July 9 Saturday Assisi

We left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. to drive for two hours north through the Apennine Mountains to the Village of Assisi the home of St. Francis.  Pope Benedicts has called for an Interfaith meeting of world religious leaders to gather in Assisi in October.  The Muslims have great respect for St. Francis.  During the crusades Francis set out for the Holy Land to try to convert the Muslims.  He was so appalled by the behavior of the Crusaders, he left their camp and crossed over the Muslim lines, where he was arrested and taken to Saladin the Sultan.  They had a very deep and abiding discussion of their faiths, that caused both men to have great respect for each other.  Ever since then the Muslims have held St. Francis in high regard and the Franciscans were made the keepers of the Catholic holy sites in the Holy Land.

Francis started life as anything but a saint.  He was the spoiled child of a well to do merchant, not nobility, but part of the rising middle class.  He wanted to be a knight, a soldier.  So his father purchased for him armor, weapons and a horse.  Assisi went to war with one of the neighboring towns, and Francis signed up to go to war for Assisi.  He didn’t do very well.  He was captured and held for a year in prison, until his father ransomed him.  Another war broke out with a neighboring town, and again Francis prepared to go to war, but after riding out the gate of the City, he began to have second thoughts, and after a few hours returned confused and dejected.  For a year to the consternation of his parents he sort of wandered the countryside.  And one day he stopped to pray in a small humble run down church.  While praying in front of a crucifix he heard a voice saying, “Rebuild my church.”  Francis took a look around and said, “you’re right this little church needs refurbishing.”

So Francis began working to clean and repair the little church of San Damiano.  He got the message half right.  It was only after repairing the church that he realized he was being called to a much larger and more difficult task.  The church had grown rich and powerful and no longer cared for the poor.  Francis in a symbolic act went to his parents and gave them back all of his clothes.  His father believing he had gone made imprisoned him for three days, hoping he would come to his senses.  But his mother finally left him out, and he went down into the valley and began living in the woods.  Other young people attracted to his example came and joined him.  A wealthy young woman by the name of Claire came and joined him, and she attracted other young women.  Francis gave her San Damiano, for her new order of nuns, the Poor Claires.

There are important parallels between the life of St. Francis and the life of Peter Lombard the founder of the Waldensians.  They both believed the church had grown too rich and needed reforming.  They both desperately wanted to minister to the poor, and they believed that the general populace, who were ignorant of the faith needed teaching and preaching to come to a better appreciation and practice of their faith.  Francis followed a much more ascetic path, severely limiting clothing, food, and other earthly needs.

St. Francis had a very simple shelter and chapel in the woods.  Today a huge church has been built over those structures to protect them.  St. Francis probably would have been quite disappointed with how large and ornate was the church built to honor him.  I think Francis would be especially disappointed that they charge 60 cents to go to the bathroom at his church.  The Franciscan ideal is to embrace poverty and service, and to live in harmony with nature.  Everywhere we went in Assisi there were flowers growing.  Francis was particularly fond of animals.  Francis attracted many followers because of the authenticity of his faith that was reflected in the way he lived his life.  The Franciscans were originally entirely a lay movement.  There is no record that Francis was ever ordained as a priest or a deacon or any other ordained status in the church.

We had lunch at a guest house run by the Brigettine Sisters.  Their order was founded by Mary Elisabeth Hesselblad a Swedish girl, who migrated to the United States in 1886 to study nursing.  She converted to Catholicism, and re-founded  the order of the Sisters of St. Bridget.  One of their primary ministries is hospitality.  After a wonderful lunch we talked with Sister Marcellina about her order’s ministry.  Of the ten nuns in Assisi, nine are from India and one is from Mexico.  Although Sister Marcellina was quick to point out that with increasing affluence in India the number of vocations is dropping.  Ray Dunmyer says the Catholic Church now has more priests and nuns than ever before, but they are from the Third World.  I wonder if a rising economic tide in the Third world will lead to fewer vocations there also?  The Brigettine Sisters have adopted the ministry of hospitality, because through hospitality so many people can experience the presence of God.  United Church needs to remember this example.

After lunch we went on a walking tour of the village of Assisi inside the Wall.  We toured a church dedicated to St. Claire, the founder of the Poor Claires.  Her crypt is in the basement of the church.  We saw the home of St. Francis’ parents. And finally we toured the Basilica dedicated to St. Francis, where his crypt is located.

There we met with Brother James a Franciscan originally from West Haven, Connecticut.  He is a lay brother, not ordained, and displayed a certain irreverent spirit that is often the mark of the Franciscan Brothers.  He said that once Francis understood the vocation to which God was calling him, he reformed the church by embodying Christianity, embracing poverty, humility and serving the poor.  His life was so compelling that others began to follow him, and they began living humbly and serving the poor too.  Francis could get both rich and poor to listen to him.  He understood the needs of the poor who could not read or write.  It is possible that he really did not read and write either.  He needed a scribe to help him write his rule.  The church at that time needed a very different expression of the faith, for the poor had sunk into ignorance and superstition.  The Friars helped to lift them out of darkness.  St. Francis was the first person to use the crèche at Christmas time to tell the story of Christmas in a way that illiterate people could understand.

Brother James felt called to the Franciscan Order because of their informality, and their more fraternal relationship with one another.  He initially decided to try it for a year, and figured he would get over it.  But he has now been a friar for over 30 years.  He finds that people are called to the Franciscans in many ways.  Sometimes it is just the experience of being around other Franciscans and experiencing their sense of community and fraternity.  Young people seem to be attracted to Francis’ humility, and authenticity, now there’s a real Christian.  Young people are also drawn to his love and care for the environment.

We drove back to room in the gathering evening through the Apennine Mountains.  When we returned, I was too tired to go out for dinner, and came back to the room and collapsed.  Tomorrow we go to worship at St. Peter’s.

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