October 17, 2006


By Sean Gallagher

(See a photo gallery for this post)

Assisi, ItalySt. Francis of Assisi and his female counterpart, St. Clare, are mysterious people—something befitting of the saints.

On the one hand, they’re people around whom we feel comfortable.  They’re down-to-earth.  Their idealism appeals to our inherent ambition for the good.  But they also seem very accepting of human weakness.

On the other hand, they’re people who, if we contemplate them for any length of time, make us feel uncomfortable.  In their radical way of life built on Gospel values, they reveal the many shams in our own.

Ultimately the mysterious paradox in these saints and in them all is rooted in the mystery of Christ.  The saints show Christ to us and we are both attracted and repelled.  Which force (toward or away) we finally choose will make all the difference.

These things were on my mind as the archdiocesan pilgrimage approached Assisi this morning.  As we wound our way through the hills of Umbria, I considered how the beauty of the countryside of the region could easily lead a spiritually sensitive man like Francis to discern the hand of God in the splendor of creation.

I felt even more convinced of this 18 years ago in my first visit to Assisi.  At that time, my group approached the town from the north and drove around the large Lake Transimeno.  The beauty of the wooded hills and the serenity of the lake were, at the time, a powerful one-two punch that took my breath away.  Even now I can recall with ease the beauty of that drive.  Today’s approach to the town, while not as dramatic, was still quite charming.

After taking our lunch there, we split up into small groups for a walking tour of the hillside town.  After being in Rome for several days, Assisi was a pleasant change.  In Rome, one is constantly bombarded with flashy images—whether it is in the endless graffiti and posters or the opulence of Counter-Reformation churches.

In Assisi, on the other hand, one is simply met with hilly streets, old stone buildings, and churches that, while featuring many images, are not garish in any way and that, in any case, easily lead one, or at least myself, into an attitude of prayer.

This meditative attitude was reinforced for me by the fact that photography of all kinds was prohibited in three of the four churches I visited—the Church of St. Clare, the Basilica of St. Francis, and the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, which houses the Portiuncula, the small church that Francis physically rebuilt after responding to Christ’s call to “rebuild my church.”

My wife and I also visited Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi, where photography was permitted.  A kindly friar there gave my wife and I an impromptu spiritual explanation of this relatively tiny church whose façade is made up of what was part of a first century B.C. Roman temple to Minerva.

He quickly, but not in a rushed manner, showed us how the paintings in the church exhort us to choose that attracting force in the saints, that force that leads us to embrace the virtues that, through grace, will lead us to our ultimate goal:  heaven.  It’s the kind of explanation of a church that I felt was very appropriate for a pilgrimage

I did take a couple of photos at Our Lady of the Angels before learning that this wasn’t permitted there.  I was also allowed to take photos at the lower church in the Basilica of St. Francis while our pilgrimage Mass was being celebrated.  The photos I took in these places and throughout the town can viewed in this post’s photo gallery.

So having my camera at my side instead of in my hands helped me appreciate more the many opportunities for prayer.  This happened when I knelt before the original San Damiano crucifix at the Church of St. Clare.  Also housed there were many personal effects of both Clare and Francis.  And, of course, the crypt of this church also holds the remains of St. Clare.

The Giotto frescoes at the Basilica of St. Francis were beautiful to behold.  All around both the upper and lower churches, we’re faced with a man, not unlike you and me, who experienced a great conversion and embraced that grace with his whole self.  And the more that he did that, the more that Christ shone through him until he bore the marks of Christ in his own body.

The reminders of Francis and Clare in all of these places, and the life of Francis as it was shown to me in some small way in the friar at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, all made much more real and concrete for me those thoughts that I had as we approached the town:  the mystery of holiness, the mystery of Christ himself, that is found in real human circumstances in the lives of the saints.

Tomorrow will be our last full day in Italy.  So far we’ve visited the homes of the country’s two co-patrons:  Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  And we’ve witnessed the canonizing of the Church’s four newest saints.

This pilgrimage, then, has been one marked by the saints.  Tomorrow will be no different.  After attending a Wednesday audience with the pope in St. Peter’s Square and after the celebration of our daily pilgrimage Mass, some of the pilgrims will visit Monte Cassino, the home of St. Benedict, the co-patron of Europe and founder of western monasticism.

Others, including my wife and I, will stay in Rome.  We hope to visit a catacomb, the resting place of many martyrs from the earliest days of the Church.  We might also return to St. Peter’s to visit its crypt, filled with the earthly remains of some saintly popes and one whose sanctity, while not yet officially recognized by the Church, seems apparent to millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world—Pope John Paul II.

Posted by Sean Gallagher at 7:20 p.m. on Monday, October 16, 2006


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