Recently I signed up for a trial membership on one of those genealogy web sites whose commercials clog TV broadcasts these days, and I have to admit I’ve found exploring my family’s past captivating.

Among other things, I discovered that a distant ancestor on my mother’s side was born in the same small French town, in the same year, as famed philosopher René Descartes. Though Descartes moved away when he was just 10, I still like to envision my forerunner mixing it up with him in a brainy schoolyard brawl, defending the Church’s Thomism against Cartesian dualism.

I also learned that my wife is a blend of Russian, Welsh, Bavarian, Prussian, and English ancestry. After 22 years of marriage, I have to say that explains a lot.

Overall, the experience has offered a powerful reminder that where we come from influences how we see ourselves and the world. That’s true of most everyone, and it’s definitely the case with Pope Francis.

Since his election, Francis has made solidarity with the poor and the defense of immigrants his towering priorities. While any pope would embrace those positions, since they loom large in Catholic social teaching, Francis seems to feel a special biographical tug.

He rarely misses an opportunity to press the case. On Thursday, for instance, Francis gave a brief talk to European Catholic and Protestant leaders largely devoted to Christian unity and religious freedom.

Before finishing, however, Francis couldn’t resist a plug for immigrants.

Facing “the dramatic and often tragic migration of thousands of persons fleeing war, persecution, and misery,” the pope said, the churches of Europe “have the duty to collaborate to promote solidarity and welcome.”

It’s a conviction with clear personal roots. For those unfamiliar with the story of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who is now Pope Francis, here’s a thumbnail sketch.

It begins in the 1920s, in the northern Italian region of the Piedmont. Fallout from the First World War had left Italy bankrupt and in chaos, paving the way for the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement.

Facing that alarming prospect, scores of Italians decided to pull up roots. Argentina was a destination of choice, in part because in the 1920s it had a higher standard of living than virtually any country in Europe.

Two of the future pope’s great-uncles set off for Argentina, founding a prosperous paving company in a port area about an hour outside the capital city of Buenos Aires. Giovanni Angelo Bergoglio, Francis’ grandfather, made the decision to join his brothers in 1927, setting sail for the New World with his wife, Rosa Margarita Vasallo di Bergoglio, and their six children.

Initially, all went according to plan. Giovanni joined his brothers in the paving company, and the family envisioned a future building up a business empire. Two years later, however, the Great Depression of 1929 hit Argentina. The firm went belly-up, forcing Giovanni and Rosa to move to Buenos Aires and a far more modest home.

For a time, the future pope’s father, Mario José Bergoglio, who trained as an economist in Italy, was compelled to support the family with meager earnings from bicycle deliveries.

Eventually, Mario married Regina María Sívori, born in Argentina to another family of immigrants from the Piedmont. They settled in a Buenos Aires neighborhood called Flores, where Jorge Mario, the first of five children, was born in 1936. The family would remain comfortable, but never again approached real wealth.

What’s the imprint of that background on Francis?

He sees himself as the son of immigrants. When he speaks about their human dignity, including the need to show welcome rather than hostility and exclusion, it’s not just a matter of social justice, but also an homage to his ancestors.

He understands the seeming capriciousness of markets. Francis grew up on stories about how a family’s stability can be wiped away in an instant by larger economic forces that ordinary people can neither understand nor control.

Thus when he blasts the excesses of “savage capitalism,” and insists that public authorities must ensure the economy works for the common good rather than the other way around, there’s also a personal dimension.

Naturally, the pope’s family story is reinforced by his experience of the broader Argentinian and Latin American situation. He lived through Argentina’s economic implosion in the late 1990s, and has also watched scores of Latin Americans set off as immigrants in search of a better life.

Yes, Francis is the carrier of a tradition much bigger than himself, and he’s not using the papacy to indulge his personal quirks. Still, his history matters.

Back in the 1960s, the story goes that Pope Paul VI was once addressed as “Papa Montini,” referring to his given name of Giovanni Battista Montini. He supposedly replied that the formula was out of place because there was no Montini anymore, only Paul VI.

It was an expression of humility, as Paul’s point was that the office is more important than the man. Yet it was also a fantasy, because inevitably a pope’s roots color how he approaches the job.

That was true of John Paul II, whose ferocious opposition to Communism reflected his self-understanding as a son of Poland, and it’s equally applicable to Francis and his social agenda.

When it comes to Pope Francis’ passion for the poor and immigrants, this insight suggests there’s no turning back. Expect to keep hearing it, including when he visits the United States in September.

A turning point on the sex abuse scandals

Usually, Vatican news is relevant for its content. For instance, Pope Francis has a decision to make regarding the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. When and if it comes, sweeping change is unlikely; the news will be in the details.

Other times, however, the news is simply the fact that something happened, quite apart from its substance. That seemed the case on Friday with the publication of statutes for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the panel that Pope Francis set up last year to lead the charge on reform regarding the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals.

Established via a chirograph, meaning a papal document whose circulation is limited to the Roman Curia, the statutes establish the commission’s nature as an advisory body to the pope, its membership and composition, and so on.

For the most part, the statutes simply formalize what had already been de facto practice.

At the big-picture level, what’s most relevant is that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is now a permanent Vatican institution. To the extent it was ever in a merely “experimental” phase, it’s officially over.

A future pope could, of course, choose to get rid of the commission, but experience teaches that it’s much easier to establish a department in the Vatican than to suppress one. Besides, who’s going to want to be the pope who shuts down the office on protecting kids from sex abuse?

As a rule, bureaucracies have only two meaningful ways to show they’re committed to something. One is to establish a department for the cause, and the other is to put real money behind it.

So far on the sex abuse front, Pope Francis is now one-for-two.

He’s already signaled his desire to promote a culture of accountability for child protection in Catholicism, including recently accepting the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, the lone American bishop convicted of a misdemeanor charge of delaying to report an accusation of child abuse.

Now he’s institutionalized that resolve with the commission, in a way that makes it clear within the world of the Vatican that there’s no going back.

When Pope St. John Paul II created the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1981, it signaled to those in the know that he was serious about ramping up the Vatican’s defense of a “culture of life” and the traditional structure of the family as a union of a man and a woman open to new life.

John Paul actually made the announcement about the Council for the Family on May 13, 1981, the day of the assassination attempt against him in St. Peter’s Square. That conjunction always struck him as proof that something deadly serious was at stake, and his unrelenting commitment over the rest of his papacy flowed from that conviction.

In effect, Francis has now broadcast a similar message about his determination, and that of the institutional Church, to promote a safe environment for children.

The remaining question is how serious Francis and his team will be about providing the resources the commission will need to do the job right.

In a recent interview with Michael O’Loughlin of Crux, Marie Collins, one of two abuse survivors who sits on the commission, voiced concern about a lack of clarity over where funds would come from even for basic expenses, such as travel to and from Rome for its members and advisors.

For his part, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the president of the commission, has said publicly that funds will be necessary to help dioceses and religious orders in the developing world to implement anti-abuse protocols.

It’s meaningless to issue edicts mandating best practices knowing full that well that large swaths of the Catholic world lack the resources to translate them into practice. Given that two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today live outside the West, it’s an important point indeed.

Sources close to the commission say that so far they’ve never been turned down when they’ve needed something from the powers that be, but concede that a formal budget and funding mechanism still has to be established.

In the meantime, the take-away from Friday is that Francis has expressed a commitment to turning a page on the abuse scandals in a way that resonates convincingly within the logic of the Vatican’s own culture.

Many may say that it’s taken way too long for this moment to come, and they’ll have a point. Perhaps the glass-half-full perspective, however, is that it’s finally here.

A hashtag for persecuted Christians

In theory, all the bishops’ conferences of the world are equal. In reality, none is more wired into the Vatican or influential in setting a tone in Catholicism than the Italian Episcopal Conference, known by its acronym “CEI.”

When CEI puts something on the agenda, other bishops around the world pay attention. Thus it’s worth noting that CEI has established May 23, the vigil of the Catholic feast of Pentecost, as a day of prayer for persecuted Christians around the world.

On Friday, a Twitter hashtag was created for the effort: #free2pray. Though for now most of the posts are in Italian, the idea is for the campaign to catch fire and spread to other languages.

Well beyond confessional allegiances, anti-Christian persecution is the premier threat to both human rights and minority rights in the early 21st century. This engagement from CEI is another sign of growing Catholic consciousness on the issue.

A note of thanks

It’s commencement season in the United States, and I’m getting a taste of it now. This weekend I’m in Burlington, Vermont, to receive an honorary doctorate from St. Michael’s College. Next weekend I’ll be in Romeoville, Illinois, to receive the same honor from Lewis University.

I’d like to take this chance to express deep gratitude to both institutions.

I’d also like to invite people to view these colleges’ choice of me as a gesture of support for journalism, rather than an alarming index of declining academic standards!