YOU can see the streets in Buenos Aires where he grew up and played soccer, the church where Jorge Bergoglio prayed as a teenager and the cathedral where the man who would become Pope Francis said Mass. You can even visit the stand where he bought his newspapers every weekend and where he went for a haircut.
With an Argentine on the throne of St Peter, the South American country’s capital city has launched a series of guided tours to give visitors a glimpse of the places that formed Francis, even if the bus and walking tours are just a modest, and so far non-commercial, first stab at papal tourism.
The tour bus is a single-storey cruiser with sealed windows above a huge image on each side of Francis and the words “Pope Circuit” in papal yellow, which also happens to be the official colour of the metropolitan government that began offering the tours last weekend.
For three hours, the bus winds through Buenos Aires twice each Saturday and Sunday and can carry about 40 passengers, rolling past 24 sites linked to the new pope, but stopping only twice and leaving little opportunity for snapshots. There’s no charge for the trip, or for more limited walking tours of downtown and neighbourhood sites offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I loved the tour ... It’s to live the history of Bergoglio, of his family, and I also visited his neighbourhood, which I had never seen,” says Alicia Perez, a 71-year-old Argentine who is one of the few non-journalists on the inaugural bus tour.
The house at No.531 Membrillar where the pope and his four siblings grew up with his mother and father, Regina Maria Sivori and Mario Bergoglio, in the 1930s and 1940s is gone now, but the bus cruises down the tree-shaded middle-class street past the property, where another dwelling was later built.
Nearby there’s the little plaza where he played soccer as a boy, and the narrow, neo-classical San Jose de Flores church where he worshipped as a teenager and felt called to devote his life to God.
Visitors also see the seminary in the leafy neighbourhood of Villa Devoto where Bergoglio decided to become a Jesuit priest, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, which looks more like a classical Greek temple than a typical Catholic church. Bergoglio eventually presided as the capital’s archbishop in the imposing structure, which also houses the tomb of South American independence hero Jose de San Martin.
The tour also passes the Jesuit College of El Salvador, where Bergoglio taught literature and psychology in the 1960s, and the Salvador University he later oversaw.
The tour leaves out the gritty slums where Bergoglio’s church was a frequent benefactor, but there’s a nod to his reputation for ministering to society’s outcasts: a swing past the Devoto prison where he often said Mass on the Thursday before Easter.
The bus finally stops at the parish of San Jose del Talar, where visitors can pray at a sanctuary that features a painting of the Virgin untying knots and passing them to angels. Bergoglio had the painting brought from Germany in the 1980s, and ever since, attendance at the church has soared.
Less sacred ground is covered as well. The bus stops downtown at the historic Roverano passageway, where Bergoglio had a monthly haircut for 20 years at Romano’s barber shop, a high-ceilinged place that seems to have been frozen in time since the early 20th century. But the barbers would rather not be bothered: tourists are advised to gawk from outside as the artisans with scissors and razors work on their mostly elderly clientele.
“It’s a pride to have had Monsignor Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, as a client every month for 20 years,” says a poster stuck to the shop window.
Owner Nicolas Romano, 72, is only four years younger than the pope. He says that Bergoglio came to the barbershop until about a decade ago, when one of the barbers began going to give him a personal trim at the archbishop’s office. An assistant also gave him a monthly pedicure.
“He was a man of few words. He spoke just what was needed, sometimes of politics or current affairs,” says one of the barbers, 71-year-old Mario Saliche.
The tour ends at the Plaza de Mayo, which is fronted by the cathedral and the office building where Bergoglio lived alone in a humble room, shunning an ornate diocesan mansion in a northern suburb. The church has not provided outsiders with access to this bedroom, despite the curiosity of the faithful.
Across the plaza is the newsstand where Bergoglio bought his La Nacion paper on Saturdays and Sundays.
“He paid me with coins and we chatted about soccer and how things were,” says Nicolas Schandor, who owns the weekend stand. He also says Bergoglio would stop to chat with war veterans occupying the plaza, and give food to the poor who slept on the cathedral’s steps. “He’s a very simple person. Nobody expected he would become pope.”
Schandor’s kiosk is one of the few attractions on the trip that shows any evidence of papal commerce: A plastic key holder with the pope’s image goes for about US$1.90 (RM5.85), and a calendar costs US$2.30 (RM7). Schandor says some tourists even have themselves photographed with him. – AP