An enterprising Belfast man and hotelier living in Buenos Aires has wasted no time promoting the fact that Pope Francis is from his adopted city and is offering a pilgrimage to the former home of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Kieran Rooney tells AP Maginness why he thinks the new Pope will inspire Irish people to travel to Argentina's capital
WHILE Pope Francis has wasted no time putting his own inimitable stamp on the papacy an Irish emigrant to Argentina has been just as quick to take advantage of South America having its first pontiff. Within hours of last week's papal election announcement Belfast-born Kieran Rooney, who owns a 14-room bijou hotel in the Argentinian capital, had organised the first papal pilgrimage to Buenos Aires, designed specifically for Irish travellers. The seven-day tour takes in sites of importance in Pope Francis's former life in the city including the Jesuit Seminary where he studied, the Colegio de Salvador where he taught philosophy and a church where he sheltered 'on the runs' from the Argentinian military dictatorship. There is a lecture on Argentina's political history and a visit to the slums where the former Archbishop Bergoglio worked and sought social justice for the poor. Pilgrims will be able to retrace the Pope's regular journeys on the city's public transport system and the parts of Buenos Aires where at the behest of devotees he regularly celebrated Mass and gave blessings.
Included in the itinerary is, of course, a visit to the cathedral where up until recently he celebrated Mass and a stop off at the nearby modest one-bedroom flat where he lived while a cardinal. The package includes flights and transfers as well as seven nights accommodation at the sumptuous-looking Rooney's Boutique Hotel. "I saw the opportunity and decided to do something about it," 39-year-old Rooney explains in his softened Belfast accent. "I think it is an opportunity based on the fact that there is a lot of interest in the new Pope. He is an inspirational figure and I think that people are interested in what he did here in Argentina before he was Pope." There is no doubting the massive interest in Pope Francis but will people be willing to shell out £1,500 for the pleasure of seeing the pontiff's homeland? "People are already inspired by the new Pope. Devotees of the Catholic Church will be inspired to find out more about him and where he came from," Rooney says. "Those who were maybe disillusioned with the Church will see what he has done and maybe be encouraged back to the Church and have a desire to renew their faith." Originally from Finaghy in south Belfast, Rooney attended De La Salle College in the west of the city before studying accountancy at Warwick University in England. After an extended period working in Australia he quit his job and travelled in South America for a year, which is where he met his Argentinian wife Gabriela in 2000. They married in 2005 and bought Rooney's Boutique Hotel in 2006. For some Argentina will be half a world away from Ireland - literally and figuratively - but those with some knowledge of the South American country will realise that there are many links between a place named because Spanish conquistadors mistakenly believed it had an abundance of silver and a country with few precious stones, known as the Emerald Isle. During and after the Great Famine in Ireland there were several waves of Irish immigrants to Argentina whose descendants now number an estimated one million - the fifth largest Irish community in the world. Perhaps the most famous descendant of those Irish immigrants was revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, whose father's full surname was Guevara Lynch. Another is Santiago Phelan, current manager of the Argentine national rugby team. Rooney says that this 'shared history' has created a natural empathy between the two countries. "Socially and culturally they are both very similar countries. They both have a strong sense of family; they share the same faith and I suppose we have both had our problems with England," he says, laughing. Both Rooney's sons Ignacio, aged six, and four-year-old Ruari play hurling in a Buenos Aires GAA club. He has been living in the city for 13 years and has first-hand knowledge of the new Pope. He explains that the impression the wider world has been given of Francis in the past few days is how he was viewed in Argentina for a long time. "He wasn't just a religious figure; he was very much a public figure who you would see near his church or getting public transport," Rooney says. "He was very hands-on and very accessible to everyone. You would see him at his church if you were in [cathedral square]. He would be talking to people on the street as you walked past. "His idea was that the church had to be accessible and he made it that he was personally accessible." Pope Francis also made efforts to help the poor of Buenos Aires. "One of the things he did was to travel out on the No 70 bus to the Villas [the slums on the edge of Buenos Aires] to say Mass. He then encouraged other working priests to help provide education and health for the poor to help themselves. "What you see now as Pope, the way he is with people, his humility, is always the way he was. Always among the people helping the poor. "That was what he felt the Church should be about and maybe it had lost its way a little bit. Maybe there was too much ceremony and not enough substance in places like Ireland."
■ For more information on papal pilgrimages to Argentina see www.rooneysboutiquehotel.com.
■ CITY SIGHTS: Kieran Rooney, who is organising tours to sites associated with the Pope, below, with his wife Gabriela and their young son. Clockwise from far right, a bedroom in the Rooneys' hotel; reaction in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires after former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope; the Colegio del Salvador, where the pontiff taught