BANGKOK, Thailand – In a small room of an all-girl’s school just an hour and a half from Bangkok in Thailand, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori looks patiently out the window, the sound of children singing religious songs outside and the buzzing of the air conditioner offering the soundtrack.
Only by looking closely can one spot the striking resemblance between Rosa and her famous cousin: Pope Francis.
“He’s worry-free,” Sivori, 75, who is the Sister superior at the Nareewut School, said of her celebrity papal relative. “He is not afraid of anything.”
Rosa and Jorge Mario Bergolio, now Pope Francis, share the same great-grandfather and their parents are first cousins, making them second cousins. Like many Argentinian families, though, the Bergoglio relatives, no matter how distant, are very close.
“We are a very united family,” Sivori told Crux, adding that especially with the older members of the family Francis “was always very, very brotherly, very close.”
Before his election as pope, Francis celebrated the funeral Mass for Rosa’s mother when she died. Soon after her father’s health began failing, Francis frequently visited him until his death and celebrated his funeral too.
“My father used to say that there is no man in the world like Jorge,” Sivori said.
But Francis was not only present in the moments of sadness and need, he also celebrated the wedding for Rosa’s sister.
About 30 members of the Bergoglio family traveled to Rome when Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in February of 2001. None of them were expecting that the second time they would meet in Rome, it would be for Francis’s first day as pope.
“I was really convinced that he would not be chosen,” said Sivori, who, during the 2013 conclave, was on a mission in the northeastern region of Thailand. But once he was elected, she immediately felt the papacy suited him.
“He said that he felt a great peace fall over him, and, since that day, that peace has never left his person,” she said.
There is a quiet intensity in Sivori strongly reminiscent of her cousin, in the way she speaks and in her sudden bursts of action. Rosa, like Francis, is never one to stay put.
While studying at a school run by Salesian sisters in Buenos Aires, Sivori enjoyed partying and visiting her friends’ homes more than long sermons and services. At the age of 15, on the Argentinian Day of the Lily, a celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary, she made the sudden decision to become a nun to the joy and happiness of her parents.
She felt a call to be a missionary, the same call often repeated by Francis during his Sunday Angelus addresses – who, as a young Jesuit, dreamed of serving as a missionary in Asia himself – and in 1965 she flew to Thailand, where she would stay for 51 years working as a morality and catechism teacher.
“After my meeting with the Mother Superior, I had to go and look where Thailand was on the map,” Sivori remembered, laughingly.
The cousins also share a special dedication to the vow of poverty. Francis is known for wearing a simple pair of black shoes, and for preferring his usual pants from Argentina to the tailored Italian alternative.
“I am very austere with myself. For me, poverty is at the vanguard of being Christian. In this way, we are similar,” Sivori said. “I have this pair of shoes,” she added, pointing at her worn black sandals.
“Even if they are not beautiful, they are comfortable!” she said.
Sivori describes her cousin as a very “coherent” person, who does not care about appearances.
“He says what he has to say, and what he says, he lives,” she said.
The pope decided to break with tradition when he chose to make his residence in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the small accommodation for dignitaries and religious visiting the Vatican, instead of the Apostolic palace.
“He told me that if he had to stay at the Apostolic Palace, the Church would have had to spend millions to pay for his psychiatrists,” Sivori said, adding that the pope does not like being alone in grandiose chambers, and much prefers closeness and proximity to people.
But Francis was not always this way. Sivori describes the then-cardinal Bergolio in Argentina as having a “very austere” attitude.
“During religious ceremonies and processions, his face used to be very serious. Now that he is pope, he has started to smile again. He’s another person,” she said. “He did not have that smile before.”
The reason behind the change might be in a story recounted by Rosa. She said that Cardinal Mario Aurelio Poli, who succeeded Bergoglio in leading the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires asked the pope why he never used to smile as much when he lived in Argentina.
“Because I like being pope!” Francis answered, according to Rosa.
When asked if she believed the pope would ever visit Argentina, Rosa was skeptical.
“They want you in Argentina,” Sivori said she told the pope inside an elevator at the Vatican, to which he leaned in close to her ear and whispered: “I don’t want to go.”
“This is not a good moment to go to Argentina,” Sivori explained, saying that she’s worried about the current political situation and the reception Francis might receive. “Argentinians complain from morning to night. Many complain that the pope does not do enough for the country,” she added.
But to the critics of Francis, Sivori responds with true Bergoglio grit.
The pope “is not afraid to say what he has to say,” Rosa said, adding that despite his call for reform and change, if one looks carefully at the recent history of the Catholic Church, Francis “follows in the footsteps of his predecessors.”
Like Francis, Sivori is an educator and has dedicated her life to teaching and spreading the Gospel. The Nareewut School where she teaches has 1650 female students, of which only 100 identify as Catholic, though most are not baptized due to the hesitance of their parents.
Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country, and Catholics only amount to 0.46 percent of its population. Sivori explained that most Catholics in Thailand are originally from Vietnam or China. “There are some conversions, but mostly in mixed families,” she said.
Despite their small numbers, many Catholics in Thailand wondered why the pope will not drop by for a visit during his trip to nearby Myanmar. Sivori said that local bishops told her that even if the pope wished to come to the country, she should tell him not to.
Thailand has been going through a period of political unrest, which resulted in the military taking control of the government. Also, the much-beloved king of Thailand died last year, leaving a leadership void. The teachers at the Nareewut School all wear black in mourning, and the children carry black ribbons on their arms.
But Sivori believes that if local priests work hard and fully embrace Francis’s call to become “pastors” instead of being focused on social status and recognition, things might change.
In her traditional Bergoglio style, Sivori points to the growth of consumerism and worldliness as an obstacle to conversions. “I worry about the wave of modernity that has swept over Bangkok,” she said thoughtfully. “I see it in the children at the school too.”
As she walks around the school, her white habit reflecting the bright Thai sun, her look is determined, but, like Francis, always smiling.