Pope Francis Family Story


Recently I signed up for a trial membership on one of those genealogy web sites whose commercials clog TV broadcasts these days, and I have to admit I’ve found exploring my family’s past captivating.

Among other things, I discovered that a distant ancestor on my mother’s side was born in the same small French town, in the same year, as famed philosopher René Descartes. Though Descartes moved away when he was just 10, I still like to envision my forerunner mixing it up with him in a brainy schoolyard brawl, defending the Church’s Thomism against Cartesian dualism.

I also learned that my wife is a blend of Russian, Welsh, Bavarian, Prussian, and English ancestry. After 22 years of marriage, I have to say that explains a lot.

Overall, the experience has offered a powerful reminder that where we come from influences how we see ourselves and the world. That’s true of most everyone, and it’s definitely the case with Pope Francis.

Since his election, Francis has made solidarity with the poor and the defense of immigrants his towering priorities. While any pope would embrace those positions, since they loom large in Catholic social teaching, Francis seems to feel a special biographical tug.

He rarely misses an opportunity to press the case. On Thursday, for instance, Francis gave a brief talk to European Catholic and Protestant leaders largely devoted to Christian unity and religious freedom.

Before finishing, however, Francis couldn’t resist a plug for immigrants.

Facing “the dramatic and often tragic migration of thousands of persons fleeing war, persecution, and misery,” the pope said, the churches of Europe “have the duty to collaborate to promote solidarity and welcome.”

It’s a conviction with clear personal roots. For those unfamiliar with the story of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who is now Pope Francis, here’s a thumbnail sketch.

It begins in the 1920s, in the northern Italian region of the Piedmont. Fallout from the First World War had left Italy bankrupt and in chaos, paving the way for the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement.

Facing that alarming prospect, scores of Italians decided to pull up roots. Argentina was a destination of choice, in part because in the 1920s it had a higher standard of living than virtually any country in Europe.

Two of the future pope’s great-uncles set off for Argentina, founding a prosperous paving company in a port area about an hour outside the capital city of Buenos Aires. Giovanni Angelo Bergoglio, Francis’ grandfather, made the decision to join his brothers in 1927, setting sail for the New World with his wife, Rosa Margarita Vasallo di Bergoglio, and their six children.

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