast of Brazil, killing three hundred fourteen people. They exchanged those tickets only because there was a delay in selling their coffee shop in Turin, Italy.
The ship on which they did embark, the Giulio Cesare, docked in Buenos Aires on January 25, 1929, in the thick of the South American summer. Rosa and her family disembarked alongside hundreds of other Italians seeking a better life in America, albeit not the North America of Ellis Island fame. The heat and humidity did not daunt this mythic grandmother, however, and she kept her fox-­fur coat tightly wrapped about her ample flesh while she waited in line. The family’s entire net worth, generated from the sale of the coffee shop, was stitched into the lining of that winter coat.
Rosa was born into a peasant family in Val Bormida in northern Italy in 1884. On August 20, 1907, she married Giovanni, and they settled in Asti, in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. Their son, Mario, was born in 1908. Giovanni fought in World War I before they moved to Turin in 1920, where they ran the coffee shop that helped put Mario through school so he could become an accountant at the Bank of Italy.
During the 1920s, Rosa protested against Benito Mussolini as a member of Acción Católica, or Catholic Action. In a letter written while he was in exile in Córdoba in 1990, Bergoglio wrote that his grandmother “would give talks everywhere.” He also recalled that his “grandmother said things that did not sit well with the politics of her time. Once they closed the hall where she was to give her talk so she gave it in the street standing on a table.”
With unrest at home, with Italy’s economy in ruins, and with Argentina’s economy booming—­and the very real feeling that another world war was fast approaching—­Rosa and Giovanni traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with Mario.
Despite its distance from home, Rosa must have found Argentina familiar, for it was swarming with Italian immigrants. The economy was based on the export of raw materials, agricultural products, wool, and, of course, beef, and Jorge’s grandparents had come not out of desperation, the way many Irish and Italians came to America, but rather to get in on the boom. Giovanni already had three brothers living in Paraná, where they had set up a successful paving company, so the family headed there immediately.
Another reason it must have felt familiar was the strong presence of an order of Catholic priests called the Salesians of Don Bosco. Saint John Bosco, often referred to as Don Bosco, was born in the Piedmont region in 1815. Fr. Joseph Boenzi, a Salesian of Don Bosco and professor of theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, told me:
Don Bosco chose Francis de Sales—­a late sixteenth / early seventeenth century saint known for patience and gentleness—­as a model for his work among the poorest and most marginalized immigrant young people who were otherwise neglected at best, and exploited at worst, in Turin during the middle of the 1800s. The Salesian Society, also called the Salesians of Don Bosco, continues his work in one hundred and thirty-­three countries. Argentina has a long Salesian tradition, as Don Bosco sent his spiritual sons and daughters there in 1875.
In that letter he wrote from Córdoba in 1990, Bergoglio recalled that his father had befriended many Salesian priests while he lived in Italy and was a “part of the ‘Salesian family.’ ” When Mario arrived in Paraná, he went to work for his uncles as the company accountant. According to Bergoglio, his dad “moved between Paraná, Santa Fe, and Buenos Aires. When he arrived in Buenos Aires he stayed with the Salesians on Solis Street, and it was while he was there that he met Father [Enrico] Pozzoli, who immediately became his confessor. He joined the group of young men that were close to Father Pozzoli and it was there that he met my mother’s brothers and, as a result, my mother.”
Mario met Regina Maria Sivori, an Argentine whose family was originally from Italy, at mass. They were married twelve months later, on December 12, 1935, and just twelve months after that, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born, on December 17, 1936. He was baptized eight days later, on December 25, 1936, by Pozzoli. Jorge was followed by a brother, Oscar, a sister, Marta, another brother, Alberto, and finally another sister, Maria Elena.
Bergoglio recalls being raised in such a devout Catholic family that not only did the family say the rosary before dinner, but they also had their priest as a frequent guest for meals. Pozzoli was not only responsible for introducing Mario and Regina but also played a critical role in the family’s financial, educational, and spiritual histories. Bergoglio called him “the spiritual father of the family.”
When Jorge’s great-­uncle, the president of the company in Paraná, died and the family lost everything, Pozzoli rescued them by introducing Jorge’s grandparents to “a person who loaned them two thousand pesos with which my grandparents bought a store in the Flores neighborhood and Dad—­who had been the [manager] of the Bank of Italy . . . and the accountant of the company—­had to go around with the basket doing the delivery for the store.”
Rosa was Jorge’s godmother as well as his grandmother. Almost every morning, Rosa picked up Jorge and took him around the corner to her home, where he stayed until late in the day. She took him to church and taught him to pray. As Bergoglio said in a 2012 radio interview, “She had a big influence on my faith. . . . She’d tell me stories about the saints. She left a deep spiritual imprint on me.”
The family also abided by the Church’s teachings on divorce and on other religions. Bergoglio told his longtime friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka in their book On Heaven and Earth, “If someone close to the family divorced or separated, they could not enter your house; and they believed all Protestants were going to hell.” Rosa, however, left a different and lasting impression on him. Bergoglio recalled that when he was a young boy, he saw two women from the Salvation Army and asked his beloved grandmother “if they were nuns, because they were wearing that little hat they used to wear. She responded to me, ‘No, they are Protestants, but they are good.’ That was the wisdom of the true religion. They were good women who did good things.”
Rosa gave young Jorge his formation in the Catholic faith, a particularly earthy version of it that stressed the value and solace of ritual. From saying the rosary to accompanying Jorge to mass, from reading to him about the lives of the saints to demonstrating open-­mindedness, she instilled in him not only a devotion to the healing, guiding rituals of the Catholic faith but also a commitment to compassion. Faith and ritual and compassion, in her view, were inseparable, and young Jorge soaked up that perspective.
When Jorge was ordained a priest on December 13, 1969, his two brothers and one of his sisters were present, as were his mother, Regina, and his first grade teacher. And his eighty-­five-­year-­old grandmother.
Rosa gave him a letter that she had written, in a mixture of Spanish and Piedmontese, in case she died before he was ordained, a letter that Francis keeps with him every day:
On this beautiful day in which you can hold in your consecrated hand Christ our Savior and on which a broad path for a deeper apostolate is opening up before you, I leave you this modest gift, which has very little material value but very great spiritual value.
The “modest gift” was more words, including this beautiful paragraph:
May my grandchildren, to whom I gave the best of my heart, have a long and happy life. But if one day pain, illness, or the loss of someone they love should afflict them, let them remember that one sigh before the Tabernacle, where the greatest and most venerable of the martyrs is kept, and one glance at Mary at the foot of the Cross, will cause a drop of balm to fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.
On January 18, 2015, Pope Francis spoke at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Speaking extemporaneously, he commented on the lack of female representation at the event: “And the small . . . the small representation of women. Too small! Women have much to say to us in today’s society. Sometimes we are too ‘machista’; we don’t make room for women. Women are able to see things differently than men. Women can ask questions that we men just don’t get. Pay attention.” Pointing to a young woman who had asked why children suffer, he said, “She today asked the one question that doesn’t have an answer. And she couldn’t say it in words. She had to say it with tears. So that, when the next pope comes to Manila, there should be more women.”
I have a hunch that Pope Francis had the image of his strong, sensitive grandmother in mind when he spoke those words.
Gender can influence one’s way of seeing, and I believe that in general, a woman’s perspective is more compassionate. I say “in general” because the disparate reactions of Rosa and Jorge’s mother, Regina, to his decision to enter the seminary illustrate the trouble with such stereotypes. Rosa understood Jorge’s faith even better than his own mother did, we know, for he also recalls to Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin in Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio that while his mother did not look favorably upon his decision to enter the seminary, Rosa, his first professor of the faith, gave him her wholehearted support. “When I told my grandmother, who had already known but pretended not to, she replied, ‘Well, if God has called you, blessed be!’ And immediately she added, ‘Please never forget that the doors to this house are always open, and no one will reproach you for anything if you decide to come back.’ ”
That kind of unconditional love, of limitless compassion, clearly had a profound impact on Jorge. How could it not have? To spend every day with such a devout woman, to hear her stories about the saints, to pray the rosary with her, to be fed and nurtured by her seems like a story from a different century.
Today, for too many of my generation, interactions with our grandparents consist of a long summer weekend or a four-­day Thanksgiving holiday or, if we are truly lucky, a couple of weeks a year. We hear their stories, we see their actions, we may even try to emulate them when we are together, but the time together is often too short and the impressions do not last long.
My paternal grandmother, Hilda, born in 1882, and my maternal grandmother, Rose, born in 1890, both went to daily mass and prayed the rosary daily as well. I clearly remember Grandma Rose taking her daily walk holding her rosary. Their devotion rubbed off on my mom and dad, both of whom went to daily mass and both of whom carried rosaries. And it rubbed off on me, too. A bit.
I remember asking Grandma Rose one day if she believed that the Shroud of Turin was really the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, as many thought it was. We were visiting her during Christmas break and I was lucky enough to accompany her on her afternoon stroll. We were walking down the street, slowly but surely; I was holding her left hand, and in her right hand was her ever-­present rosary. She took a few steps and said, “If the Shroud of Turin encourages people to pray more, to believe in God more, then it is a good thing. Whatever brings people closer to God is good.”
Jorge was with his grandmother every day of his young life, and he clearly values that relationship even today. By the time I realized how much Grandma Rose could teach me, she had suffered a series of strokes and was unable to communicate.
Two thousand years after Jesus chose Saint Peter as the rock on which “I will build my church,” the two hundred sixty-­sixth successor to Peter is a man whose faith is built upon what he learned from an Italian-­born peasant, a woman who stood up against a dictator’s regime, who emigrated to a foreign land, whose family went broke and had to take a loan arranged by a priest, a woman who, despite it all, maintained a devout Catholic faith that nevertheless allowed her to see the goodness in people of other faiths in a very closed-­minded culture.
When Rosa died at the age of ninety, Jorge was at her bedside. The British writer Austen Ivereigh beautifully described the scene in his excellent biography, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope: