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José Maria “Pepe”di Paola, who came to Italy recently to attend the Meeting for friendship among peoples in the Italian city of Rimini, was received by Pope Francis today. The bulky suitcase he has been trailing around with him since he left La Cárcova - one of the villas miserias 30 kilometres from Buenos Aires where he has been living for the past six months –  came with him to the Vatican. The suitcase was very heavy; the priest had to pay an excess baggage charge before boarding the plane at Buenos Aires airport. “But it was worth it,” he commented. “The villa’s dwellers burst into a long applause when I told them about the Pope’s invitation, at mass; they see me as their representative and want me to express their closeness to Bergoglio.”

The news spread fast and suddenly, Francis found his mailbox crammed with letters and gifts. The messages sent to Francis included “prayers about health-related problems, work and family,” while others were of a lighter nature but when put together they formed a mass of great substance: numerous rosaries to bless, wedding rings, engagement rings and religious objects and letters, two of which were from people Bergoglio was well acquainted with: “Juan José, better known as “the Crow” (because he is a fan of Argentinian football club, Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, nicknamed “the Crows”) and Milagros, Miriam, who lived in a rubbish bin.” Di Paola explained that these were two extreme cases of two people with seemingly dead-end lives, who found each other in rehab at the Hogar de Cristo centre.”

Juan José and Milagros have now formed a family together, they have jobs, a home and children (Milagros has two) and they are both helping other young drug addicts living in the villa, kick the habit.

“They were two of the first seven young people to enter the Hogar de Cristo rehab centre and Bergoglio washed their feet at Holy Thursday mass in 2008,” Fr. Pepe said. He also revealed that before Bergoglio left for Rome, where he was to be elected Pope, he had two pictures of Juan José in his office, one of when he entered Hogar and the other when he came out.” When they found out Fr. Pepe was going to visit Francis, they wrote a personal letter to the Pope.” I think he will be very moved when he reads it,” the postman said.

In the suitcase Fr. Pepe took with him to the Vatican – after all necessary security checks were carried out –  there were books dedicated to Francis or written about him. “An author from the villa has written a book, “Francisco y Francisco” I think it’s called, which looks at two figures and two spiritualities,” that of the Pope and that of Saint Francis of Assisi, a figure who is very important in Di Paola’s own ministry. This is partly why Fr. Pepe did not want to miss the chance to visit St. Francis’ tomb in the Basilica named after him, leaving the Rimini Meeting, to embark on a sort of pilgrimage to Rome.


One of the books is a manuscript, not yet on sale to the public. The copy has been put arranged as best as possible so it could be presented to the Pope. “It is a book on the Hogar de Cristo,” Fr. Pepe added. “It talks about what has been done so far, what we are doing and what our experience of the Church has been in our efforts to help people recover from cocaine paste.” The goal is to make this experience in the villa useful to others as well,” the priest said.” We usually do a great deal without noting anything down but this time we are. We have thought of other places, for example those that are interested in the experience of our community, where I am often asked to give talks. Places such as Formosa, Corrientes, Entre Rios, Cordoba, Santa Fé, San Juan, Posadas…”


But there was also something a little provocative in Fr. Pepe’s suitcase. A Club Atletico Huracán football jersey, San Lorenzo’s rival team (San Lorenzo being Pope Francis’ favourite football team). “Hurracán’s directors’ board have given me a jersey and the team’s colours” to give to Francis, the priest said. Just a little something to test Pope Francis’ sportsmanship.