Pope Francis returned to his father’s birthplace in northern Italy on Saturday for the first time since ascending the papacy to celebrate the 90th birthday of his second cousin.
The two-day visit to Francis’s ancestral homeland to renew family ties touched on keystones of his papacy, including the importance of honouring the elderly and the human toll of migration.
Francis’s private visit on Saturday will be followed by a public one on Sunday to celebrate Mass for the local faithful.
The pope’s father, Mario Jose Francisco Bergoglio, and his paternal grandparents arrived in Buenos Aires on January 25, 1929 to reach other relatives at the end of a mass decades-long emigration from Italy that the pope has honoured with two recent saints – Saint Giovanni Batista Scalabrini and Saint Artedime Zatti.
The future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born nearly eight years later in Buenos Aires, after his father married Regina Maria Sivori, whose family was also of Italian immigrant stock, hailing from the Liguria region.
The elder Bergoglio was born in the town of Portacomaro, 10 kilometres east of Asti, an agricultural town.
The pope has recognised the historic significance of the emigrant experience with the recent canonisations of St Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, an Italian bishop who founded an order to help Italian emigrants at the end of the 19th century, and Artemide Zatti, an Italian who emigrated to Argentina in the same period and dedicated his work to helping the sick.
He used the occasion to again denounce Europe’s indifference toward migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea and what they hope will be better futures.
Francis began his visit to Portacomaro on Saturday with lunch at the home of a cousin, Carla Rabezzana. Photographs released by the Vatican showed Francis hugging Rabezzana and sitting at the head of the table.
“We have known each other forever,” Ms Rabezzana told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “When I lived in Turin, Giorgio – I always called him that – came to stay because I had an extra room. That is how we maintained our relationship.”
After nearly 10 years as pope, Francis has yet to return to his own birthplace in Argentina.