Five years ago, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. The fruit of two synods, the text also reflects an important legacy for the pope: that bequeathed by his beloved grandmother, Rosa Bergoglio.
“A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future,” the Argentine pope wrote in his exhortation on the family.
While the text focuses on the love between spouses, the pontiff does not forget the elderly, dedicating four paragraphs to them. The elderly are so important to him that he speaks of them just after mentioning the place of children in the family. Grandparents are for him one of the pillars of the extended family.
The presence of the elderly has in fact nourished Jorge Bergoglio since his early childhood. “I was lucky enough to know my four grandparents. The wisdom of my elders helped me a lot; that’s why I revere them,” he told Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer (Picador Paper, 2015).
One of his grandmothers, Rosa Bergoglio, holds a particularly special place in his heart. She was “the only one who had a great influence on Jorge” during his childhood, summarizes his biographer.
From the age of one, the future pope spent much of his time with Rosa, who sometimes came to pick him up in the morning to look after him and his brother. While his own father—Mario—spoke only Spanish, his grandmother transmitted to him her love of Italy and helped him to embrace this identity that his parents seem to have holed away as they integrated in Argentina.
His grandmother’s stories
The stories that Rosa whispered to him, mixed with the wartime epics of his grandfather, left a deep impression on the future pope. This may explain why he insists on the need to pass stories on from one generation to the next. “Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country,” he wrote in his exhortation.
Thanks to Rosa, the pope still has a great love for Italian literature and in particular for Alessandro Manzoni, one of his favorite writers and the author of the masterpiece The Betrothed. Although he doesn’t quote Manzoni in his exhortation, it’s easy to think that this historical and romantic epic inspired some of the lines in Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family.
“You Italians, in your literature you have a masterpiece on betrothal, The Betrothed,” he spontaneously commented during a general audience on May 27, 2015. “Young people need to know about it and read it. It is a masterpiece that tells the story of an engaged couple who have endured great suffering; they travel a road filled with many struggles, until at last they arrive at marriage.”
Openness to others
Rosa was also the one who catechized the pontiff and helped guide him in his vocation to the priesthood. Less than 10 days after his election, he spontaneously commented: “I received the first Christian proclamation from a woman: my grandmother!” In addition to teaching him about the lives of the saints, educating him in the meaning of adoration, and teaching him to pray the Rosary, she was the first to show mercy to those who seemed to be off the beaten track. It’s a quality that marked little Jorge.
While his parents were rather strict, Rosa taught him to look beyond appearances and gave him a more nuanced vision of the world. No doubt these childhood memories and his grandmother’s open-minded attitude can shed light on the writing of certain passages in Amoris Laetitia.
The loving presence of Rosa Bergoglio continued to have an impact on the future pope until 1970, when she went to the Father. When she died, the future pope wrapped his arms around her until her last breath. His grandmother experienced at that moment “the most important moment of her life,” he would later say. His sister tells Austen Ivereigh that even today she still has before her eyes how the future Bishop of Rome, after that farewell, got up and left in peace.
Perhaps that memory of the last embrace with the most important woman in his life is reflected in the Holy Father’s frequent teaching on the evil of euthanasia. He insists on the need to accompany the elderly with dignity until death. “If we accept death, we can prepare ourselves for it. The way is to grow in our love for those who walk at our side, until that day when ‘death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Rev 21:4),” he concluded in a section devoted to mourning, a pivotal moment in his family life.