Papal tourism hits Buenos Aires streets

By Almudena Calatrava

The papal bus tour of Buenos Aires rolls past 24 sites linked to the new pope but stops only twice. Picture / AP
The papal bus tour of Buenos Aires rolls past 24 sites linked to the new pope but stops only twice. Picture / AP

You can see the streets 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, Buenos Aires, 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 a first stab at papal tourism.

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.

The house at 531 Membrillar where the pope and four siblings grew up with his mother and father, Regina Maria Sivori and Mario Bergoglio, in the 1930s and 40s is gone 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 leafy 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.

"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.

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.

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," said Nicolas Schandor, who owns the weekend stand. "He's a very simple person. Nobody expected he would become pope."

- AP

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