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REDIPUGLIA, Italy – Pope Francis confronts a piece of his own family history on Saturday when he visits a World War I memorial built amid battlefields where his grandfather fought in a fierce Italian offensive against the Austro-Hungarian empire — surviving to impress upon the future pope the horrors of war.
Francis' aim in recalling those who died in the Great War that broke out 100 years ago is to honor the victims of all wars, and it comes at a time when his calls for peace have grown ever more urgent amid new threats.
The pontiff will pray first among the neat rows of gravestones for fallen soldiers from five nations who are buried in the tidy Austro-Hungarian cemetery. He then will travel a few hundred meters (yards) to Italy's largest war memorial, a grandiose Fascist-era monument to 100,000 fallen Italian soldiers, where he will celebrate an open-air Mass.
The visit, while well-timed to focus attention on new threats in the Middle East and Ukraine, is also infused with intensely personal meaning.
Francis' grandfather, Giovanni Bergoglio, was one of thousands of Italians who fought in the trenches near the Isonzo River, near today's border with Slovenia, in a campaign aimed at piercing the Austro-Hungarian defenses. The 12 battles are memorialized at the Redipuglia monument which was dedicated by Italy's Fascist government in 1938 on the eve of World War II.
"I have heard many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather," the pope has said.
The elder Bergoglio, who was drafted at age 30 as Italy entered the war, took part in the Isonzo campaign, obtaining a certificate of good conduct and 200 lire at the war's end, according to documents discovered by the Italian bishops' conference's media outlets. With postwar Italy's economy stalled, he emigrated to Argentina where the future pontiff — Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was born.
In a personal moment during Saturday's commemorations, the parents of an Italian soldier killed in Afghanistan last year will present Francis with the distinctive feathered Bersagliere cap worn by the Piedmontese corps, famed for a rugged endurance epitomized by their tradition of marching at a jog. Francis' grandfather, who hailed from the Piedmont region, belonged to the corps, said Redipuglia parish priest the Rev. Duilio Nardin.
The enduring impact of war, 100 years on, is evident in the visitors who continue to make pilgrimages to the monument, although in ever decreasing numbers, said Fogliano di Redipuglia Mayor Antonio Calligaris.
"The Repiduglia sanctuary until 20 years ago was always full of visitors, but it has been forgotten by institutional memory," Calligaris said. "The papal visit is very important because it renews attention on this history."
Days before the papal visit, several dozen mostly elderly visitors scaled the 22 granite levels sloping dramatically upward toward three towering crosses that point skyward. The largest Italian war memorial, Redipuglia entombs 100,000 Italian soldiers killed in battle, 60,000 whose identity remains unknown and 40,000 who were identified.
The Austro-Hungarian cemetery, one of several in the area, contains 14,406 dead from five nations that fought under the Austro-Hungarian empire, only 2,406 identified. Among recent tributes is a Hungarian flag signed in July by relatives of a soldier named Istvan Arnter, who died on Nov. 20, 1917.
Many visitors to the Italian monument search the engraved names for their forbears.
"They are making a lot of saints these days. Even popes," said Margherita Braga, 52, of Brescia, who was visiting the site with her Italian military veteran husband. "But for me, these are the real saints."
Just two levels up from the altar where Francis will say Mass, the name of a fallen soldier named Adolfo Bergoglio is engraved in a wall. Nardin, the local priest, said he is not believed to be related to the pope. But World War I historian, Col. Lorenzo Cadeddu, who has found two Bergoglios listed among the Italian casualties of World War I, said it remained a possibility.
"Bergoglio is not a common name," Cadeddu said. "It is likely that they are related."