“I froze in front of the television. I couldn’t believe that Jorge was the Pope!” confessed the 77-year-old lady with white hair and spectacles outside her home at 555 Membranilla Street in the Flores district of Buenos Aires last night. She had one more little admission – about a man who is now pontiff and a love letter from long, long ago.
It was 1948 or 1949 – Amalia Damonte can’t be entirely sure – when the young son of Italian immigrants slipped a letter in her hand declaring his undying love for her. She does know that he was 12 years old at the time and that she spurned his advances in part because her parents didn’t think that much of him.
“He wrote me a letter telling me that one day he would like to marry me,” she said standing outside the same house that she grew up in, just four doors from down what used to be the childhood home of Jorge Bergoglio at number 531, where he lived with his mother and railway-worker father. (It has since been knocked down.) “He said that if I didn’t say yes, he would have to become a priest. Luckily for him, I said no!”
That she left the young man with his romantic yearnings unrequited is not something she has forgotten and although it was more than 60 years ago, she may still harbour a smidgen of regret. “He had a crush on me, you know. We used to play on the streets here. It was a quiet neighbourhood then, and, well, he was very nice.”
Amalia eventually moved away from Membranilla Street but returned when her parents died. She did marry in the end and admitted that she wished the boy from down the road had been there, albeit in his official capacity as a priest. Their lives have since diverged in a way neither could have imagined, but today they were reunited in the media. While Amalia told her story to a handful of reporters in Buenos Aires, her “Jorge” was starting the first day of his new life as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, with a sizeable number of the world’s news reporters on his tail.
First he surprised worshippers with a visit to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray before returning to the Casa del Clero, the religious hostel he stayed in for a week before the conclave. Here he lived up to his humble reputation by paying his own bill. It later emerged he may meet his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, this weekend, after the pair talked on the telephone on Wednesday. Should the two be in the same room together it would be a historic conversation between pontiffs past and present.
Later he met the 114 cardinals who elected him, many of whom may be hoping for plum jobs when Pope Francis announces his shake-up of the Vatican’s governing body, the Roman Curia. Here he gave further evidence of a Pope who intends to stamp his identity on the role, warning that, without spiritual renewal, the church would become just “a compassionate NGO”.
Pope Francis will lead his first Angelus as pope in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, and the inaugural mass of his pontificate will take place on Tuesday. He will face one of Benedict’s greatest nemeses, the media, on Saturday. But so far most of them are on his side, particularly after Father Lombardi revealed that he has asked for a reduced car escort.
This winning modesty was underlined by comments from his 82-year-old cousin Giuseppina Ravedone Martinengo, who lives in Turin.
“My cousin will bring a breath of fresh air to the Vatican,” she said. “He is someone who likes to change things. The last time he visited, he arrived with a low-cost flight. He always travels like that. No waste.”
Perhaps Amalia’s parents were wrong about the boy from down the road all those years ago.
Additional reporting by Michael Day