Pope Francis today travelled to Asti in the northern Italian region of Piedmont to visit with relatives over the weekend. The visit was occasioned by the 90th birthday of a second cousin, Carla Rabezzana, who welcomed the Pope as family members began a strictly private reunion. Tomorrow the Holy Father will celebrate Mass in Asti’s cathedral.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936. His father, Mario Jose Bergoglio – whose story you will read below – was an accountant in Portacomaro, northern Italy, who emigrated to Argentina in 1929. There he met the Pope’s mother, Regina Sivori, who was born in Buenos Aires to a family also of northern Italian origin.

One of the first books I read after the 2013 election of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy was, “The Pope Who Loves Soccer” by Michael Part.   It was sent to me by Sole Books who have given me permission to reprint part of Chapter Two, “Two Continents.”

Read on and you will see how a ticket booking agent error saved a family, and a future pope…..

Mario Bergoglio, the cardinal’s father, just 21 years old in 1927, bounced in the seat of his horse-drawn cart as he approached the shipping port in the Italian city of Genoa. When he reached the docks, he pulled the rains hard. “Ferma,” he shouted at the old horse and it happily came to an abrupt stop. It had been an all-day trip from his hilly commune in Portacomaro, 100 kilometers north.

Mario jumped down out of the cart. He hurried over to the Italian General Navigation shipping company building near the dock, yanked the hat off his head and went inside.

Mario sat across from a booking agent who looked at him as if he were from Mars. Something did not feel right. The agent checked his papers. Looked at him again. Mario shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m afraid all staterooms are booked for the Principessa Mafalda,” the booking agent finally said.

”But my family made reservation months ago,” Mario argued, reaching into an inside pocket in his jacket and pulling out a folded piece of paper; unfolding it, he shoved it across the desk at the booking agent.

The booking agent picked up the piece of paper dispassionately, glanced at it quickly, and then shoved it back at Mario. “The rate for these passages, I see here, is too low,” he said, poking it with his finger. “Someone made a mistake. That cabin has been booked at a much higher rate. Next…, ” the booking agent said, craning his head around Mario to look at the family standing in line behind them, letting them know it was their turn.

“Well, is there anything available in another class?” Mario asked, refusing to badge from his seat.

“I told you the Principessa Mafalda is sold out. In all classes, “he said. “Next!”

Mario was depressed. He had dreamt of the day they would leave their village and travel to the New World. There, in Buenos Aires, his uncles were doing great. Here in Italy, things had turned ugly. It was hard for the Bergoglios to make ends meet. He could not see any future in the village of Portacomaro. And he could not see himself living under the fascist dictator, Mussolini, who ruled with an iron fist. He could not wait to get out.

But now, all his dreams were shattered.

Two weeks later, Mario Jose Bergoglio raced into the family home in Portacomaro. His parents, Rosa and Giovanni, were setting the supper table. Mario slapped the newspaper down on the table for all to see. The headline was one of the biggest they had ever seen and the size of the type was usually reserved exclusively for the ends of wars and assassinations. But this time, it was for a shipwreck:


Rosa drifted into Giovanni’s arms as all three of them stared at the newspaper headline on the table. No one said anything for a long time. Finally, Rosa said, “It is a miracle. “

Giovanni looked at his son and said, “Mama is right. “

It took the Bergoglio family two more years before they could leave Italy and immigrate to Argentina. They arrived in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, in February 1929. Rosa Bergoglio, who despite the heat, was dressed elegantly in a long coat with a fur collar, was the first of her family off the ship, the Giulio Cesare. She was followed by her husband, Giovanni, and their son Mario. A porter felt sorry for Rosa and stepped up to her to help her with her bags. “Ma’am, would you also like me to get your coat?” he asked, reaching for it. She pulled away from him. “No, Señor, thank you. I am fine, “she said in perfect Spanish, The porter shrugged, picked up her bags and starting to carry them away. The Bergoglios followed the porters to a car that was waiting for them to take them home.

They marvelled at their four-story family house, planted on the bustling street. Rosa hesitantly stepped into the elevator car at her son’s urging, but had no idea what to do once she got in. She had never seen an elevator, let alone been in one. Until now.

“Whew,” she said as she got off the elevator on the fourth floor. She immediately threw off her heavy coat and then did an odd thing. Instead of hanging it up, she spread it out on the kitchen table. Mario and Giovanni and his brothers brought in all the luggage and stacked it in the living room, paying her no mind.

Rosa grabbed a butcher knife from the knife block on the counter, and without hesitation, cut open the seam in the silk lining of the coat. Then she picked up the coat and shook it. As if by magic, thousands of Lira notes spilled out on the kitchen table. When she finished shaking the coat, she carelessly tossed it aside. “I thought I was going to die when I got off that ship,” she said, giggling. “It was so hot!”

Giovanni and his three brothers and Mario all shared the laugh.

With gratitude to Sole Books –

And this from Vatican news: The Pope in Asti, a visit between memory and the future – Vatican News