One of the elements in the new pope’s CV has been noticed in the media but not, as far as I can see, much discussed; at least, not in the English language realm. It is the fact that Pope Francis was born the son of immigrants from Italy who, as so many others did, made a success of themselves in their adopted country.
We associate the word ‘diaspora’ most often with reference to the Jewish community or the Irish one, but it also has a lot of resonance for Italians, millions of whom have moved overseas in the last 160 years or so, and are to be found – generations of them – all over the world. Not all of them ended up in the mob.
It is a community I know something about, having been married to a member of it for 33 years. Her father once pointed out to me a salient fact about many of the Italians who went overseas to find a new life, as his father had done, in the developing world: that is that, unlike the British in their colonies, these emigrants harboured no kind of subconscious feeling that they or their children would ever return to the old country (as the protagonist does at the end of Godfather III). They were there to stay, come what may, and, as I’ve noted before on this blog, made a better fist of it than their French cousins, the pieds noirs.
But their children and grandchildren have often moved back, particularly from those countries where settlers have become less and less accepted over the years. Elsewhere they have assimilated, and in many cases have done so to the extent of speaking the local language as the native speakers do, and forgotten Italian, or even in some cases never learned it. In the Italian community in South Africa, for example, the original cohort of immigrants from 1950s Italy are dead or dying; their offspring are bilingual; the grandchildren speak only English. It has happened similarly in the Greek, Lebanese and Portuguese communities, but the Italians were starting the process well before them.
Now one of their number, the offspring of immigrants, has been elected pope. In a way it is a crowning achievement for the Italian diaspora and one which they will heartily enjoy. This guy has come back to live in the best address in all Italy, from where, I am sure, he will give native Italians a perspective on the world they have not really had before, and I wish him well with that. Viva il Papa!