With the date of the papal conclave set for Tuesday, 12th March the question now is who will be the next pope?
“It is important for Italy that we have an Italian Pope,” Christian offered, before creating some of the best risotto dishes we’ve ever tasted; “or at least an European one.”
While on the trail of the papabili (men who could be pope) in northern Italy we experienced something eerie; as if everyone had listened to some of Benedict XVI’s last words as Pope, when he asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope.
I have never encountered Italy like this. It seemed as though ‘sede vacante’ (the period when the Chair of St Peter is empty) was having a profound effect on the people we met; everyone was so kind and helpful, going out of their way to show us the birthplaces of the four papabile cardinals I had selected.
First stop, Malgrate.
Pilgrims will like coming here, if Scola is elected Pope. It’s just a short walk up to the Chiesa San Leonardo, past the chapel dedicated to victims of the devasting plague in 1630. A look inside the chapel reveals a collection of human skulls and bone parts.
At the church itself, there was a photograph of Cardinal Scola with Pope Benedict XVI; a striking contrast of red and white, complemented with shared, warm smiles.
When I asked for directions to Cardinal Angelo’s Scola’s ‘casa di natale’, we were taken up the little alley beside the ‘Cappella dei Morti di Peste’ and told that at the time of his birth, there were only two buildings close by and the area in front of the house was a ‘culinary garden’.
The BBC were in Malgrate the day before and as we returned to the car, an Italian journalist and photographer were interviewing a couple in the street.
Next Stop, Merate.
Just twenty kilometres down the road is Merate, where Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontificial Council for Culture) went to school. The BBC had also been here recently, to interview the mayor.
There are a number of luxurious villas (and an astronomical observatory) in Merate but the Palazzo Prinetti, with it’s high cylindrical tower, is the outstanding landmark.
Although many sources have Merate down as Ravasi’s place of birth, we were informed that the Ravasi family home is in Osnago; a little further south.
The lady who gave us directions to the Ravasi house, just happened to be a neighbour.
Third Stop, Pontevico.
We needed to get on the Bergamo-Brescia-Cremona motorway (Autostrada) to reach the birthplace of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (Archbishop of Genoa) before the light faded. At the motorway exit, the man in the toll booth even came out of his cabin to give us the change.
Rain clouds were approaching but Pontevico still had a pilgrimage type feel to it.
I didn’t see any reference to Cardinal Bagnasco in the church but there was a poster promoting some writing of our previous candidate.
The old lady I approached outside the church told us that Angelo Bagnasco was born and baptised in the hospital at the end of the road. A friend of hers worked there so perhaps she could show us the small baptismal chapel.
Our fourth candidate, Cardinal Tarcisio Pietro Evasio Bertone (currently Cardinal Secretary of State), was once the Archbishop of Vercelli.
As Vercelli is famous for its rice, risotto on the menu is a must. And where better to sample the local produce than in a risotteria; a family establishment with a Michelin star and numerous awards for creativity with the grain.
Although the restaurant didn’t open until eight, we could have a drink in the hotel bar. “Habemus Papam” came a shout from the kitchen.
Christian would be in Rome the following weekend and if the conclave took its time in deliberating, he might even be there when the new pope was announced.
The local paper also gave a chance to the former Archbishop of Alessandria and family friend, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi. Versaldi was born in Villarboit, just 18km from Vercelli and was appointed Vicar General of Vercelli, by the then Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, in 1994.
As Versaldi has only been cardinal for a year, we gave Villarboit a miss and headed over to Bertone’s place of birth the following morning.
The sun slowly burnt off the morning mist as we drove towards the ‘Provincia di Torino’. Romano Canavase took a while to grow on me. Maybe joining the locals in the Caffe da Piero helped.
Feeling refreshed again, it was just a short walk down to the Piazza; to the family home that Pope Benedict XVI also visited.
Will the next pope be an Italian? Will he be one of these northern papabili?
If Cardinal Scola does get elected to sit in the hot seat of St Peter, one of his first jobs as the 266th Pope will be to appoint a new Archbishop of Milan.