This past June, I made a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, a pilgrimage administered by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs and sponsored by the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist. Over my years here, I knew this opportunity was available and wanted to participate, but the claims of young children and household duties prevented me from applying.
This year it all finally came together! It was not a vacation, something that was spelled out in the literature. A pilgrimage, after all, implies some hardship and work. Our daily itinerary was clearly laid out, from breakfast, daily Mass, visits to Franciscan sites, pranzo (lunch), blessed afternoon riposo, and finally cena (dinner). Our stay at Casa Papa Giovanni was very Italian, from the staff who spoke nothing but, to the two bottles of wine, red and white, that appeared on our tables at each lunch and dinner.
We carried our Pilgrim’s Companion book with us every day in our provided backpacks as we made our way to famous Franciscan places such as the church of San Rufino, the Porziuncola chapel at St. Mary of the Angels, San Damiano, Santa Maria Maggiore, La Verna, the Carceri, the Basilica of St. Francis, the Basilica of St. Clare, and, finally, when we departed for Rome.
Our leaders, Father Joe Schwab, OFM, and Sister Ann Kenyon, OSF, were knowledgeable and patient—so very important while herding a group of disparate and curious pilgrims. I quickly settled into the tenor of the trip and medieval space—relaxed and peaceful.
A most jolting and memorable moment came for me when we traveled to Maddalena, a place well away from the walls of Assisi, the site where Francis famously encountered and embraced the leper. In a ritual to commemorate the event, Father Joe had a pilgrim play the part of a leper. He gave her wooden blocks to clap together, commonly used in medieval times to alert others of the presence or approach of a leper.
Father Joe asked us to think of who might be our present-day lepers, those discarded and isolated by society. My mind immediately went to AIDS victims of the 1980s, before details of transmission and treatment became widely known.
Another group that came to mind were heroin or meth addicts. Seen as the cause or creators of their own misery, they are not apt to inspire any sympathy or empathy. Put into this context, I could see that my reaction to these present-day “lepers” was not unlike the judgmental and condemnatory attitudes of the medieval past. After all, addiction is a disease, one which lacks a cure or palliative like leprosy in past days. Someday, the hoped-for relief will come, and the horrors of addiction will fade away like the horrors of leprosy.
In this way, learning about Francis’ heart educated my own heart. I still feel the profound peace of Assisi.
Photo: Christopher Heffron