Anyone who knows me even just a little likely knows that my favourite saint is Saint Francis of Assis (Santa Francesc0 as he is called in Italian). I have long loved this little poor man since some of the earliest days of my conversion and during the time of my discernement of my vocation to the priesthood. I have benefitted so much from his great witness and profound and radical love for all of God’s creation. It is primarily because of the example of St. Francis of Assisi that I often refer to others as my brothers and sisters for he did this not only with other people but even with animals and other aspects of God creation – most profoundly I think was when he was composing his most important “Canticle of the Sun” he named and welcomed death as “sister death”.
As I set out out from Rome for Assisi I must admit that there was a subdued excitement joined with a more substantial seriousness or solemness within me. I was going to a place that I had read about countless times, in order to see and pray at the resting places of two saints who had inspired and guided me during a most important time of my conversion. What would I see and expereince? How would it affect me? I was going to a kind of starting place for my own conversion and setting out to live the gospel. I was definitely on a pilgrimage.
As the train approached Assisi – you can see it some way off from the train as it is built wonderfully atop a mountain – my excitement and emotion grew. It was beautiful to behold with my own eyes, more beautiful than I had ever thought. I had made it and I thanked God for it. What a true blessing this day was. God is good!
Assisi did not dissapoint, apart from the fact that I had only 5 hours to make my way through these holy places, I was moved and touched by so many things during my short stay there. I arrived at the Basilica of Santa Francesco, by the gace of God, just in time for Mass after stading in line for 30 minutes in order to get through security. Follwong Mass I was able to go to confession and, although it was in Italain, it was still a moving and transformative expereince. It was then, after responding to the grace of God as best I could, that I set out to visit the tombs of Brother Francis and Sister Claire. I will not give much details of my experiences there – they are very personal – but I will say that the Francisans have beautifully arranged the chapels for pilgrims to pray in the presence of their burial places. Unlike some of the other places in Rome or even in Assisi, when one descends to these tombs, the people are all rapt in prayer or in devotion and reflection. Prayer and peace is tangible here and it is truly beautiful and it assists the soul in going to God in prayer and seeking the assistance of these saints living in Him. Neither of the basilica’s allow photography and it is such a blessing – it seems like it helps people to be present to where they are and what they are seeing. There were times when I would have loved to capture something with a photograph but I was also so very grateful that I could not try to take something of the sanctity and grandeur of these places (feeble as that effort would have been).
After making a grande tour to several of the major sites in Assisi (the Basilica of Santa Francesco, the Basilica of Santa Chiara, the town square where Francis disrobed and chose to be a son of God the Father, the church where he began the tradition of the nativity cresh by brining in live farm animals, and finally the place where he died in the presence of His brothers) I made my way to the station to take the train back to Rome. I was kept in prayer the whole way home and I was grateful and moved by the love of God for us and for the great faith and trust of St. Francis and St. Claire in that love. I want to follow them in faithfulness and sincerity in living the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the Lord make it possible for us by His grace and may these blessed saints of God continue to help us on our journey.
One thing is certain, I will return to Assisi when I am able.