Pope Francis traveled to northern Italy on Saturday to celebrate the 90th birthday of his second cousin Carla Rabezzana with his Italian relatives.
The 85-year-old pope arrived by helicopter in the Italian province of Asti, 30 miles east of Turin, just before noon on Nov. 19.
The pope made a brief stop to pray at a local church before greeting Rabezzana at her home in the town of Portacomaro, where they were joined by five other relatives and their families to share a home-cooked lunch with local delicacies from the Piedmont region.
Rabezzana, who turned 90 on Nov. 8, told Vatican News ahead of the visit that she was looking forward to embracing her cousin (the pope) because they had not seen each other for three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said: “And then we'll have a chat, as we do at least once a month on the phone with relatives who love each other. I'll ask him about his knee, which is hurting him now. He talks to me about it when we talk on the phone."
“For Saturday's lunch, the other cousins and I will prepare a roast and lots of vegetables - he eats a lot of them, especially now - and then bunet, the cocoa-based pudding typical of Piedmontese cuisine,” Rabezzana said.
“However, we will have the birthday cake on Sunday at lunch with the bishop after Mass,” she added.
Pope Francis is scheduled to spend the night in Asti, where he will offer a public Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King on Sunday in the Asti Cathedral.
The weekend visit brings the pope back to the Italian diocese where his father, Mario Josè Bergoglio, lived before emigrating from Italy to Argentina in 1929. The pope’s maternal grandparents also immigrated to Argentina from northern Italy.
Pope Francis, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1936, has maintained contact with relatives in Asti and Turin since his election as pope. During a visit to Turin in 2015, the pope had lunch with six of his cousins and their families.
The pope was profoundly influenced by his paternal grandmother Rosa Margherita Vassallo, who was very religious. He has mentioned her in many homilies and quoted an Italian poem, “Rassa nostrana” by Nino Costa, which he said Rosa taught him in the local Piedmontese dialect.
In her spiritual testament, Rosa wrote: “May my grandsons, whom I gave the best of my heart, have a long and happy life. If one day pain, sickness or loss of a dear one will fill them with affliction, may they always remember that a breath in front of the Tabernacle, where the greatest and important martyr is secured, and a glance to Mary at the foot of the cross, can leave a drop of balsam on the deepest and most painful wounds.”
Before departing for northern Italy, the pope met on Saturday morning with Mar Awa III, the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, as well as a delegation of the Padua-based NGO “Doctors with Africa,” at the Vatican.
“I wanted to share lunch with you, to conclude well, as we should, but I have to leave at 10:30. Please excuse me,” the pope told Mar Awa III.
He joked: “I would not want it to be said that this pope is a bit stingy and does not invite us to lunch! I would love to share the table, but there will be other opportunities.”