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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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