Four Basilicas and A Catacomb

The  Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Our journeys today took us to three of the four Major Basilicas in Rome: St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major. En route to our hotel, we had time to stop and visit St. Mary of the Martyrs, better known as The Pantheon.

This was the first day that the weather was sunny with no rain, though when we visited the Pantheon, which has an occulus that is not covered, there was a wet spot in the floor.

We had a small mini-bus today, which allowed our friendly driver, Rafaelo, to navigate some of the “rabbit warrens” that the Romans call streets. Since President Obama was still in town, we took a different route to St. Paul Outside the Walls than we usually would have. This gave Nancy the opportunity to highlight some of the sites along the Tiber.

Exterior of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Exterior of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

St. Paul Outside the Walls is what is called a “tomb church,” meaning that the church is built over the tomb of a saint, in this case the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus. The Basilica is care for by the Benedictines and it boasts a grand, open space for worship which means that the view is unobstructed to the magnificent apse with exquisite mosaic work. While it took awhile to figure out how to exit the basilica grounds, we eventually re-grouped at the minibus and headed the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, which were relatively close. (We also thought that we would have less of a chance of running into a blocked street due to the president’s presence in the city.

The Catacomb tour was interesting, but I have to say that I was glad that it was relatively short as I was beginning to feel a bit anxious down there. One of our group had the same thought, “I hope that there’s not an earthquake now.”

The magnificent apse of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The mosaic features St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Francis (his figure is smaller than the figure of the apostles), the Blessed Mother, St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony of Padua, and St. John the Evangelist. This church is dedicated to both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.
The magnificent apse of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The mosaic features St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Francis (his figure is smaller than the figure of the apostles), the Blessed Mother, St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony of Padua, and St. John the Evangelist. This church is dedicated to both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

We then headed to the Cathedral Church of Rome, St. John Lateran. Somewhere here in St. John’s or the adjoining papal palace, St. Francis would have sought approval of the Order from Pope Innocent III. Nancy pointed out a set of bronze statues of Francis and his early companions that are near the Basilica. If you look at the statues from the back, it appears that Francis is holding up the Lateran Basilica, reminiscent of the dream that Innocent III had where he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing, and a tiny man in a penitent’s habit rushed out of nowhere and supported the building. In the beautiful apse of St. John’s you see the smaller figures of St. Francis and St. Anthony

We then traveled to St. Mary Major with its ceiling that is decorated with some of the first gold brought back (some might say “stolen”) from the New World. Again, there is a marvelous mosaic in the apse depicting the Coronation of Mary.

Sister Nancy Celaschi shares a point about St. Mary Major with John Joseph
Sister Nancy Celaschi shares a point about St. Mary Major with John Joseph

What interested me most in this church was the small chapel with the icon of Mary and Jesus that the Romans refer to as Salus Populi Romani, (Protector of the People of Rome). The day after Pope Francis was elected he journeyed here, to St. Mary Major, to spend time in quiet prayer in front of this image. (He did the same before he departed for World Youth Day in Brazil). I took several moments in this Chapel to gaze at the image of the Blessed Mother and to ask for her intercession for a number of people in need at this time. I felt a deep sense of peace as I gazed at this ancient image. I hope that that same peace will be with those I lifted up in prayer.

As we drove back to the hotel, Rafaelo managed to drive us by some of the highlights of Rome: The Forum, The Baths of Caracalla, the Colliseum, to name a few, when we discovered that we had a bit of extra time and Steve asked if we would like to do a quick visit to the Pantheon since it was closed in the evening. Rafaelo parked the bus by Bernini’s Elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on top of it, and we piled out to see the interior of the Pantheon.

The tomb of the Renaissance genius, Raphael, in the Pantheon. The Latin inscription on the lip of the sarcophagus reads, "Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori," meaning: "Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die."
The tomb of the Renaissance genius, Raphael, in the Pantheon. The Latin inscription on the lip of the sarcophagus reads, “Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori,” meaning: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

I asked Steve where Raphael’s tomb was and he kindly showed me where it is located. The space is truly amazing. The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore or the Jefferson Memorial come to mind as you stand in this ancient space.

As we walked to bus, I happened to see Gamarelli’s the tailoring shop that has provided the white cassocks (one in small, medium and large) for a newly elected pope. (There were no white cassocks out, but John Joseph saw a lovely red biretta on display as well as a “Fiddleback” chasuble. Alas, Rafaelo had arrived and John had to kiss his dream of a red hat goodbye.

Some of our group in front of Gammarelli's, the supplier of ecclesiatical apparel (think of them as the clergy's equivalent of a Saville Row tailor in London). Fr. Steve seems to have his eyes on that scarlet biretta.
Some of our group in front of Gammarelli’s, the supplier of ecclesiatical apparel (think of them as the clergy’s equivalent of a Saville Row tailor in London). Fr. Steve seems to have his eyes on that scarlet biretta.

Not so Bella Roma

We arrived at our hotel in Rome — after our bus was in a standoff with a municipal bus coming down the hill — in the afternoon, around 4:30. After an all-too-quick rest, where I didn’t get much rest because the Wi-Fi here is terrible and it took forever to upload photos and my Christmas post, we headed out for a walking tour of the city.

Our hotel is close to St. Peter’s so we walked to the piazza in front of St. Peter’s and Nancy did a short explanation of the facade and the obelisk in the main square. She also pointed out the Sistine Chapel and the location of the Francis and Clare statues, part of many statues on top of the massive colonnade designed by Bernini. (I remember an Ursuline Sister telling me that the colonnade represented the “long arms of the Church.”)

We walked to the subway and exited at Piazza Spagna, the stop near the Spanish Steps. It was here that one of our group had a taste of the seedier sides to Rome. Steve and Nancy had warned us prior to our arrival in Rome about the omnipresence of pickpockets, and both of them urged us to keep our valuables in inside pockets or securely around our neck. Steve strongly reiterated this as we headed to the subway platform. As we were leaving the train station for the Spanish Steps, one of our group noticed two girls hanging out and sensed trouble. Sure enough, one of them had her hand in one of our party’s pockets and was preparing to relieve him of his wallet when the other guy in our group smacked her arm (his wife scolded her to which she replied in some choice Italian phrases, phrases that you don’t find the Berlitz pocket Italian books.

Despite the attempted theft and the persistent, driving rain that we encountered by the Trevi fountain, we made our way to one of Steve’s favorite haunts when he was a student in Rome. As we turned the corner, we ran into our Minister General, Fr. Marco Tasca, who was just returning home.

After supper, the rain had ceased, so we were able to enjoy our walk through the various piazzas (Rotundo, near the Pantheon; Piazza Navona, site of another magnificent Bernini fountain, and the small piazza in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.) Steve pointed out the various Egyptian obelisks that are part of these sites. The obelisk on top of the elephant carved by Bernini which is outside of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, is one of Steve’s favorites.

We caught the notorious 64 bus (notorious because it is the office for many a pickpocket in Rome) back to the area of our hotel and crashed for the night.

I didn’t take my camera with me last night, so sorry, no photos.

Christmas in March…well it sure felt like it weather-wise

 

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View of the Rieti Valley from the terrace of the Hermitage at Greccio.

Seriously, we celebrated Christmas today. We bid farewell to Assisi amid a strong, cold wind coupled with some serious drizzle and we headed for the Rieti Valley to the little town of Greccio where Francis in 1223 decided to help the people of the small village come to a deeper significance of what Christmas meant for them and everyone.

Sister Nancy setting the scene for us Greccio. We are on a terrace that overlooks the Rieti Valley.
Sister Nancy setting the scene for us Greccio. We are on a terrace that overlooks the Rieti Valley.

Francis felt a special bond with the people of Greccio, who welcomed him and listened to him and who were, for the most part, poor as church mice. He wanted them to understand the significance of Christmas and the Incarnation by planning a surprise for them on the evening of the 24th. As we stood on the terrace overlooking the valley so that we could get a sense of the space, Sister Nancy asked us to close our eyes. ‘Imagine it is evening; a torchlight procession comes from the village to this sanctuary high on the mountain. Inside, there is a live ox and donkey, as well as straw strewn in a manger. Imagine the sight, the smell, and the sound.’ Francis wanted the people to realize that Christ came into our world, their world, a world of smell, sight, sound, taste and touch. (Nancy said that every time Francis would mention the name of the Christ child in his proclamation of the Gospel or in his homily, he would lick his lips because this Word among us is sweeter than honey.) He comes into this world every time the Eucharist is celebrated. What a great gift to all of us. Our God doesn’t come to us in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, whether we are rich or poor, wise or foolish, powerful or powerless.

I have to say that Nancy’s meditation (and I readily admit that I am not doing

Sister Nancy speaks of the fresco in in the cave at Greccio. She is using the same gesture as Joseph in the painting, the head in the palm of the hand, to denote the person depicted as dreaming.
Sister Nancy speaks of the fresco in in the cave at Greccio. She is using the same gesture as Joseph in the painting, the head in the palm of the hand, to denote the person depicted as dreaming.

justice to it) and Steve’s homily really sealed for me the significance of our Incarnational theology, which, unfortunately, we often take for granted. Yes, God is totally other; God’s ways are not our ways, yet, God chose to become like us in all things, save sin. WOW! Christmas took on a whole new meaning for me today.

We walked through the sanctuary and saw the cave where tradition says that Francis celebrated Christmas in this manner. There is a beautiful fresco on the wall of the cave which depicts the Nativity. Mary is shown nursing the infant.. Joseph, in this image has his head in his chin, a convention in art to show that the person is dreaming. “Joseph, have no fear of taking Mary as your wife.” “Joseph, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt for Herod seeks to destroy.” “Joseph, it is safe to return home to Nazareth.” Like another dreamer, this Joseph listened to his dreams and followed them.

Fresco behind the altar in the cave at Greccio.
Fresco behind the altar in the cave at Greccio

Solitude and Gratitude

The clouds provided a dramatic backdrop to the Basilica of St. Francis today.
The clouds provided a dramatic backdrop to the Basilica of St. Francis today.

Today most of the group took advantage of the free day on our itinerary and went to Florence with Steve and Nancy. I decided to remain in Assisi and had the day mostly to myself.

Before I begin to describe my solo day on this pilgrimage, I have to say a word or two about my fellow pilgrims: Sheila and Joel C-A.; Susan and Hein DH.; Bob and Terry H.; Tom and Patty J.; Kris and John J; Patti H., Barb V., Dick P., and Barb VH. Along with our pilgrimage directors, Nancy and Steve, I could not have found a better group of people to make this pilgrimage with me. We have listened to and learned from one another. We have shared many stories: some painful, some moving and a few humorous, all the while looking out for one another and taking delight in each other’s company. As I prayed at the tomb of St. Francis this morning, my heart was full of gratitude for such wonderful traveling companions.

Many of our group gathered near the fireplace where St. Francis sat in the ashes to make a point to the other friars.
Many of our group gathered near the fireplace where St. Francis sat in the ashes to make a point to the other friars.

* * * * *

My post will be short as we are preparing to leave for Greccio. Yesterday, I spent the day in Assisi and took some extended time visiting the Basilica of St. Francis and soaking in the art, the beauty and the spirit of this marvelous space. After viewing the Upper and Lower Basilicas, I proceeded to the tomb of St. Francis where I spent an hour in prayer. During this time I lifted up family, friends, co-workers, retreatants and acquaintances or friends of friends. I was blessed that the time in the tomb was relatively quiet; even when a large group would come into the area, they became still as they approached the altar and made their way around it.

What can I say except that my time there was very special and very moving to me. Again, my heart is filled with gratitude to so many who made my journey here possible.

Ciao Assisi!

 

Yes, we have no cinghale…

Steve models his new chapeau, an homage to the delicacy that he will not have today.
Steve models his new chapeau, an homage to the delicacy that he will not have today.

“What on earth is a cinghiale?” you ask. Well, it’s a delicacy of Tuscan cuisine: wild boar. Siena, our destination today, has a pasta dish made with it that Steve likes. One small problem, our little restaurant doesn’t have it today. “If you had called ahead, Padre Stefano, we could have ordered it for you?” Such is life…

Our drive to Siena was on a comfy bus and we passed by Lake Transimeno, a large lake with three islands on it, one of which was a favorite spot of St. Francis’ to spend Lent. (Steve cautions against imitating this, as there is no place on the island to sit down, and in the summer there are insects there that we have never heard of, but it appears the insects love the delicacy of carne Americano.) We also passed by the hillside town of Cortona, home to the famous Franciscan penitent, St. Margaret of Cortona and the resting place of Br. Elias Coppi, the Minister General of the Order who supervised the construction of the Lower Basilica.

Siena is perched high on a hill — by now, this should come as no surprise as most cities of any power or affluence built on a hill for protection. Siena, which is in Tuscany, rivaled Florence for power and prestige, but eventually Florence won out and took control of the city.

View of the tall tower that dominate the Campo, or main plaza of Siena.
View of the tall tower that dominate the Campo, or main plaza of Siena.

Besides giving us the Sienese school of art (not so much a school as a building or institution, but more like a particular style of art), Siena is home to St. Catherine, one of three women saints to hold the distinction of being a “Doctor of the Church.” Catherine was one of 25 children and was a member of the Dominican Third Order. She was a mystic, a preacher, and a writer of no small means. She wrote to emperors, kings, priests, bishops, and most importantly the pope. (She persuaded the pope to return to Rome from Avignon.)

The Church of San Domenico (St. Dominic) is the resting place for St. Catherine’s head and thumb; the rest of her body is in Rome. The church is an excellent example of what Steve called, a “preaching church,” as it is ideally suited to hold large crowds of people to hear a homily or sermon.

Speaking of sermons, Siena is also famous for St. Bernadine of Siena, a Franciscan, and a preacher of world-renown. He is known for his promotion of devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, and throughout the city you see the symbol of IHS (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek) against a blazing sun. You see this symbol everywhere in Siena. You also find Holy Name Societies in many Catholic parishes.

The grand tower of the Campo . This building is also the home to the Museo Civico, the Civic Museum. Note the large medallion with the IHS against a blazing sun, the symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus
The grand tower of the Campo . This building is also the home to the Museo Civico, the Civic Museum. Note the large medallion in the shorter tower has the symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus.

We then traversed to the center of town, the Campo, where twice a year, they race horses around the perimeter. The Campo is where everyone goes to hang out and it is dominated by a large municipal building with a very tall tower. The municipal building houses the Civic Museum, which has these magnificent murals by Amrogio Lorenzetti. The murals depict allegories of Good and Bad Government, etc. This was going to the the high point of my journey to Siena, but alas, the dreaded word, Ciuoso (closed). Today is a civil holiday, the ancient Roman start of the new year, and Italians figure it’s as good a reason to have a paid holiday as any other, so the Lorenzetti murals will have to wait for another day.

Close up, sort of, of the medallion with the IHS symbol on it.
Close up, sort of, of the medallion with the IHS symbol on it.

After a visit around some of the Campo side streets we walked to our restaurant, a charming small place with friendly owners and delicious food. Steve could not have his pasta with cinghale, but Nancy got him a hat that was the next best thing.

Following lunch, and lots of photos with Steve in the hat, we walked to the Duomo or Cathedral, which is the other focal point of the Siena skyline.

The magnificent Duomo in Siena. The lantern on the dome was designed by Bernini.
The magnificent Duomo in Siena. The lantern on the dome was designed by Bernini.

The cathedral is an example of the “More is More,” school of architecture. It is a magnificent structure, all the more stunning when you realize that what we have today was intended to be only one of the transepts of the cathedral. The Sienese had set out the build the largest cathedral in the world but ran out of funds before it could be completed. Because of the holiday, there were, you guessed it, hoards of young people swarming around the square in front of it, as well as many others on holiday.

The entrance to the Cathedral in Siena. Note the elaborate details in the stonework.
The entrance to the Cathedral in Siena. Note the elaborate details in the stonework.

We did not venture in the cathedral because we needed to return to Assisi and as Steve said, “It’s really dark inside. [You have also to pay an 8 Euro admission fee, ouch!]

We returned to the Casa where the staff served us a festive farewell dinner (this would be the last time that we would be eating an evening meal at the Casa as most of the group was going to Florence tomorrow (your scribe is staying in Assisi, thank you very much).

Ciao Siena!

A close up of some of the intricate stonework on the Duomo in Siena. Note the water spouts in the shapes of animals or figures.
A close up of some of the intricate stonework on the Duomo in Siena. Note the water spouts in the shapes of animals or figures.

From the “Womb” to the Tomb

The Major Basilica of St. Francis.
The Major Basilica of St. Francis.

It was noticeably colder today as we trudged down Via San Francesco to the Basilica of St. Francis. One of the architectural marvels of the Medieval world, the lower part of the Basilica was completed in 1230, just four years after the death of St. Francis. (The Upper Church would be completed around 1253, the date of the death of St. Clare.)

After a brief orientation outside the Lower Basilica, we proceeded to the tomb which is located below the altar of the Lower Basilica.

Steve preaching in front of the tomb of St. Francis. St. Francis' sarcophagus is located directly above the tabernacle.
Steve preaching in front of the tomb of St. Francis. St. Francis’ sarcophagus is located directly above the tabernacle.

As one walks down the stone steps to the tomb, one has a feeling of intimacy and of sacred space. The space is simple and stark, but incredibly warm and serene. The Chapel/Tomb area is not very large, and we had the privilege of have Eucharist in the area with a group of English-speaking Canadian Pilgrims.

At the Prayers of the Faithful, Fr. Steve included a pray for all who have gone before us, and suddenly, it dawned on me that today would have been my Mom’s 95th birthday. (She passed into eternal life on the Feast of St. Anthony [June 13], 2010.) As her memory flooded back into my consciousness, I couldn’t think of a better place to be to remember her and all of our family on what would have been her birthday.

Kris Joseph, a member of the preaching staff at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center, prepares to serve as cup minister during our liturgy at the tomb.
Kris Joseph, a member of the preaching staff at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center, prepares to serve as cup minister during our liturgy at the tomb.

Following Mass we had several minutes to explore the tomb area and lower basilica on our own. Most of the group was so captivated by their time in the tomb that words could barely do it justice. Several in our party were moved deeply by our time there. Surrounding St. Francis tomb are the tombs of four of his earliest and dearest followers: Ruffino, Masseo, Angelo and Leo.

The tomb of Lady Jacoba Settesoli, known as "Brother Jacoba" to St. Francis.
The tomb of Lady Jacoba Settesoli, known as “Brother Jacoba” to St. Francis.

At the top of the stairs before you enter the tomb is the tomb of Lady Jacoba (“Brother Jacoba,” to St. Francis. Jacoba was a wealthy widow with whom St. Francis often stayed whenever he was in Rome. She would bake his favorite almond cakes for him. As I stood by her tomb, I was nearly moved to tears by the story that she arrived at the Porziuncula a few hours before his death, as if some greater power was calling her to be present for this sacred moment.) For anyone who visits the Basilica of St. Francis, their time in the tomb is probably the most soul deepening of all. It is so difficult to describe, but it seems as if you are in the embrace of St. Francis and his closest friends and that embrace is a warm and loving one.

After a half an hour on our own, we were issued transponders with an earpiece that allowed Steve to give his tour of both the Lower and Upper Basilica in a quiet voice (so that those wishing to pray would not be disturbed) and yet allow us to hear.

I have to say that when Steve begins to speak of the art and the spirituality/theology that it represents in the basilica, he lights up brighter than a searchlight. All of this knowledge and insight just poured forth as he led us

A fresco by Cimabue (1240-1302) depicting the Blessed Mother, the Angels and St. Francis. Cimabue used the first biography of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano to create this portrait of the saint.
A fresco by Cimabue (1240-1302) depicting the Blessed Mother, the Angels and St. Francis. Cimabue used the first biography of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano to create this portrait of the saint.

through the various side chapels, the vault over the altar in the lower basilica, and the amazing frescoes of the upper basilica which have three cycles: the life of St. Francis and scenes form the Old and New Testament. Aside from the occasional admonition from some crabby guard — Steve occasionally would often have a humous observation about a work of art — our time went by quickly and without any incidents.

When I popped into the religious articles/bookstore I introduced myself to a friar behind the counter, and it turned out to be Friar Baptista, a friar I met in 1978 in St. Louis in my first months in the community. He and another Italian friar had come to the U.S. for the ordination of one of our Friars and spent several days in our Friary in St. Louis. As I told him in my broken Spanish that we had met in 1978, he lit up and warmly shook my hand. Both of us are a bit grayer now, but his kindness and generosity have not waned.

Another bright spot in my day occurred during our orientation when an old friend and former Friar, Michael Toczek surprised me with a “Welcome,” and a hug. I lived with Michael for two years in Washington, DC and he is now married to a local girl and they both work for the Basilica.

As we trudged up the ever-so-steep Via San Francesco to return to the Casa, we had to make a stop at a leather shop, Il Tapiro, which is owned by a delightful man named, Mauro. Remember that we ran into him en route to St. Clare’s Basilica on Sunday. Mauro is a superb artisan of leather and he is always thrilled to see Fr. Steve, Sister Nancy or any member of a Pilgrimage Group. He made many in our group happy shoppers by the time that they left his tiny shop.

We were supposed to head to the Caceri (a Hermitage that St. Francis used that is about 2.5 kilometers outside of town in the mountains) but Steve and Nancy were concerned that with the extreme cold and wind that it might not be the most conducive site to prayer. “The rattling of your teeth may be a bit distracting,” Nancy said. Some of our group did trek up the mountain, where we were told there was some snow, but the rest of us remained in the main city and checked out

When you explore Assisi you have to be prepared for extreme “ups” and extreme “downs.” The downs are not usually a problem, unless you have to contend with a covey of school children and/or the dreaded traffic. Yes, even in this tiny little village with streets no wider than a sedan, there is traffic, sometimes lots of it. Like our bus driver on Sunday morning, they think that it is their anointed mission to race up every street at breakneck speed and see just how close they can cruise by pedestrians. Because of the narrowness of the streets and the tallness of the buildings, the sound of an approaching car or truck is amplified, so you usually have some warning, but when someone is trying to break a speed record, you have to be rather agile. Add to this the steepness of some of the streets or staircases and you wonder if it was a good idea to have that second helping of pasta. I never knew that my heart could pound so quickly and so noisily, while my lungs were working overtime to get oxygen to my blood. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m out of shape…like I was ever in shape to begin with???)

Despite the recalcitrant weather, it was a great day for all of us. For me, in particular, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my province, my family, my local friary and my co-workers at the retreat center, for giving me the opportunity to make this pilgrimage.

A dramatic sunset closes a rich day here in Assisi.
A dramatic sunset closes a rich day here in Assisi.

The hills here are a brilliant shade of green; the kind of green that only occurs after a Spring rain. The verdant hills and valley reflect the refreshed and energized state of my spirit as this time unfolds.

Ciao for now….Bob

From the Womb of the Order to A Place of Healing

Sunday began as rainy, windy and a bit chilly, but our spirits were warm and ready as we walked to the Basilica of St. Clare to spend some extended time in prayer before the San Damiano Cross, the “cross of the call,” as some have called it. The previous evening, Steve gave us some background on the history, spirituality and theology that this cross represents. When Francis was trying to discern what to do with his life, he wandered into the chapel of San Damiano (St. Damian, a Roman, who was martyred with his twin brother, St. Cosmos in 237. Both were physicians who practiced their craft and refused payment). As he prayed in front of this large, dramatic cross, he saw the lips of Christ move, and heard a voice say, “Francis, go and rebuild my house.” Francis took the voice literally and began to repair the little chapel. He would eventually repair and/or rebuild several chapels, one of his favorites being Our Lady of the Angels (nicknamed the Porziuncula, or Little Portion), our next stop of the day.

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Our group in prayer before the San Damiano Crucifix

San Damiano later became the residence of St. Clare and her Sisters, but they later moved to a convent attached to the Basilica of St Clare, which is within the walled city of Assisi. The cross used to hang in their refectory until it was brought out for the public to view in the 1950s.

Close up of the San Damiano Cross.
Close up of the San Damiano Cross.

We spent about a half hour in silent prayer here. A good way to begin the day’s journeys. The serenity and peace of that space so early in the morning was a real blessing for us. We then walked to the bus stop to catch the bus to Our Lady of the Angels which is in the valley below.

Since it was early in the morning, and there was little traffic, the bus driver could take the hairpin turns down the hills at a rapid clip, luckily the contents of my breakfast did not come up on the bus floor.

In the late 16th Century, a large, baroque-style church was built over the tiny chapel that Francis repaired. It seemed a bit anachronistic, but Sister Nancy said that the large church was built to protect the original chapel and the many pilgrims who came to visit. We were not allowed to take pictures in the church, and Mass was in progress, so Steve and Nancy gave the orientation on the portico of the church and we went inside to spend time in the tiny chapel that St. Francis so loved and which served as the heart of the Order.

The chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (the Porziumcula), the place of mission and the heart of the Order.
The chapel of Our Lady of the Angels (the Porziumcula), the place of mission and the heart of the Order.

What always strikes me about this place is the explosion of color in the paintings both outside and within. It is a place filled with a sense of peace and a strong sense of love. Later, Sister Nancy described this place as a place of mission, because this was the site from which the Friars would be sent forth to places near and far. This was a place very dear to St. Francis, and in a small infirmary next to the Chapel, he died in 1226. Nancy referred to the Portizuncula as “the womb of the Franciscan Order,” an image that seemed apropos for this place of sending forth.

Fr. Steve celebrates Sunday liturgy in one of the chapels at St. Mary of the Angels.
Fr. Steve celebrates Sunday liturgy in one of the chapels at St. Mary of the Angels.

We returned to the Casa for pranzo; afterwards, Kris, John and I tried to find the leather shop that Steve had spoken of. (On our walk to the St. Clare’s Basilica that morning, Mauro, the owner and leather craftsman extraordinaire, spotted Fr. Steve and raced out to greet him.) We didn’t find Maruo’s shop, but we did find this chocolate shop with this fabulous display window.

For the afternoon, we trekked on foot to San Damiano, which is outside of the city walls. Mercifully, the walk was downhill, but it was quite steep at time. The landscape was a dramatic contrast with clouds rolling by at a quick clip and a strong wind blowing against us as we made our way to the Chapel. Our path cut through a large grove of olive trees, whose graceful forms and delicate leaves were a visual delight.

Our little band of pilgrims walking to San Damiano. Note the steepness of the path. (Most of us took a taxi back up!)
Our little band of pilgrims walking to San Damiano. Note the steepness of the path. (Most of us took a taxi back up!)

Before we entered San Damiano, Sister Nancy explained the significance of the site prior to Christianity. The temple of Minerva in Assisi was actually dedicated to Castor and Pollux, the twin Roman gods of healing. There is a spring somewhere on the site of San Damiano, and in Roman times, people would journey here for healing, though Castor and Pollux only worked in the evening, so it required a stay here. Along comes Christianity, and Cosmos and Damian are swapped out for Castor and Pollux. For some unknown reason, Cosmos’ name is dropped and the site was called San Damiano.

Our group gathered in the front of San Damiano.
Our group gathered in the front of San Damiano.

St. Francis gave the site to St. Clare and her Sisters and Clare died here in 1253. Often St. Clare is depicted holding a monstrance. There is a story that the Saracens were storming the convent, and ultimately the city, and Clare took out the Eucharist in a monstrance and the Saracens fled. Nancy said that according to the sources, the Saracens had climbed over the wall surrounding the convent/monastery, and Clare took the box containing the Eucharist in it, and placed it on the floor in front of the locked door. She knelt in prayer along with her sisters and prayed that Christ would protect his city and all within it. As the sisters prayed, they heard a voice, the voice of a child say, “I have always protected my city and will protect it again.” The Saracens left. There is a lovely fresco showing Clare and her sisters in prayer that is on a wall near the niche where the Eucharist was kept. In the niche is a fresco of Christ as a child.

The dormitory where St. Clare died in San Damiano. (the cross on the wall marks the corner where she died, along with a vase of flowers.) Fr. Steve anoints the hands of one of the pilgrims.
The dormitory where St. Clare died in San Damiano. (the cross on the wall marks the corner where she died, along with a vase of flowers.) Fr. Steve anoints the hands of one of the pilgrims.

We walked up the steps to the dormitory where Clare and her sisters slept and where she died. The spot is cordoned off and a vase of fresh flowers is always there. While in this space, Steve led us in a healing service and invited all of us to a non-sacramental anointing. He invited us to pray for anyone we might know in need of healing at this time, and one by one we approached him and he anointed our hands. (Another group came into the dormitory and some of them got in line as well. I could see the one spouse whisper to the other, and I imagined her saying, “What are they doing?” The husband shrugged, but they thought it was a good idea to get in line as well.)

Brother Sun decides to make an appearance over the Umbrian Valley.
Brother Sun decides to make an appearance over the Umbrian Valley.

 

Beginnings with SS Francis and Clare

Our day today began with morning prayer on the rooftop of Casa Papa Giovanni, while it was a bit brisk outside for those of us who had endured the Winter of 2014 in the Upper Midwest, it seemed fairly comfortable, though no one broke out their walking shorts. The rooftop has a lovely view of the valley below and it was a tranquil setting for our prayer time.

Morning Prayer on the rooftop of Casa Papa Giovanni
Morning Prayer on the rooftop of Casa Papa Giovanni

The whole day was about beginnings in the lives of Saints Francis and St. Clare. Ever the teacher, Fr. Steve had us in the Conference room early this morning with a crash course in the history of Assisi up until the time of St. Francis. We trudged out from the Casa to our first stop, the Piazza Commune (also known as Piazza Minerva…actually, it seems that I’m the only one who calls it that, but I think Minerva sounds better Commune, so I’m sticking with it. Apologies to the Tourism Board.) En route to the piazza, we met this delightful shop owner who knows both Fr. Steve and Sister Nancy well. It’s one of those places that has 1 of everything in a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet. It is mind boggling how much stuff some of these shopkeepers have crammed into their tiny spaces. (Don’t get any ideas, Kelley. [Kelley Chromy is our Bookstore Manager at the Retreat Center in Prior Lake])

We stopped outside of what had been the facade of the Temple of Minerva, but now served as the facade of a church, aptly called, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and we had another orientation of the city.

Steve describes the significance of the Piazza and points out some great places of interest.
Steve describes the significance of the Piazza and points out some great places of interest.

Our first stop was a small piazza in front of the Chiesa Nuova, this church is built on one of three sites that claim to be the site of the home of St. Francis prior to his conversion. The word Chiesa translates to our word for “church,” and Nuova is rendered as “New.” This is the “New Church; the fact that it was built in 1615 makes you realize that here, as in most of Europe, the term “New” is quite relative.

Our group gathered in the small piazza in front of the Chiesa Nuova
Our group gathered in the small piazza in front of the Chiesa Nuova

One of the more touching parts of our visit to this area was a stop at a small chapel that tradition holds, is over the stable where St. Francis was born. The chapel is an intimate space, and there is a long-standing custom of people coming here to pray for expectant mothers and their babies, as well as infants who are seriously ill. Sister Nancy shared two personal stories of times that she came here to pray for either a seriously ill baby or a mother who was expecting, and it made the space come alive. We took a short time to pray here for expectant mothers, parents, and children. (Jared and Kristi [Bro. Bob’s nephew and spouse], I prayed for you and little Amelia [their four month old infant and my first great-niece–actually I already have two great nieces, Erin and Jessica, but I digress. Nicholas and Mandy [another of Bro. Bob’s nephews and his spouse] I prayed for you and your baby who will be arriving in September.)

Interior of the tiny chapel built over the birthplace of St. Francis.
Interior of the tiny chapel built over the birthplace of St. Francis.

We moved on to the Basilica of St. Clare, where we had Mass. Being a Saturday, Assisi had a lot of tourists present, though they seemed to be mostly Italians. Besides the adults, there were scads of children everywhere we went. At one point when we were getting ready to depart the Cathedral of San Ruffino at the same time a group of 10 year olds was leaving, I said to Kris and John Joseph, “Maybe we should let the kids go first.” [Discretion IS the better part of valor. Not to mention I don’t like feeling like navigating a narrow street, downhill with a group of energetic children racing around me at breakneck speed.]

By the time that we finished with Mass at the Basilica of St. Clare it was time to return to the Casa Papa Giovanni for the midday meal, pranzo, and after pranzo there was time for that time-honored Italian tradition of the riposo, or short nap. The sun had finally broken through the clouds and the view of the valley below with the Church of St. Mary of the Angels at center stage was very heart-warming.image

Our afternoon point of pilgrimage was to the Cathedral of San Rufino, where we were going to participate in a ritual to renew our baptismal promises by the baptismal font of the cathedral. According to Sister Nancy, at the time of Saints Francis and Clare, babies were only baptized in the cathedral of the city and not in the other churches nearby. We did a short stop in a side chapel that was the resting place of one of the late bishops of Assisi, Guiseppi Nicolini, who spearheaded an effort in Assisi to hide individual Jews and Jewish families at the behest of Pope Pius XII. I had forgotten about this relatively new, yet no less important part of the history of the city, where significant numbers of Jewish men, women and children were saved by the efforts a very diverse group of people.

We then walked to the baptismal font of the cathedral, but were surprised to find a family and a priest at the font. A baptism was taking place and we had to wait. Fr. Steve said that in the many, many times that he has done this ritual at this font, that he had never witnessed a baptism in progress. After Francesco Maria was claimed for Christ and washed with the waters of baptism, his parents retreated to a side chapel for their own Mass and we gathered at the font to renew our baptismal promises.

One memory that came flooding back to both my head and my feet (and probably my heart) was the steepness of some of the streets in Assisi. When you combine the narrowness of nearly all the streets in Assisi with the inevitable uphill climb that you have to make on some of them, you realize that a walk in Assisi can be counted for Cardio Exercise. Fr. Steve has not had to order a body bag for me, yet, but the Pilgrimage is still young….and I sadly, am not.

Ciao for now….Bro. Bob

Pilgrims (albeit slow) progress…

After spending more hours than I care to remember on a plane and then a bus, we finally arrived in Assisi this afternoon. We met our band of fellow pilgrims, with our pilgrimage directors, Fr. Steve McMichael and Sr. Nancy Celaschi, right outside of the Customs area at Da Vinci airport outside of Rome. Once our numbers were complete (there are 17 of us including Fr. Steve and Sister Nancy, on this Pilgrimage) we boarded the bus to Assisi.

The drive was about three hours long, which, given our lengthy time in planes, seemed a bit daunting, but the time went surprisingly quickly. As we moved into the Umbrian region I was struck with the number of little villages that literally hug the top of a mountain or foothill. Some of them had obviously seen better days, but they still managed to clutch the side or top of a foothill, a testament to their tenacity. As we began to drive through a more populated area (Perugia) Nancy alerted us to our first glimpse of Assisi.

Assisi from the bus
Assisi from the bus

Have you ever tried to take a photograph in a bus that’s clipping along a highway? Let’s just say it’s an exercise in frustration Though I managed to get a few photos. As we drew closer to Assisi, I could clearly see the Basilica of St. Francis on the far end of the hillside village and in the valley below, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels which contains the Porziuncula, or “Little Portion,” St. Francis’ favorite chapel, and the site of his death in 1226.

Our bus driver, Rincon, who is originally from Bangladesh, navigated the hairpin turns and the staggering uphill climb of the road until we reached our drop off point. Steve collected the luggage with a driver and road to our lodging, Casa Papa Giovanni, and the rest of us walked with Nancy to the Casa.

I was surprised by how much (and how little) I remembered as we walked through the narrow, winding streets of Assisi. Once we entered the Piazza Minerva, a flood of memories came back to me from my previous two times in Assisi.

After taking a few minutes to figure out the lock, which utilizes a combination of a key and a push button, I settled in my room, showered (ah what bliss, though the shower was tiny even for me) and met with the others for our orientation.

While all of us were tired, most of us decided to take a walk up to the Piazza and stretch our legs. It was a lovely evening and despite it being a Friday, the cafes only had a handful of people in them.

 

Our band of Pilgrims out for their first evening in Assisi
Our band of Pilgrims out for their first evening in Assisi

Tomorrow, we visit San Damiano (the site of the chapel with the cross that spoke to Francis) and Santa Chiara (the Basilica of St. Clare).

 

Brother Bob is Assisi Bound

It has been nearly 30 years since I set foot in Assisi or Rome, and as the day of my departure draws closer, I naturally wonder what it will be like to walk the same paths that St. Francis walked. I am also curious to see if I will notice any differences in these special places from 30 years ago, but I suspect the real differences lie with me.

My first trip to Assisi was in 1980, just a couple of months before I would formally enter the Franciscans as a novice. I had just had a course on the early writings of St. Francis which was taught by my then-guardian-formation director, Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv. I remember how grateful I was for Wayne’s insistence on all of us memorizing the dates and significant places in Francis’ journey. As I visited each of these places they came alive in a deeper fashion than before.

 

My second pilgrimage to Assisi was in 1985, a year after I professes my solemn vows in the Conventual Franciscan Order. I was a bit older, not that much wiser, but a little more seasoned in the Franciscan life. The big difference for me during this journey was that I was now formally a part of this centuries old fraternity and I felt that every site I visited was now a part of my heritage, my story.

 

I return to these beautiful places after 25 years of retreat ministry; I am a different person than I was in 1985–a bit heavier, much grayer, and far more seasoned in the Franciscan way of life. (Perhaps the term, “slow-cooked,” is a better description.) My journey with my fellow pilgrims will be an adventure, a time for prayer and reflection and a wonderful opportunity to see and take in the land that was so much a part of St. Francis.

 

To quote that great entertainer of the 20th century, Jackie Gleason: “And away we go…”

Peace and all good things… Bro. Bob

Bro. Randy, Tim Johnson, Fr. Frank Gomez, Bro. Bob Roddy and Bro. Simon McHugh at the Carceri, one of St. Francis' Hermitages near Assisi.
Bro. Randy, Tim Johnson, Fr. Frank Gomez, Bro. Bob Roddy and Bro. Simon McHugh at the Carceri, one of St. Francis’ Hermitages near Assisi.