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Why It Matters Pope Francis is the Son of Immigrants

The Popes Ladies AP Photo The Bergoglio Family

© AP Photo/The Bergoglio Family

John Paul Shimek - published on 04/14/14

Are we guilty of taking part in the culture of indifference?

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known today as Pope Francis, is the son of immigrants.

Although he does not speak perfect English, he is fluent in the “language of [his ancestors’] memories.” At home, he maintains the familial traditions: his sister claims he makes the bestcotolette alla milanese, which he learned from his mother; he relishes rounds of his father’s favorite pastime, a card game called briscola; and, he can recite verses from Giovanni Costa (1826-1903) in Piedmontese. In particular, he is fond of that painter’s poem “Rassa nostrana,” which he learned perched upon the laps of his grandparents. Part of it reads:

Drit et sincer, cosa ch’a sun, a smijo:
teste quadre, puls ferme e fidic san
a parlo poc ma a san cosa ch’a diso

bele ch’a marcio adasi, a va luntan.

(Straight and sincere, what they are is what they seem:

obstinate, with firm pulse and healthy liver.

They say little but know what they are saying;

although they walk slowly, they travel far.)

That poem epitomizes the portrait of the immigrant: proud, hard-working, purposeful, and determined. But, if the “language of [Jorge’s ancestors’] memories” expresses itself through cultural observances and an ethic of hard work, it is the tradition of faith that forms that language’s innermost grammar.

His grandparents taught him that grammar of faith as a child, instructing him in the catechism and the creed. Years later, but not before living a romance rivaling the imagination of Manzoni, it would move him to become a priest. Now, among his few personal artifacts, such as his well-worn edition of the Church’s Divine Office, he preserves his beloved poem alongside his grandmother’s hand-written testament of faith.

In that testament, Rosa Margherita Vasallo told her grandchildren that,

“If someday sorrow, sickness, or the loss of a beloved person should fill [them, “to whom {she} gave the best of {her} heart”] with distress, let them remember that a sigh directed toward the tabernacle, where the greatest and noblest martyr is, and a look at Mary at the foot of the Cross, can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.”

Rosa’s grandson staked his life on that testament. Decades after those words were written, and even after Blessed Pope John Paul II named him the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires and the Primate of Argentina in the winter of 2001, he continued to remain close to those in the shadow of the Cross.

He declined to live at the cardinal’s mansion, taking up a simple arrangement in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires instead, residing alongside the poorest of the poor. During the winter months, he would use his kitchenette’s stove to heat his small apartment. In lieu of a chauffeur-driven limousine, he would travel on mass transit, taking on the smell of his sheep. Oftentimes, he would duck into a church as he traveled between home and office, seeking spiritual sustenance there.

Before Jesus in the tabernacle, he would sense a connection with his past, his present, and his future – with the faith of his ancestors and the hope of his pilgrim people on sojourn in Argentina, "the blessed land of bread." And, he would remember the faith of his grandmother and mother, in particular.

Although the descendant of Italians, he would be known among the people of Buenos Aires as “Padre Jorge.” But, on the evening of March 13, 2013, he would introduce himself to the world as Papa Francesco – Pope Francis.

After his canonical election inside Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and while the teeming throngs of pilgrims waited to greet him in St. Peter’s Square below, a close collaborator of the new pope urged him, “Do not forget the poor.” The following morning, he would go on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in order to entrust his new flock to the
Salus Populi Romani. There, he would invoke the maternal care of the Protectress of the Roman People.

Like the words of Costa’s poem, the pope would travel far, becoming the first Latin American — a man chosen from “the ends of the earth” — to pilot the barque of Peter. But, he would never forget his immigrant origins.

A short time after his election to the Chair of St. Peter, the pope paid an apostolic visit to the Italian Pelagie Islands. That visit marked his first papal trip outside of Rome. In particular, he chose to stop at Lampedusa. At the beginning of his pontificate, he wanted to go on pilgrimage to the peripheries of Europe in order to draw near – once more – to the shadow of the Cross.

Although the island is a part of the Sicilian province of Agrigento, it borders the African continent – located no more than 70 miles from the shores of Tunisia. It is an important point of access to the European Union.

The name Lampedusa means ‘light’ (Gk. ‘λαμπάς’ or ‘lampás’) and ‘rock’ (Gk. λέπας or ‘lépas’) and it has been both a portal into and a barrier to hope. Last autumn, almost 200 souls shipwrecked off its shores aboard a small boat, joining uncountable others who perished there before reaching the coastland. Others have survived the treacherous waters, arriving at ports of call on the mainland only to be turned away. In 2013 alone, some 30,000 people sought to enter the European Union from areas like Lampedusa.

During the apostolic visit, the pope rode a small boat out to sea and laid a wreath in the water, honoring all those drowned at the “isle of tears” amid sunken hopes and the rising waters of despair. It was a simple and quiet act that sent a powerful message throughout Europe, and indeed around the world.

In that place of profound and moving memories, which have been etched in the consciences of Italian immigrants, Padre Jorge – Papa Francesco – sought to challenge a culture of indifference. As Boston’s Cardinal Séan O’Malley, a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers explained, Pope Francis wanted to warn "of the globalization of indifference … speaking at the borders of Europe."

There, on that island of tears – at that vaulted gateway to hope, he wanted to awaken consciences and to shine a bright light on the immigrant experience. In the Italian of his immigrant grandparents and parents, he urged the citizens of the developed world to go outside themselves. In the humble words of a pilgrim from the villas miserias, he said:

“We have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the Priest and Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road and perhaps we say to ourselves: “Poor soul” and then go our way. It is not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people living in a soap bubble, indifference to others.”

Those participating in the event and others watching it around the globe, could not remain unmoved. Can we?

John Paul Shimekis a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church. Readers can find him on Facebook (John Paul Shimek) and Twitter (@pilgrimjournal). He maintains a blog entitled John Paul Shimek, The Pilgrim Journalist. And, he can be contacted at

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