St. Francis of Assisi offered inspiration to the Church of his time. That inspiration is still part of our Catholic identity, especially for those who are members of the Franciscan movement. On October 27, his holiness Pope Benedict will share the Franciscan spirit with other religious leaders as they visit Assisi.
My first visit to Assisi was in 1994, as part of an international meeting of Franciscan men and women. I will never forget my first impressions as I arrived. It had been one of those marathon travel days—an overnight flight to Rome, a confusing train ride with missed stops and negotiations over tickets in two languages, arrival on the train and the bus ride from the station up the hill into the medieval town of Assisi.
As we found our lodgings and walked the streets for the first time, I felt an overwhelming sense of having come to a place I’d always dreamed about. The steep streets, paved in stone, with steps leading up, down and through the city, the thought of exploring the shrines of Francis and Clare, the thrill of meeting fellow Franciscans from all over the world in this holy place. It was a real “homecoming,” though I don’t think I described it that way at the time.
But looking back, I know that for a Franciscan heart, Assisi is home.
In my first visit to Assisi in 1994, I took along the advice of a fellow friar—“Try to find St. Francis while you are there,” he said. That was an odd piece of advice, I thought. Of course Francis is there, buried deep in the crypt chapel under two churches stacked one on the other, the great Basilica of St. Francis.
But, you know, my confrere was right. Despite the holy atmosphere surrounding Francis’s tomb, the place I found him on that visit was not even in the city of Assisi itself; rather, it was in a small chapel on the grounds of a farm below the city walls, down the hillside from the town. There, a group of young adults were living and working in community, in a simple lifestyle, seeking to learn the values St. Francis lived. A friar from Germany showed me around, and our visit ended in the chapel. The presence of these young followers of Francis reminded me of what he must have been like when he began his vocation all those centuries ago. There, with them, I found Francis.
People who’ve visited there as pilgrims will each recount a different special moment when they encountered God through something in the life of either Francis or Clare, or both—in the places those two saints actually lived.
Another memorable pilgrim moment for me came on a cool, rainy afternoon when I hiked up Mount Subasio to the spot where St. Francis liked to pray in caves. Some of the caves are still there, and you can actually enter them (they’re really quiet small) and sit there in prayer. I did that, gazing out at the woods surrounding the cave, where the rainy mist was filling the air. Suddenly, I had a realization that those trees looked exactly liked the ones back here in the Midwest where I live!
Now, that may not sound like a great revelation to you, but I guess I’d always thought St. Francis lived in some fantasy world, a world seen in religious art, where the world was very different from mine. Somehow, the familiarity of those trees said: “Your world and the world of Francis are connected in very real, very ordinary ways.”
Through that connection, I could share the spirit of Francis, and let God lead me as God had led him. Not a bad insight for a rainy day, sitting on the dusty ground of damp cave. But that’s where a Franciscan heart sometimes has to go!
The city of Assisi itself offers an insight into St. Francis. If you have seen pictures of the town, you might understand how it was built in a society that was far from peaceful. The city is walled, with large gates that could be closed and barred. The houses are stone, stacked one upon another, with the lower floors easily fortified so that the inhabitants could defend themselves from the upper floors. Over the whole town stands a partially ruined castle, where the city’s last defense could have been made if all else failed.
Francis grew up in that town, with dreams of joining the wars that his city waged against its opponents, winning glory as a knight. But God had other plans for Francis, and he and his followers—including St. Clare—found themselves leaving the security of the walled and fortified city. They lived in the marshy plains below the town, exposed to robbers, unprotected by the defenses of Assisi.
There, Francis and Clare met the poor and the outcasts, like the lepers who lived cut off from their families in the town. Such vulnerability taught Francis about Jesus’ own vulnerability as God enfleshed, taking on our humanity and confronting suffering and death, rejected by the world.
It’s hard for 21st century folks to imagine the world of Francis and its wars. But perhaps it’s not too difficult for us to understand his path to peace—by following in Jesus and embracing the cross as he did.
As the whole Church prays with Pope Benedict and the leaders of world religions on October 27, let those with a Franciscan heart—and that includes all our visitors here to AmericanCatholic.org—allow our hearts to think thoughts of peace, so that we, with God’s help, may be instruments of peace wherever we may be.
Suggested reading: Francis: The Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo, O.F.M.
Photos by Fr. Greg Friedman, O.F.M.