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Pope Francis' First Guide To Catholicism? Grandma Rosa

Francis cited his Italian grandmother in his Palm Sunday homily. It's hardly the first time he has referred to Nonna Rosa's guiding wisdom, and one more sign of the Pope's humble ways.

Bergoglio family portrait with young Jorge standing behind his "nonna" Rosa
Bergoglio family portrait with young Jorge standing behind his "nonna" Rosa
Andrea Tornielli

ROME - This time it was la nonna.

Pope Francis has surprised the faithful with his simple, humble approach to the papacy and unlikely references from such a high office. Now, during his Palm Sunday homily, the Italo-Argentine pontiff has even turned to his Italian grandmother.

“My grandma always said to us kids: "the shroud has no pockets!” It was a way of saying that whatever we accumulate can’t come with us on our final journey. Needless to say, it is quite unusual in a homily for a Palm Sunday papal mass in St. Peter’s Square that anyone’s grandmother is quoted.

Francis was referring to his father’s mother, Rosa Margherita Vasallo, who was born in 1884 in Valbormida, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and moved to the city of Turin when she married Giovanni Bergoglio.

In January 1929, the Bergoglio family left for Buenos Aires, joining so many other Italian families who emigrated to Argentina. Signora Rosa, despite the fact that January meant high summer in the southern hemisphere, arrived wearing her fox-collared coat -- stashed in the lining was the money the family got from the sale of their home in Turin.

Little Jorge, born in December 1936, grew up spending time each day in his grandparents' house, where he learned a bit of the Piedmontese dialect and, above all, about the Christian faith. In a radio interview released last November from the parish of Barracas, one of the poorest slums in Buenos Aires, the future pope said: “It was my grandmother who taught me to pray. She taught me a lot about faith and told me stories about the saints."

A few years ago, in a televised appearance on the Catholic EWTN channel, Cardinal Bergoglio remembered: “Once, when I was in the seminary, my grandmother said to me: ‘Don’t ever forget that you’re about to become a priest, and the most important thing for a priest is to celebrate mass.’ She told me about a mother who advised her son - a holy priest - to celebrate mass, every single mass, as if it was your last.”

Old soul, new soles

In his book The Jesuit, Cardinal Bergoglio described how he kept tucked inside his breviary -- the two-volume prayer book that he brought everywhere with him -- a note from his Nonna Rosa. It’s a small testament to her grandchildren that reads: “May my grandchildren, to whom I have given the best of my heart, have a long and happy life. But if there are days of pain or illness, or if the loss of a loved one fills them with despair, may they remember that a whisper of a prayer and a look to Mary at the feet of the cross, can be like a drop of balsam on even the deepest and most painful wounds.”

In his first Angelus blessing as pontiff, on Sunday March 17, Pope Francis quoted another nonna. She wasn’t his own grandmother, but he addressed her as such because that is how elderly woman are addressed in Argentina. This nonna came to confess to him, as a bishop, and she had said: “If the Lord didn’t forgive everyone, the world wouldn’t exist!”

At the St. Peter's Square blessing, Bergoglio commented: “I wanted to ask her: tell me señora, have you studied at the Gregorian Pontifical University?”

We must get used to these kind of quotes from the faithful. These asides, which are effective as they are comprehensible to everyone, are sure to be a signature of his speeches and his homilies. It is part of what will characterize the style of a pope who will stay true to himself, even in the rules of life marked by sobriety.

Beyond memories of his grandmother, examples of his humility and plain style keep cropping up. This week, an Italian television show interviewed Virgina Bonar, one of his top aides from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. She had just sent him a pair of old, black shoes he had sent away to be re-soled.

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