As with last semester, the PC/CEA Program in Rome has been lucky to work with students from the Pontifical North American College. The purpose of our relationship is to help PC students along the path of their own spiritual journeys, in whatever form those may take. Some of their sponsored activities involve volunteering with local charities in Rome, weekly Bible study, and sometimes just having fun around town — the guys from the ‘PNAC’ seem to know all the best gelato joints in Rome! And one of the opportunities they provide is a day-trip to one of Italy’s many magnificent Holy Sites. Last semester, we venerated the tomb of St. Dominic in Bologna. And this semester, we went to Assisi to visit the Basilica of St. Francis.
Born in 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant, St. Francis’s youth in Assisi was marked by a carefree and notoriously rambunctious lifestyle. When Assisi went to an ill-advised war with Umbrian neighbor Perugia, Francis was captured and imprisoned. Due to his father’s wealth, he was ransomed and returned to Assisi, — with a very different outlook on life. After a dream of God, Francis was led to reflect on his life of material wealth and the meaning of a spiritual life. He spent years in happy poverty reflecting on his relationship with God, with others, and ultimately with himself. At the church of San Damiano, Francis heard Christ speak to him from the cross: “Francis, repair my Church!”
We started the day with a two-hour train ride from Rome to Assisi. The Umbrian town sits high atop Mt. Subasio, and so the train requires a subsequent bus ride up through the winding streets, through a layer of fog, and into a Medieval world of umber-colored buildings.
Our first stop was the Basilica itself. Built in 1228, the year Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX, it is the Mother Church of the Franciscan Order. Students were surprised to learn there are actually two churches on-site, an upper (completed 1253) and lower church (1230). The churches are decorated in Romanesque and Gothic style respectively by some of the best artists of the time, foremost among them Cimabue and his student, the proto-Renaissance master, Giotto. At a still lower level rest the holy remains of St. Francis himself, which were hidden within a crypt to prevent potential relic looters until their rediscovery in 1818.
But what historical details like this can’t prepare students for is the overwhelming feeling of the sacred that pilgrims feel in the presence of St. Francis’s earthly remains. It’s impossible to put into words that inner profundity of the genuinely sacred site.
After some time in quiet reflection, Fr. Brian, Deacon Vince, and Deacon Colin offered us a rare opportunity: a private mass at a small chapel within the Basilica’s ‘Sacra Convento’. Deacon Vince’s homily called us to reflect on the Gospel’s words and Francis’ life within a contemporary context.
After mass, we explored together the city, climbing its steep hills and working up a healthy appetite in preparation for a decidedly non-Franciscan feast!
After lunch, we made stops at the church of San Rufino, who was the first Patron Saint of Assisi before St. Francis, and also the church of St. Clare, which houses her remains.
Our final stop was located in Assisi’s ‘new town’, in the valley of Mt. Subasio: the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels. The basilica was built in the 16th Century in order to contain a sacred site of the Franciscans, the “Porziuncola”. This church-within-a-church was the very one Francis worked on when he heard Christ’s voice say: “Francis, repair my Church!” Francis had been given this poor little 9th century building as a gift from the Benedictines. Taking Christ’s words literally, Francis repaired the physical church before setting off upon his life’s work to repair the spiritual church. Today the Porziuncola serves as a reminder of Francis’ conversion and work especially on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. And it serves to call the millions of Christian pilgrims who visit Assisi each year to continue his work to ‘repair the church’ through their living communion.