Assisi awaits Pope Francis (it is expected in Rome that the new Pope, named Francis, will travel to Assisi in early October). Already, many people are traveling to Assisi to rediscover the life and writings of St. Francis and to pray at the saint’s tomb. It is a pilgrimage which is best done quietly, on your own.
The best thing is to go there by train, as the Popes in the past have done. Assisi is savored slowly, slowly entering the Umbrian countryside, almost with the rhythm of the Poverello (the “little poor man”). The pilgrims who arrive on foot have a light in their eyes that is expressed in prayer. This is what Assisi is like. It conquers you and overwhelms you. “I always tell the pilgrims: when you leave Assisi you must be different, converted. Otherwise it is better to go to the bar,” an American Franciscan, Father Martino, says with a New Yorkish smile. His task is to welcome Americans to Assisi. There are many. What are they looking for? “Peace, quiet, solitude and contact with creation,” he says. Often there are wealthy American businessmen accustomed to 5-star hotels. Here they live for a week without air conditioning and without a mobile phone. “Never felt better,” they say. “There is peace of heart.” To find this peace, they choose two places: the hermitage of Le Carceri and the Monastery of San Damiano.
The caves of the hermitage where the saint lived in solitude in the school of St. Benedict are now places of worship, but all around are the modern seekers of silence. Around the caves there is a garden, with the tree that popular piety holds to be the place where Francis spoke to the birds. And turtledoves, photographed by all, have found a home in the arms of the statue of Francis behind the rose garden of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
There, far from the old city, guarded by the imposing white 18th-century church, is the Portiuncula. The chapel, again inherited by the Benedictines, is a place of forgiveness. Eight centuries ago, Francis sought and obtained a plenary indulgence for all who pray, confess and attend Mass here. (The feast of the indulgence is celebrated on August 2). Many today are waiting, some for hours, to confess to the friars in the confessionals. Some write everything in a notebook. “Every time I come here, I bring a new notebook and I write down everything I think,” says one young woman. Her eyes are full of light as she speaks. She is a “pilgrim of forgiveness,” less than 30 years old, backpack and jacket, Roman accent and big blue eyes. “I teach kids,” she says. And what thoughts does this place evoke? “Of what it means to forgive. We need to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others. Francis taught us this. This is done through sacrifice, embracing suffering.” She recounts her life, from the abyss to God, all written, year after year, in her notes after each confession.
There is the scent of flowers in the air, like the flowers which still show the place where Clare sat in the ancient refectory of the convent of San Damiano. She is the woman of listening, silence, prayer, manual labor offered and suffered. Her work is still there — the worn habits she sewed for Francis, which are now precious relics. From San Damiano, one follows the crucifix to the Basilica of Santa Chiara, the famous crucifix that “spoke” to Francis, telling him: “Repair my Church.”
Still, sometimes it is not easy to find Francis in Assisi today. There is also the risk of being stunned by the beauty of the frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue. But Father Francis never wanted that magnificent and imposing basilica. Extreme in everything as he was, he wanted his body to be forgotten.
But around his tomb there are also his companions: Silvestro, Bernardo and others. They walked a lot, across the world, the bones of their feet tell us.
The basilicas and the tomb of the saint form a temple in the shape of a cross. “One must reflect on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ when kneeling before the tomb of St. Francis,” a pilgrim says. “Then you climb towards the resurrection to new life, also physically, from darkness to light.”
It is not a theologian who explains this to his students quietly in the gloom of the crypt, but a mother to her two children. “I want to explain to them who Francis is now that we have a Pope who chose this name.” They hold hands, as do an elderly Belgian couple who, alone before the side altar, renew their marriage vows.
“When we were about to marry, my wife said, let’s do it in Assisi. Since then, every year we celebrate our wedding anniversary here. After 34 years and three children we are still happy to pray to Francis. And now with the Pope who bears his name, who knows how many will want to re-read the Fioretti.” The Fioretti of St. Francis are the simple and imaginative stories of the Seraphic Father.
Leaving Assisi, it comes to mind that Los Angeles gets its name from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. When you take the train you meet all the pilgrims again at the station, like the Spanish lady who proudly carries a stick with the shell of Santiago de Compostela and, waving to all, wishes them all “Buon viaggio.”