On Saturday September 28, life brought me a surprise that I could never have imagined. Around 7 pm I saw that I had a phone call from a blocked number. I answered, curious; and on the other end of the line I heard a by-now familiar voice saying: “This is Pope Francis. I received your book and your letter, and I wanted to thank you.” I was amazed and delighted by a subsequent conversation with someone who felt like a friend, thanks to our common connection to Piedmont and his affection and esteem for the humanity of Terra Madre, the network of farmers, fishers, nomads and food artisans that meets in Turin every two years.
On September 7, which the Pope named a day of prayer for peace, I decided to send him my book – Terra Madre, my article on Piedmontese emigration published in La Repubblica when the Pope visited Lampedusa, and a letter. This was what led to our phone conversation. On the phone, the Pope recalled the “little” story of his family: “My parents moved to Turin from the countryside around Asti, opening a small café in a building on the corner of Via Garibaldi,” he said. Then they emigrated to Argentina. “My father was supposed to board the Mafalda, but then, because of some problems, he had to postpone his departure for a year.” A sign of destiny? The ocean liner Principessa Mafalda was sailing to Buenos Aires when it sank off the coast of Brazil on October 25, 1927. Hundreds of migrants drowned in the ocean waves.
We also talked about the farming world. Pope Francis wanted to emphasize how precious the good practices of rural communities are to the world’s destiny. On this subject in particular, the Pope had strong words: “The work of these people is extraordinary,” he said. “Accumulating money must not be the primary goal. My grandmother used to tell me that when you die, your shroud has no pockets for money.“
In recent years, I have heard many speak about the work of small-scale farmers as virtuous but irrelevant for the economy. On the other hand, many international figures have expressed solidarity for the world of the humble, and their role in defending the planet’s common goods. It is extraordinary how close Catholicism’s highest religious authority is to this second way of thinking. In my letter, I opened my heart to the Pope, telling him about my childhood and adolescence within the Christian faith, taught to me by my grandmother. She was a practicing Catholic and, at the same time, she shared my grandfather’s libertarian and socialist spirit. She overcame the years of papal condemnation of the Communists with dignity, remaining faithful to Jesus and to her late husband.
I have been an agnostic since I was young, but the absence of religiousness has not stopped me from sharing experiences and struggles with men and women of faith. I do not have the capacity or the knowledge to open a deep and learned dialog on the question of faith, but I know that if humanity wants to escape the desert of ideas that surrounds it, people who know how to communicate like Pope Francis will be of great value. Even the channel he uses, the telephone, with no mediation, is a sign of openness and directness, with the interlocutors as varied as the motivations and the topics. One has the impression they are talking with a friend. And so our phone conversation ended, with wishes of good health and a mutual embrace. A world in which one can fraternally embrace a Pope is truly a beautiful world.
Carlo Petrini, Slow Food President
Translation by Carla Ranicki
Adapted from an article published in La Repubblica, October 3, 2013