The first time I visited Assisi, St. Francis’ Italian hill town in Umbria, I was with a large tour group. We had just spent several days in Rome and the contrast between the two cities was striking. Rome, the seat of power for emperors and popes, is incredible, of course, with its history, its art and architecture, its links to the apostles.
But as we neared Assisi, the priest who led our group told us, “You have just moved from one end of the church to the other end.” Assisi was the place where power was shed and poverty embraced. Certainly our new pope’s choice of the name Francis carries much meaning for our modern age.
The featured event of our tour took place in Rome, however, where our Alaskan archbishop, along with many others, received the pallium from Pope John Paul II in a spectacular outdoor ceremony. The pallium, a small narrow cloak made of lamb’s wool, represents the sheep being carried by its shepherd, and affirms the archbishop’s authority in union with the pope.
It was a memorable occasion, despite, or partly because of, a torrential, unseasonal summer rain that erupted suddenly over St. Peter’s Square. Later, I could wring water from my dress. Nuns lifted chairs over their heads as protection, and some in our group dashed for their hotels. The thunder and lightning were so violent I feared for the photographers on nearby roofs.
Meanwhile, the pope and his attendants sat under a canopy, and seminarians held large black umbrellas over the heads of each archbishop and other dignitaries.
Then, from pomp and circumstance and rain, off to Assisi, the home of the man who was charged with “rebuilding” the church and bringing it back to its center in the Christ of the poor and the powerless.
I’ve been thinking of Francis and that beautiful medieval town as I read “A Retreat With Francis & Clare of Assisi,” by Franciscan Father Murray Bodo and Susan Saint Sing. The book brings Assisi alive.
I can almost see the “Portiuncula,” the chapel that Francis rebuilt and where he died. I can once again walk the ancient winding streets and view the sprawling Spoleto Valley. I can smell the aromatic coffee. I remember staying on the second floor of a small hotel, in a room so tiny I could barely squeeze around the end of my bed to look out the window. Across the narrow lane, a woman in an apartment moved about, her laundry hanging outside her window. I felt a sense of timelessness, of being close to Francis.
Every pilgrim who goes to Assisi feels deeply that they are walking the same streets as Francis, this man born into wealth who shed his possessions, down to the clothing on his back, in a real and symbolic gesture embracing poverty. Can he ever be completely understood? He remains a mystery and a challenge.
His radical poverty scares us and, let’s face it, sometimes repels us. But then I remember, there are degrees of voluntary poverty, and each of us is called to experience it in our own way even if we don’t leave our clothes in the piazza.
Poverty, as brutally suffered by much of the world today, was not what Francis sought for us. Rather, he called us to let go of the things that keep us from God, to fill those empty spaces with God, and God alone, and not with the “stuff” the world tells us is important.