Pray-Play Date…a Great Success

On Saturday, May 3rd, we did our first Pray-Play Date for Mothers, Daughters, Grandmothers and Granddaughters. The day was sunny and clear, even it was a bit cool, it still felt wonderful to be able to roam the grounds of the Retreat Center and take in the Spring Awakening.Mom and Daughter

Kris Joseph, Terri Mifek and I did the presentations as shared conferences with each of us contributing. Our chef and kitchen manager Judy Miller, pulled out all the stops; the snacks, the breaks, and the lunch were over the top great.

 

The spirit of the group was so enthusiastic and so warm, that the day flew by. Everyone seemed to be having a great time together. I think that we struck the right balance of free time, with input from the retreat team, and shared time in the family groups. Participants took to their family activity like ducks to water and the sharing in the family groups was quite moving in some cases.

Everyone enjoyed a fabulous feast for lunch.
Everyone enjoyed a fabulous feast for lunch.

The day concluded with an anticipatory Mass for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, with Fr. Jim Van Dorn as the celebrant.

It seemed that the greatest blessing of the day was watching mothers, daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters having time together and enjoying each other. As we near Mother’s Day, our hats are off to all mothers and grandmothers. As I was preparing the Prayer Service for the day I found this quote, “I found a girl who stole my heart. She calls me Mom.” That says it all.

A perfect day for an outdoor chat.
A perfect day for an outdoor chat.

On a personal note, prior to the day, I remembered that I had some lovely table linens that my Mom used to use when she entertained and I asked Judy if she would like to use them for the day. As I saw these linens and a doilies gracing the buffets, I felt that my Mom would have been so happy to know that they were a part of this day. For Kris, Judy, Terri, Jim and myself, our Moms have passed into eternal life, but today, they felt very near to us.

Spring is here! Finally….well almost.

The last week has been quite busy here at the Retreat Center. Due to the lateness of Easter,  Fr. Jim and I had to work  three overnight retreats in a row: The Men’s Holy Week Retreat, (April 18-20)  a Women’s Midweek Retreat (April 22-24) and a Women’s Weekend Retreat (April 25-27). When you work this many retreats in a row, all things seem to blur.  Chris Martin, our Music Minister almost worked two of these three retreats, but had a mishap with her back on the 23rd and is now recuperating. Corrine Kindschy graciously agreed to help with the Men’s Holy Week Retreat, and Debbie Koop worked the Midweek. We will be joined by Kris Joseph and Terri Mifek for the Women’s Weekend, with Jean Thompson and Marc Jaros serving as mu

Easter seems to be a perfect time to come on retreat and even though the numbers of the Men’s Holy Week Retreat and Women’s Midweek were smaller than in past years, both groups had a deep sense of prayer and reverence about them. The fidelity of these good people to  Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center is inspiring.

Water droplets clinking to a tiny branch after a recent rain at the Retreat Center.
Water droplets clinking to a tiny branch after a recent rain at the Retreat Center.

I happened to notice these droplets of water that were clinging to a small branch of a bush outside of the Retreat Chapel as I was tidying up from the Women’s Midweek. The way that these tiny drops of water caught the light, and my eye, as well as the tenacious way that they clung to the tiny branch captivated me. I thought of how often I feel like one of those droplets, barely hanging on, yet in the several minutes that I spent shooting photos of them, none of them departed the tiny branch  The same was true for me; I hung on. I guess that all of us can relate to that.

*          *          *           *

This weekend will mark the cannonizations of two men who had a tremendous impact on our Church and on our world. Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be proclaimed saints and have their names inscribed in the Calendar of Saints by Pope Francis in a special ceremony at St. Peter’s on Sunday, April 27th. (I already have our Friary DVR set to record it.) Our Minister Provincial, and former Director of Franciscan Retreats, Fr. Jim Kent, is in Rome during this time. Fr. Jim is carrying with him 175 Intercession Cards with over 1000 petitions from our donors and supporters. He is also writing about his time in Rome. Visit our province’s website: www.FranciscansUSA.org  a click on “Fr. Jim’s Pilgrimage to Rome,” or try the following link: http://franciscansusa.org/fr-jim-kents-pilgrimage-to-rome

One more weekend to go….hurray for our Saints John XXIII and John Paul II!

One week home

Sorry for the week long silence in the blog, but re-entry into life and ministry here has come at a rapid pace. I actually recovered from the long trip home fairly quickly, unlike Steve, but I had a lot of things needing my attention when I returned.

Our last evening in Rome ended in a lovely dinner at a family-run restaurant not far from our hotel. The food was superb and the family who owned the place were so welcoming and generous that we hated to leave, but with the lethal combination of European Daylight Savings Time kicking in and a 6:55 a.m. flight (which meant that we had to be at the airport by 5:00 am) we had to cut our evening short.

Not so short that we couldn’t stop for one last gelato on the way to the hotel. The poor young man running the place was nearing closing time, but he was friend and gracious as we made our selections and enjoyed the last tastes of this sweet treat. Not long after we finished our orders, he was preparing to close the place down, and asked if we could move so that he could lower the awning. Sister Nancy asked him if he was “rolling up the sidewalk.” He looked a bit confused and she explained to him in Italian what the idiom meant. His face lit up as he laughed and nodded. The poor guy looked like he had had a long day. I noticed that many of the workers in our hotel were present from very early in the morning through late in the evening. My hat is off to them and anyone who provides service to travelers.

Our flights home were relatively uneventful. Two other groups were ahead of us in the Rome airport, but finally made our way through check in and security; Nancy gave each of us a hug and wished us well as we prepared for the first leg of our trip home. (Steve had departed about an hour ahead of us, as he was flying through Amsterdam and we were going through Paris.)

When we arrived at the behemoth that is De Gaul airport in Paris, we de-planed through these tunnels that reminded you of something in a massive hamster exhibit. There were tubes everywhere with people walking to their various destinations. We had to change terminals, but did not have to clear security again and by the time we reached our gate it was nearly time to board.

As the cabin door closed, we noticed that the entertainment system was not working and the head flight attendant announced that she was re-booting it. (I prayed to St. Clare, the patron saint of television to give them some help and within 20 minutes the system was up and running.)

As our plane approached MSP airport, I was stunned to see that much of the snow was gone. I had forgotten what the ground looked like! When the pilot announced that the temperature was in the 50’s I wanted to clap…I think that I actually did.

The line through Customs was unbelievable long and I struck up a conversation with a young couple who were returning to St. Paul after meeting in Barcelona and then weekending in Paris. He had been away in Asia for a month and his wife was naturally happy to have him home. “I bet that you missed him during these last snowfalls.” “Yeah,” she said, “He lucked out this time.”

Since Steve had arrived before me, and since he had left his car with the Friars in Bloomington, he was able to retrieve it and pick me up after I had cleared customs. I said my good-byes to many in our group, so grateful for the opportunity to be with them and get to know them.

No, we're not trying to read what flavors of gelato are available.
No, we’re not trying to read what flavors of gelato are available.

If you have enjoyed reading this, please keep checking as I plan to continue writing in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks for the many kind words. Br Bob

 

San Pietro, Caravaggio and Fr. Tom C.

Our group poses in front of St. Peter's prior to attending Mass in the crypt.
Our group poses in front of St. Peter’s prior to attending Mass in the crypt.

I apologize for going dark for the last few days, but our time in Rome was jam-packed with little free time. Add to this the wretched Wi-Fi at our hotel, and it made posts very difficult to compose and upload.

Our last day in Rome began EARLY with breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and then a quick walk to St. Peter’s where we had a small chapel reserved in the crypt for Mass. We had to start early because the cut off time for groups having Mass in the crypt of other altars is 9:00 a.m. After getting “shussed” only once during our liturgy, we made our way to the main part of the Basilica for a short tour.

Interior of St. Peter's; view from the altar area to the entrance.
Interior of St. Peter’s; view from the altar area to the entrance.

Nothing can convey the enormity and the grandiosity of this space, all built over the burial site of St. Peter, a simple fisherman, who responded to the Lord’s call, “Follow me.” St. Peter, a man who would deny his Lord, and yet be charged with feeding his sheep; a man who could stick his foot in his mouth one minute and the next confess that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God.” What I took most from my time in St. Peter’s was the understanding that Peter’s greatness derives from his humanness and his weakness. Despite his limitations and his mistakes, he kept picking himself back up and doing his best to serve his Lord.

After our tour of the Basilica, we had the remainder of the afternoon free. I opted to visit Piazza Navona and visit the Chiesa San Luigi, (the Church of St. Louis of France).

Caravaggio's, The Calling of St. Matthew.
Caravaggio’s, The Calling of St. Matthew.

San Luigi is the home to three magnificent paintings by Caravaggio, The Call of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew  and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.  Unfortunately, I was not the only one who wanted to visit San Luigi this afternoon. The small chapel where the paintings are displayed was quite crowded, but I managed to get a good view of the paintings. The Calling of St. Matthew is a particular favorite of Pope Francis, and Nancy Murzyn used this image as the basis for her retreat conference on one of our Advent Prayer Days in 2013. The painting does take your breath away when you gaze at and marvel at Caravaggio’s mastery of light and color. Suddenly, the whole chapel goes dark. Turns out that you have to pay for the lights to go on — a common practice in a lot of churches with great works of art. As soon as the lights went out, some woman turns, looks at me and points to the coin box. (Why she could not have put her 1 or 2 Euro coin in was a mystery to me. Actually it wasn’t much of a mystery; the lady was a cheapskate and didn’t want to lose her spot by the altar rail.) Being the generous person that I am, I popped a 2 Euro coin in and continued to gaze in wonder; a small price to be amazed and inspired.

I left San Luigi, and made my way to the Tiber on this glorious March day. I

Castel Sant'Angelo.
Castel Sant’Angelo.

passed the Castel Sant’ Angelo, with its large state of the St. Michael on the top. Formerly, the mausoleum of Hadrian, the Castel was once the tallest building in Rome. It also served as a fortress and refuge for the popes, who could access via a special tunnel.

As I walked up one of the countless hills to our hotel in Rome (I was convinced that someone kept adding extra city blocks to the hill every time I walked back up it), I ran into two our fellow pilgrims, Kris Joseph and Barbara Vernes. We stopped for a moment at a small shop to look at some colorful scarves when a voice said, “Keeping the local economy going?” I turned and saw Fr. Tom Czek, of our California province. (We had seen Tom earlier that day at St. Peter’s when he was also there to say Mass for his pilgrimage group. It seems that on all of my three visits to Rome, I have run into someone I guess that all roads do lead to Rome.

Fr. Tom Czek, Barb Vernes. Kris Joseph is right behind Barb.
Fr. Tom Czek, Barb Vernes. Kris Joseph is right behind Barb.

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

 

image
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