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franciscan - May 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002


By Brother Desmond Alban SSF

Were we really on a pilgrimage, or just on holiday, like so many other tourists, enjoying the architectural glories of Italy, the beauty of an Umbrian autumn and the food?  In noting my impressions from a first-time visit to Assisi made last year with Brother Martin Philip, I would certainly wish to show off all my holiday ‘snaps’.  But the pilgrim in me also wants to share what was most meaningful and unique: the recognition of a connection with vocation, the moments of reflection, the discovery of some of the lesser-known holy sites and, of course, the people we met.


I suppose I first realised that people were going to be an important part of our pilgrimage back on the sleeper leaving Paris for Rome.  We’d been a little apprehensive about sharing our compartment, but our companions turned out to be a Little Sister of Jesus and a young woman called Clare (!) travelling to seek work in the Vatican.  In the next compartment a group of Indian Franciscan Missionaries of Mary sang their Office in English after saying hello to us.  How appropriate was the psalm set that evening, Psalm 133, ‘O how good and pleasant it is when a family lives together in unity.’


Even if one had no interest in St Francis, the Piazza del Commune on a warm October evening would be a lovely place to relax on holiday.  It is the municipal heart of the city and a beautiful place to enjoy the pasta, wine, coffee or Italian ice-cream which must be some of my favourite things.  Dominating that square were the six Corinthian columns of the first-century Temple of Minerva, now a church.  Those columns helped me link the experiences of holiday and pilgrimage, for I next saw them depicted in the very first of Giotto’s scenes in the life of St Francis in the Basilica of St Francis.  Here, in one of the less-often reproduced frescoes, was a rich man paying homage to St Francis in the very same spot where we enjoyed our ice-creams – a reminder indeed of where we had arrived.


What of those great basilicas – San Francesco, Santa Chiara, Santa Maria degli Angeli...?  They are the subject of controversy.  One cannot, of course, imagine Francis or Clare building anything like them.  Yet here were monuments to faith, whatever other mixed motives were involved, celebrations of the grace of God, commemorations of an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in thirteen-century Umbria and around the world.  A glance around the reproductions on the walls of our friaries in the UK, or in the books on our shelves, would demonstrate how well-loved and familiar the art commissioned for those places is to us.  It seems churlish to appreciate the frescoes and yet then criticise the walls on which they are painted!


Autumn four years on from the 1997 earthquake proved to be a good time to visit Assisi – though not perhaps to see all of those lesser-known places.  All the major sites were now fully open and restored but some of the smaller places were not.  One small place we did just come across though, on our very first evening’s exploration, was the tiny church of San Francesco Piccolino, with its legend: ‘This Oratory was the stall for cows and the ass where St Francis, mirror of the world, was born.’  Nearby, stood the seventeenth-century Chiesa Nuova, built over the site of the home of Francis’ father.  Indeed, a small room inside claimed to be the one where Francis’ father locked him up after he had sold his cloth to repair San Damiano, and a waxwork figure of the Saint could be seen still incarcerated.  Whether literally correct or not, here were reminders that we were standing near the places where the events that formed our Franciscan vocation actually occurred.  In a building outside the cathedral of San Rufino, a small shrine marked the family home of St Clare, and in the cathedral one could with greater certainty see the font where the Christian life of both saints began, just as it does for us, in the water of rebirth.  It is New Life, both the everyday miracle of human birth and the transformation wrought by the Spirit, that the simple oratory of the Piccolino celebrated.  If it is a profoundly simple celebration of those realities that one seeks it is to be found in a number of the smaller churches that crowd the city.


Unforgettable moments for me will include a simple, delicious lunch of bread, cheese and olives taken in the sunshine on the wall above one such church, San Stefano, before we prayed in the silent company of other pilgrims inside.  Later in the week, wandering up from the original cathedral (Santa Maria Maggiore), and the bishop’s palace next door where Francis had renounced the world, we found ourselves at that same spot, this time the sun cooling rapidly as it set before us over the plain.  Not for the only time, the sensation was as if we were somehow flying above the world around us.  Darkness falls quickly in the Umbrian autumn though, and it was in darkness that we found the church of San Giacomo de Mororupto – a church built in a cleft rock – which Martin had heard was particularly beautiful.  In our exploration that day we were joined by a young Canadian civil servant, taking advantage of his government’s enlightened sabbatical policy, and with the permission of the sisters in whose convent that church is located, the three of us prayed the Evening Office together, a sung Magnificat gently filling the empty resonance of that ancient church.


That relaxed shared prayer and the simple experience of unity with strangers on a train was in such contrast to the atrocities in New York and Washington a few weeks earlier, and the bombing of Afghanistan which had commenced just the night before we began our journey.  We knew that prayer for peace, and for the greater ‘unity of all peoples on earth’ had to be an intention for our pilgrimage.  A desire for peace brought a crowd of 150,000 to Assisi on the Sunday of our visit, on a March-for-Peace from Perugia.  Mindful that this was an annual event run by Communists and Trade Unionists rather than the churches, and of the violence seen at Genoa earlier in the year, our American hosts advised us to stay in.  By late afternoon though, I decided I still wanted to walk to Santa Maria degli Angeli for Vespers, and I found myself caught up in the huge, friendly, almost celebratory, human tide.  The Italian equivalent of Venture Scouts, along with family groups and groups of the disabled, were far more evident than any kind of ‘radicals’, and the infamous carabinieri were relaxed and smiling.  I felt ashamed to be only an accidental participant!


One of Assisi’s most significant events of recent years must be the gathering of religious leaders to pray for peace at the invitation of the present Pope early in his pontificate.  (I was delighted to hear of a similar invitation issued for January 2002.)  In a much smaller but significant event on our last evening in the city, members of different faith groups met for peace prayers in front of the Basilica of Saint Francis and it was good to join them, along with Sister Gillian Clare from Freeland, and a number of Anglican Tertiaries.  The mixture of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Native American spirituality was a fascinating one, but the warmest applause was reserved in the circumstances for the representative of Islam.  Eight hundred years ago Francis crossed ‘enemy lines' to meet the Sultan as his brother human being, as well as to speak of Christ, and in his beloved Assisi I learned again that loyalty to the gospel never demands that we exclude or fear other human beings in their quest for Peace and for God.  We are all pilgrims together. f


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