Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: Friends

Assisi Pilgrimage: Endings and Beginnings


Prayer of Saint Francis

So that was last year, an incredible pilgrimage to the birth of the Franciscan Movement. My record of those days fails to pay them justice. I sound like a travelogue and my words have not captured the simple and yet profound experiences of the journey.

Our days were filled with readings, singing our thanksgiving, wonderful food and even more wonderful guides. We had great fellowship and yet also had times of solitude. I spent every morning by myself, exploring, praying, communing with the saints, lighting candles for my family back home, and soaking up the atmosphere.

We were blessed with a wonderful group of fellow travelers. Walter (SBU class of 1954!) and I witnessed a wedding at San Stefano. The Fords celebrated their anniversary. We participated in services and ceremonies. One night we all learned about the history of yodeling on a rooftop garden in Assisi. Ruta shared her knowledge of art and good humor with us. The Crowley’s brought a special joy to the trip. Their daughter was especially gracious as she learned to adjust to traveling with a group of old fogies and in fact added a whole new dimension to the group dynamic.

Perhaps best of all I got to know my fellow USF faculty members better and discovered they are very easy to like. We all shared coffees, gelato and wine in the piazza. We climbed, and climbed and climbed some more. Every morning, before breakfast, as I was walking out of a cathedral there was Sister Mary walking in, always smiling. Every lunch there was Sister Marilyn, always laughing. I value the friendship I developed with Ron and Lil.

I am not a sociable person, I value my time alone. And yet these fellow pilgrims added tremendously to the journey. I cannot think of them without smiling and I miss them.

So, what have I taken from this journey? How has it changed me? I believe we are all pilgrims however, now I am an intentional pilgrim. What kind of pilgrim will I be? I live in Indiana. The Mountain Spirituality of the early Franciscans or the Desert Spirituality of the 4th century will not serve me. I am drawn to the walking pilgrimage style of The Way of the Pilgrim. That may actually fit in with my Midwest worldview. I am from the flatlands, the plains. So I suppose I could develop a Plains Spirituality. I live near Amish country so possibly I could develop a “Plain and Simple Spirituality”, just kidding. What I do know is that I am now able to turn ordinary time into sacred time. I am able to connect with creation. I am able to see the bounty, the Bonem of this world. I am ready to explore a more Franciscan life.

In a world of competing religions and angry gods I value the joyful and loving Triune God of the Franciscans. I value Francis, a simple Fool for God who believed Jesus life and words were worth emulating. I believe the model of servanthood, the counter-cultural teachings of embracing poverty and embracing the leper are inspiring and worthy of my consideration. I have learned to enjoy the unfolding of this continued journey.

And now I await the return of our newest pilgrims. I suspect they will first talk about the beautiful sights and the wonderful food. In time they will put together what the pilgrimage really meant for them and begin to glimpse how it has changed them. I look forward to hearing about their unfolding journey.

Peace and all good,

Assisi Pilgrimage: The Vatican


Inside the Vatican: National Geographic


The Sistine Chapel

I remember my time in Italy and especially in Rome last year as if it were yesterday. While I initially had a difficult time adjusting to the fast paced life of Rome I was immediately attracted to the Vatican. Our pension was two blocks away. From my bedroom window I could see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. At night it was lit up and I could not believe my view.

To go almost anywhere in Rome we had to walk though St. Peter’s Square. The size of the square, the columns, and the statues all demanded that we pause. The obelisk of St. Peter's square comes from the Circus of Nero. On the facade of the church there are 5 doors: the Door of the Death, the Bronze Door, the Holy Door (where the Pope kneels every Holy Year in the Christmas day and hits three times the door to enter), the Door of the Good and the Evil and the Door of the Sacraments.

The boulevard that Mussolini created to connect the Vatican to Rome provided a clear view of the Tiber and the bridges that crossed it. Everything about the view told me I was in a very special place.

The Papal apartments appeared to always be busy. Late at night the lights would be on. I found myself walking past to wish “Papa” goodnight.

There was always activity. We would have dinner at an outdoor café and throngs of people would come swarming out of the Vatican at night. They were mostly young and they were singing, playing guitars and yelling, “Viva la Papa”. Priests and sisters from all over the world, with very different habits walked the streets.

The Swiss Guards were everywhere. They had so many different uniforms. All of them were in great shape and I would not want to anger a single one of them.

Father Andre took us on our tour of the Vatican. It was beautiful. It was created out of materials that would always look new. The place was old and shinny. The column that held up Michelangelo’s dome were each wider than my house. The art was wonderful. Mosaics, statues, paintings, the Pieta, there was almost too much to even comprehend.

The dimensions of the Basilica, engraved in the floor, are huge: 211,50 meters (including portico), 186,30 meters (without portico), 44 meters high and the dome is 136 meters high. The Canopy that covers the Major Altar, made by Bernini in 1633, is 29 meters high and has been done with the bronze of the ceiling of the Pantheon under commission of Pope Urbano VIII.

The papal alter over the tomb of St. Peter is magnificent. It is huge, when the sun shines through the windows it looks like it is ablaze in glory. I love this place.

Father Andre showed us where Vatican I and II took place. He took us to the tombs of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Finally he took us to the lower level. Inside a Lithuanian Chapel we celebrate Mass. For Ruta, the art curator at St. Bonaventure University this was especially touching. She is from Lithuania. For me it was overwhelming having Mass in St. Peter’s. The following day I would do my first liturgical reading at our pension, my first reading and it was in Rome!

The next day Ron and Lil and I tour the Vatican Museums. We walk through hall after hall of vibrant frescoes. We view masterpieces in every conceivable medium. I like the Egyptian art and I love the Vatican Gardens. Then we enter the Sistine Chapel.

The chapel is like no other place I have ever visited. The art is beautiful and tells a story without words. This is where Popes are elected and this is where we linger.

It would have been nice to have an audience with the Pope. However, on Wed. he was in Poland. However, we did get to see the joyous faces of those who did meet with him. Additionally, on our last night in Rome we meet Archbishop Hughes of New Orleans and Cardinal Leveda, Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith. It is the job Cardinal Ratzinger held before becoming Pope Benedict. Cardinal Leveda is the highest ranking American in the Vatican. I was excited to be introduced to them. Especially since I was going to New Orleans the week after returning home from Italy.

Rome was wonderful, the Vatican was indeed moving and I cannot wait to return.

Assisi Pilgrimage: Ancient Rome

The Romans were never far from us. Assisi had been an Imperial City. It had a circus and a forum. I spent time below the piazza del commune looking at artifacts of that forum. The city had a Roman brothel. When we were in Assisi the frescoes advertising that business endeavor were temporarily covered up to protect them from on-going construction. The city had a Roman Temple. It was named the Temple of Minerva. Minerva was the Goddess of Wisdom and Peace. She was a healer and indeed this temple had a long history of healing. Before its dedication to Minerva it was associated with the healing powers of Castor and Pollux. Their sister was Helen of Troy and their father was Zeus, not too shabby a family tree. Today the temple is very different. Outside one sees the Corinthian columns and can imagine togas and sandals. Inside is the “Church of Saint Mary Above Minerva”.

The city was originally Etruscan. Then in 295 BCE, Assisi became part of the comune of Rome. In 88 BCE, the city became a "Municipium romanum" (Roman municipality), with all the rights and regulations afforded to Rome. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, the city of Assisi was transformed into a well organized residential center (28-25 BCE). A grand Forum was constructed that included temples, the city walls, the baths and the (healing) springs of mineral waters, and a theatre and amphitheatre. Assisi was indeed a Roman Imperial City.

During the period in which Christianity was viewed as a threat to the Empire the temple was the site of numerous tribunal trials ending in martyrdom for the Christians of the region. When Christianity became the religion of the Empire the temple stood abandoned for over a century. In the second half of the sixth century, the Benedictine monks restored the temple. With the act of May 24, 1212, for one hundred years, with the option of renewal, the Benedictines leased the temple to the Comune of Assisi. The temple has had many reincarnations since then but it continues to stand as a monument to Ancient Rome.

We saw Roman walls being uncovered as workers repaired a road in Assisi. We saw the home of the poet Sextus Properitus (50-15 BCE) located in the ground floor of Santa Maria Maggiore. He was friends with Horace, Virgil and Ovid.

While in Assisi I drank out of a Roman fountain. On our trips we saw Roman Aqueduct. And now finally Rome!

Ron, Lil, Peter and I walked around the Forum. It was enormous and went on for blocks. We saw temples, homes and business centers. The Forum was the political center of Rome during the Republic. There was another temple to Castor and Pollux, one to Saturn, and other lesser temples. The residence of kings was there. We walked and walked and the monuments, digs, foundations to homes continued.

We made it to the Coliseum. It was constructed in 72 CE. It had hidden passages, movable stages, cages and plumbing. Today it stands as a monument to one of the worlds greatest empires. At one time it could hold up to 55,000 spectators. I am stunned by its magnificence.

Finally we walk over to the Pantheon. Originally it held statues of the Roman Gods. After the Empire embraced Christianity it housed statues of the saints. Outside it is stark and stained by auto fumes. Inside it is a temple that houses saints, the sun shines through the dome and one can still easily imagine the Romans, in togas coming to commune with their gods.

The city was full of temples, tombs of Emperors and ancient inscriptions. Still, for me, my favorite site was the tomb of a simple fisherman from Galilee.

I loved our Franciscan Pilgrimage, I loved our Catholic Pilgrimage. However, it was the evidence found everywhere of these ancient pagan people that demanded my attention. I look forward to one day spending more time with the Romans.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: Rome


Pope John Paul II Funeral

We entered Rome tired and quiet, we had just spent six days in Assisi. Now we were in a city of 2.5 million people. It was a time of culture shock. Rome was dirty, loud, there was graffiti, gypsies, the black market. Our lodging was cold compared to Casa Papa Giovanni. Yet it was also only two blocks from St. Peters Square. I could see the dome from my bedroom.

Sister Margaret took us on a “short” walking tour. She had lived in Rome. She got lost and our short walk lasted four and a half hours!

Still, we saw a lot. We saw Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps that were able to connect two very different parts of the city. We walked through piazza navona and the Roman Circus. I loved the art, the statues and the fountains. Everything was over sized. However, I was tired, missed Assisi and just wanted to go home.

By the next morning I was in love with Rome. Our pension had sisters from all over the world. I walked the Tiber by myself for three and a half hours. I walked past embassies, floating gardens, floating soccer fields and nightclubs. I passed all different styles of bridges, each a work of art. I saw the black market, men and women from Africa and Asia trying to make a living. All of their goods were on bed sheets. That way when the police moved in they threw their belongings on their back and walked over to another bridge. At one time I witnessed fifty men migrate from one bridge to another.

I walked past palaces, ancient walls and the hills.

One evening we went to the Trastrevere neighborhood of Rome. We drove past a river embankment made by Mussolini. The walls stopped flooding and reduce typhoid. We passed the prison Pope John XXIII visited against advice on a Christmas Eve. This was the same prison that held the attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. We passed the synagogue John Paul II visited.

Finally we arrived at San Francesco di Rippa. This was the church Francis stayed at when he walked to Rome. It had a long Franciscan history. At one time is functioned as a hospital and was established by Lady Jacobi. It had a number of saints associated with it. Father Andre showed us relics and art. The church was poor, simple, yellow and I loved it.

The church was baroque. Francis visited it in 1229. The church and the neighborhood was always considered poor. And yet there was a Bernini masterpiece in this church.

At various times the church was taken over by Napoleons troops, the united Italian Republic troops and the neighborhood.

Afterwards we all went across the street to an outdoor restaurant and had a wonderful meal. On our ride home we drove thorough the hills of Rome and looked down on the sparking city. We also stopped as Michelangelo’s home. This was originally near the Vatican. However, when Mussolini opened up Rome to the Vatican he moved the house to the top of a hill. It was beautiful.

So while I initially hated Rome, that hate quickly gave way to love. I can not wait to visit Rome again.

Assisi Pilgrimage: Civita


Civita di Bagnoregio

Our last journey outside of Assisi and Rome was to a fairytale land. We visited the home town of St. Bonaventure, Bagnoregio and its “suburb” Civita. Bagnoregio is a quaint town with shops, rolling roads and beautiful old buildings. There is even a Communist Party headquarters!

We entered the church St. Bonaventure attended. We saw the relic of his arm. We saw a bible he read out of. Father Andrea told us we could look wherever we liked. I saw a door ajar and asked if I could enter and Father Andre said yes. I went into a gallery of paintings of Bonaventure from all over the world. Father Andre visits this place yearly and yet never knew it existed! We wished aloud that there was someone who could explain the place to him. So I suggested the priest who was in yet another room. By the time we left Father Andre made a connection between the gallery and St. Bonaventure University and he left with pictures for the school. All because I was curious.

Next we crossed a long footbridge over a valley to the ancient town of Civita. Civita di Bagnoregio is a town of Viterbo province in Central Italy, a frazione of the comune of Bagnoregio. It was founded by Etruscans over twenty-five hundred years ago. Today its population has dwindled to just fifteen residents.

The town sits atop a plateau of volcanic rock overlooking the Tiber river valley

Civita is connected to the town of Bagnoregio by a narrow pedestrian bridge. The original bridge that connected these two villages eroded over two centuries ago and what remained was bombed out during WWII. In 1965 a new bridge was built for local foot traffic. The town is constructed of stone and cobblestone. This was once the main Etruscan road leading to the Tiber Valley and Rome.

In this little town you will find the Piazza del Duomo. Nearby is the church, the Chiesa San Donato. The church was built in the 8th century over a pagan temple. There is also a Romanesque bell tower or campanil. Near the church there is a wine cellar and an olive press that dates back to Etruscan times.

We go into the church and view the relics, the saints and the art. Father Andre gives us a lecture that is more like an impassioned sermon about Bonem, “God IS Good and all good comes from God”. There was nothing neutral about this talk. I have been studying the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. I know there is a strong move to reestablish its preeminence in Catholic Institutes of Higher Education. However, I believe friars became friars, and sisters became sisters and Seculars became Secular not because of the Intellectual Tradition but because of the Spiritual Tradition. We need both heart and mind and today I heard a talk fueled by the heart.

Afterwards we go to the one restaurant in this town. It is wonderful and the food is magnificent. On our drive back to Rome we passed valleys, snow covered mountains, a volcano and Roman Aqueducts. It was a great day. I cannot wait to hear our current pilgrims share their experiences at Civita.

Assisi Pilgrimage: La Verna

One of the most powerful places we visited last year during our Franciscan Pilgrimage was La Verna. Again, a sanctuary in the forest on the side of yet another mountain. The view from the top was breathtaking. This is a sanctuary that will be forever associated with the Stigmata. However, it is so much more than that.

In 1213 Francis and Brother Leo were at the castle of San Leone enjoying a feast. For Francis social occasions were always opportunities to share the good news. As he neared the castle there was a contest of minstrels taking place. He used that contest to speak of his love of God. Listening was the Cont of Chiusi, Orlando Catani. The Count was very impressed.

After dinner the Count invited Francis and his friars to visit his mountain in the Tuscany region of Italy, La Verna. After a brief visit the mountain became a center of Franciscan prayer and contemplation.

Francis went to the mountain for yearly retreats and visited at least six times. These were times of profound prayer. Francis’ health continued to deteriorate. He had completed his Rule of the Order. The administration of the order had been established. Then on 12 September 1224 after deep and intense prayer he asked to experience the sacrifice of Christ. On that evening he received the stigmata. Francis left La Verna at the end of the month. For the next two years of his remaining life he attempted to hide the stigmata, only his closets friends knew of it. The stigmata, a powerful sign of his devotion to gospel-living is only one reason to visit this holy site.

The sanctuary is the site of numerous chapels. The art work alone would be worth a visit. The porcelains done by two generations of one family are beautiful. The mother and father made their art in white and blues, their children added yellows and greens. All of this required materials, fuels and furnaces be carried through the valley, the forest and up the mountain!

We had services in the main chapel and then walked in procession with the friars from the chapel through the chapel corridor with its frescoes to the Stigmata Chapel for another ceremony.

I spent time in Bonaventure’s chapel. This is where he wrote The Soul’s Journey into God. I read this in my Pastoral Counseling class. I reached out and touched both walls and connected with each of my classmates.

Next to it was Anthony of Padua’s chapel. Both were named because they served as the cells they stayed at.

We visited the cave Francis stayed at. I put my fingers through the grating and touched the stone he slept on. We visited Sasso Spicco or Projecting Rock, an overhang that served as a site of prayer.

I repeatedly went to The Precipe. This was a site that John Paul II stood at and addressed the crowd below. Each time I visited there I was greeted by Brother Lizard.

My peers climbed to the top of the mountain. I did not. Instead I returned again and again to the caves and chapels. I also spent time leaning against a stone hut eating my lunch. This was the hut of Blessed John who lived there for 30 years.

The Stigmata Chapel was powerful because it was so simple. The site was where something miraculous occurred to one person but which we can all be witness to.

The art, the music, the services and time with the saints and with the mountain made this a particularly memorable day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: Sanctuaries


St. Francis: Brother Sun, Sister moon

Not everyday last year was spent in Assisi. We of course spent time in Rome. However, today I want to spend some time talking about the sanctuaries or hermitages Francis and the friars developed and used.

The friars rejected the notion that you could be either in the world or separate from the world. They preached the good news (occasionally using words!) in the world. Their numbers grew, in the world. However, to keep the focus on God and not them they needed to constantly have time with God. For that they needed solitude and for that they created a number of sanctuaries.

Our day off last year was on The Feast of the Accession, so we ascended! Not like Daniel Jackson or Jesus. Rather, we climbed and climbed and climbed and… Ron and Lil Schumacher, Peter Ghiloni and Peter’s friend who just happened to join us climbed Mount Subasio. The mountain is part of the Apennine mountain system. We climbed above the city, above the fortress and we climbed some more. We were sweating, laughing and stopping and saying, “Oh, look at that”. The view, the panorama was breathtaking.

Two hours later (or a 10 minute taxi ride) we reached the top and entered The Carceri Hermitage. This was one of the original sanctuaries. In this secluded forest on the side of the mountain were caves, grottos, places to be alone and to pray. I walked up and down the valleys, a small cave here, another there. These were tiny openings in the earth not to be mistaken with Mammoth Caves! Most would only accommodate one person, some were too small to stand up in, and some were so small you would have to lie on your back. Francis and the friars would withdraw to the mountain, the forest, the caves to meditate. Once they were “recharged” they were back in the world.

The commune realized the value of the friars to Assisi. They had already built a stone hut at the Porziuncula. Five thousand Friars and five hundred novitiates attended the “Chapter of the Mats” held at Porziuncola from 1220-1221. It was called this because the friars made temporary housing for themselves using mats. The commune made the hut to shelter Francis. Francis responded by climbing on top of the building and throwing down roof tiles. Once guards from the commune informed him the hut belonged to the commune he stopped trying to tear it down!

The commune also claimed the forests around The Carceri. They recognized the importance of this site to the friars. Franciscans have a “Mountain Spirituality” that is part of their Charism. It is as much a part of them as “Desert Spirituality” was a part of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

We spent half the day walking along the valley, mountain side and among the caves. We went to the Hermitage and chapel. We viewed the sculpture. This is a place of beauty and quiet.

Assisi is in the Spoleto Valley. This valley is the home of Franciscanism. The cities of Spoleto, Perugia and Assisi are testaments to the birth of a mendicant movement. However, it is not the only valley that can claim a powerful influence on the Franciscans. The Rieta Valley is the home of numerous hermitages.
Saint Francis visited Rieti many times. Francis popularized the crèche or “Living Nativity” in Greccio, the final Rule of the Franciscan Order and the Canticle of All Creatures are all associated with Francis and the Rieti Valley.

Rieti valley is ancient. It is in the center of the Italian peninsula. The Romans recognized its potential strategic valley. However, during Roman times the valley was a lake. So the Romans used their famed ingenuity and drained the lake creating a valley that served as the perfect military staging area.

There are five Franciscan retreats in the valley. We stop at two, Greccio and La Foresta. At Greccio we view the models of nativity sets. In Greccio the Incarnation is not old history, it is today. When the valley had been hit by an earthquake the nativity scenes were of tents and first responders and baby Jesus! We celebrate Mass. We tour the dorms and secluded space of the friars. All of this is built on the side of a mountain. It is beautiful.

Then we go to La Foresta. Outside is Mundo X, this is an agrarian rehab center for serious drug addict. It is run by the friars. The gardens are beautiful. One of the friars and one of the residents are our guest speakers.

We have lunch together, all around a huge table in a magnificent room. The meal is a typical Italian Christmas Dinner! Our prayers are Christmas Carols. This was a wonderful day. And then we leave for Rome. Our time in Assisi is over but we were about to experience Francis time in Rome. As I write this our current pilgrims have also completed their time in Assisi and are beginning to be introduced to Rome. I hope they were prepared for culture shock!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: Don Aldo

One of the most memorable experiences of our pilgrimage last year had nothing to do with Francis or Franciscans! We spent an evening with Don Aldo Brunacci. He was the last Cannon of Assisi and he ran Casa Papa Giovanni. I knew he was one of the three heroes of Assisi who helped save the city during World War II.

This evening the pilgrims and 50 students from St. Bonaventure University who were studying in nearby Perugia got to hear him speak of his experiences. We all gathered in the chapel. This was an appropriate place for all of us to hear his story. Casa Papa Giovanni had many functions, it was not always a religious boarding house for Franciscans. It had been a family palace. It had served as a school and in fact Don Aldo attended the school when he was young. During World War II it was converted into a hospital. There were many such hospitals. The goal was to have the allies recognize Assisi as a hospital city so it would not be destroyed. Finally, Don Aldo had celebrated Mass at my favorite little church, Santos Stefano, it was about three blocks away. When he returned he was arrested right outside of this building, feet way from the chapel. He was arrested by the fascist for aiding Jews. Luckily the German occupation was over before any harm came to Don Aldo. This was indeed an appropriate place to hear him talk.

We heard many things that night. We heard how he and the bishop hid Jewish artifacts in the bishop’s basement. How together they made a false wall to hide Torahs, pointers and prayer books. How he taught Hebrew to Jewish children and eventually saved 250 Jews. He provided secret Jewish funerals and overtly Christian funerals. The descendants of the Jewish refugees of Assisi continued to visit him and visit the graves of their ancestors. Not one Jew was turned over to the Nazis and no attempt was made to convert them.

Don Aldo was part of an active underground that made false documents. He is clear that the plan to save the Jews came directly from the Pope.

For this life of continual bravery he has received numerous awards. The State of Israel awarded Father Brunacci the Medal of the Righteous Gentile for his efforts. The Yad Vashem Museum and Research Center in Israel and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington also have recognized him. He was part of an archival film project headed by Steven Spielberg that focuses on Holocaust victims and the Righteous Gentiles who aided them, and he was an advisor to the 1985 film, “Assisi Underground,” which starred Ben Cross, Maximilian Schell and James Mason.

St Bonaventure University in New York presented him in February of 2004 with the university’s National Gaudete Medal, which honors leaders who exemplify the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and who inspire others.

Father Brunacci remarked after the war: "In all, about 200 Jews were entrusted to us by Divine Providence; with God’s help, and through the intercession of St. Francis, not one of them fell into the hands of their persecutors."

Afterwards we all had a wonderful dinner together. However, for me, just spending time with Don Aldo, hearing his humility, his belief he was only doing what anyone else would have done, just being with him was a high mark of my life. Don Aldo died Feb. 01, 2007.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Assisi Pilgrimage: A City of Saints

Our last formal day of tours in Assisi focused on the deaths of the saints. We went to the Basilica of San Francesco. This is an enormous structure that anchors a side of the town. It looks down at the valley like a mighty fortress. In fact it houses Papal apartments and has the look of a fortress/castle/palace/cathedral. The road that a lead up to it continues to gates leaving the walled city.

In front of the Upper Churchyard is a large Tau and PAX made of red bushes. The Lower Churchyard is stone and has a large art exhibit. To one side our cliff hugging restaurants and very comfortable homes.

As we entered the Upper Church Father Andre gives us a lecture on the artwork. The upper church is the home of extensive and vibrant frescoes. It almost looks Middle Eastern. The church is huge and friars are busy keeping everybody quiet, this is a holy place and only whispers are allowed.

As we make our way to the lower church we pass the tomb of “Brother” Jacobi.

The lower church is different, more somber. As we get close to the room that holds the remains of the saint we pass wrought iron gates. The tomb is huge and looks more like a combination monument and safe. That is because it was meant to protect Francis from thieves. People take candles and slowly walk up to Francis, head bowed and then say their prayers. I arrive the next morning at 7:00 A.M. and it is a different picture. Early in the morning people crawl, two by two, on their knees, the length of the room to the saint. I cannot believe I am in the same room with him.

In the afternoon we walk over to the Basilica of Santa Chiara. The first sanctuary has a more modern version of the San Damiano Cross, it is of the passion and has more movement. I prefer the original. The sanctuary next door has the original cross that started Francis series of conversions. I repeatedly go back to this site throughout the week.

In the main alter, to the left hand the 12 tall Tavola of St. Clare. Sister Felicity first introduced me to this piece of art. I used the concept of tavolas in my Personality class. Now I am kneeling before it. I am awestruck.

The lower church holds relics of the saint, a copy of The Order and of course it has the tomb of Saint Clare. Our time here is quiet, reflective.

When we go back up to the main church the St. Clare Society of Nice France is celebrating Mass. The Society is composed of families with special needs members, the disabilities are visible, and so is the excitement. Afterwards they hand out paper blessings, they call me over and give me one, and I still have it.

That evening we have dinner with 50 students from St. Bonaventure University who are going to school in neighboring Perugia. We also sit and listen to Don Aldo talk about his experiences in Assisi during World War II. I will speak more on that later.

And so I go to bed tonight wondering what our current pilgrims have experienced today. I know every pilgrimage is different, I also know Assisi touches and changes people and I am anxious to hear their experiences.

Assisi Pilgrimage: The Birth of a Movement


The Little Church: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

One year ago we spent the day going to sites that gave birth to the Franciscan Movement. First we went to The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli or Saint Mary of the Angels. This is an enormous church in the valley. The courtyard can hold much of the city population. The dome is uncharacteristically blue. On top of the dome is a huge statue of the Virgin Mother. This is the seventh largest Christian church in the world. The grounds it sits on and the little treasure inside is what makes it so very special.

This is the site of the Porziuncola or “the small parcel”. This is the land given to the early Franciscans by the Benedictines. The Franciscans grew quickly and need more space. The Porziuncola was one of the churches Francis rebuilt. It is tiny and oh so special. The courtyard was the site of huts the friars stayed in.

Only a few feet from this incredibly important chapel, the Porziunical is the Cappella del Transito. This is the site where Francis died.

While the Porziuncola is important to all Franciscan as a site of the birth of the Movement, Seculars view it as the essential site for the birth of their Order.

The enormous and ornate Basilica is built over these tiny, simple structures. Outside the doors of the Basilica is where Pope John Paul II held three World Peace Services. During the first service on Oct. 27, 1986 more than 120 representatives of different religions and Christian denominations spent a day together with fasting and praying.

In the afternoon we went to San Damiano. This is where Francis prayed before the cross and heard the voice of Christ tell him to “rebuild my church”. Being a little concrete Francis began by rebuilding churches, starting with this one! Under this edifice is where he hides from his father who was angry at Francis decision to care for and become one with the poor. This became the convent for St. Clare and her sisters. From these walls St. Clare changed the history of the church. This is the site of the birth of the Order of St. Clare’s. Francis wrote his first draft of The Canticle of the Creatures here.

St. Clare was a healer and we have a healing ceremony at the site of her death. Afterwards we walk up the side of the mountain and stop to eat at a wonderful restaurant, “Paradise”, and it is. The fountains are Roman fountains and I make sure I drink out of them. This was a wonderful pilgrimage that I cannot forget and today I think of my peers who are there this very day. I know they are happy!

Thursday, May 24, 2007


So, what is the big deal about the life of Francis of Assisi? For me it is his willingness or driven-ness to live an authentic gospel-life. I am impressed because I know I could not do that. The idea of trusting that poverty was indeed what is expected of us, or at least of him and so then living a life of vows, a life of seeing Christ in all, of connecting to all, that is what impresses me. He is not called God’s Fool for nothing!

So last week I started looking up people I worked with in the mid 1970s. I looked up Jim and Judy, friends of mine who back then were living radical Christian lives and not being defined by anyone else’s political/religious dogma. What did I find out? They are now living in Thailand and ministering to young women who have been sold into the sex industry. They are living authentic, gospel-lives. I am impressed.

They then connect me to a ministry in Chicago that works with male prostitutes. Their motivation is not big numbers in church, it is not to be morally superior, it is to love. This sounds like Francis and the lepers to me, this sounds like Christ and the world to me. And now I am back in contact with Jim and Judy. One more wandering, I wonder where it will lead…

Brother Leo

Six years ago my youngest daughter spent a day “shadowing” our veterinarian. The vet brought in a blind turtle she was going to put to sleep. My daughter asked if she could have it. Short version, I have been caring for “Leo” ever since.

Leo and I have a relationship. I know his sounds and moods, he knows I am a source of food, clean water and trips outside. After last years pilgrimage to Assisi I renamed Leo, “Brother Leo” after Francis’ close friend.

Three weeks ago I forgot to bring Brother Leo in at bedtime. The next morning he was gone. We have raccoons in our yard and hawks and crows in our neighborhood. Leo was dead and it was my fault. Yesterday, while thinking about the pilgrimage I bumped into Brother Leo in my yard. It was 90 degrees out, he was hot and angry but alive. I put him in his indoor pool, fed him and gave thanks for him.

After doing a little research though one thing became apparent, Brother Leo is a female! Still in the Franciscan tradition of friars on pilgrimage taking turns being the “mother” and after Lady Jacobi being named “Brother Jacobi” so she could visit her good and ill friend Francis, I think this little girl will remain “Brother Leo”!