“The union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 49). It’s hard to be aware of the presence of so many saints in Rome and in Italy, and then think that they have no effect on our day-to-day life. The Church and Her teachers constantly remind us of the living relationship that exists between the faithful who inhabit this earth and those who “have gone before us marked with the sign of faith” because God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mark12:27).
Unfortunately, the cares and concerns of daily life, whose voices are deafening, cause us to forget these most important about life: namely, loving God above all things, and loving our neighbor as God has loved us! (see Matthew22:34-40) For this reason, the Church encourages Her sons and daughters to take time daily in prayer to step away from the noise of the world to listen for the Voice of our Father Who wishes us to know (with absolute certainty) of His love for each one of us in the depths of our being. The Church also encourages regular retreats as extended periods of rest and renewal, both for the body and for the soul.
It is these two realities – the union we share with the saints AND the need to come away to a quiet place and rest (Mark6:31) – that basically explain the inexplicable events of this past weekend. Assisi is a quiet town which seems to cling effortlessly to the slopes of Perugia in central Italy; given its international fame (thanks to St. Francis and St. Clare), this might be hard to believe Assisi can be small and quiet if you’ve never been there. Truly, Assisi always proves to be a special place for those who make the trip.
Let me preface the rest of the post by saying that God protects fools and children, but I’ll let you decide in which category I would be classified. Myself and another priest of the Casa Santa Maria made the trip by train to Assisi from Rome on Friday morning. Having visited both the Basilica of St. Francis (where St. Francis is buried) and the Basilica of St. Clare (where St. Clare is buried), we made a plan for the rest of the weekend, which basically involved peacefully, yet diligently visiting the places where these two saints spent the majority of their earthly lives.
For those who have been there, the tomb of St. Francis is a profound place of prayer, and we really wanted to be able to celebrate Mass directly in front of the tomb, but quickly learned that even in spite of some sweet talking with some “connected” people, it wasn’t going to happen. Thus we settled for Mass at St. Clare’s on Saturday morning, and Mass at St. Francis’ on Sunday, both of which would be celebrated near, but not “in front of” the tombs of these saints. I know; you really feel bad for me at this point!
Now, on my way to the Basilica of St. Clare on Saturday morning, I was stopped by a gentleman, who, on learning that I was an American, was interested to know where I was from and why I was in Assisi. Without any prompting, he asked if I had a connection with the North American College (NAC), where U.S. seminarians live in Rome. I tried to simply and generically explain to him my current residence, and he immediately asked if I lived at the Casa Santa Maria. At this point, I figured this guy knew something…come to find out, his wife works at the NAC, and he was in Assisi with a group from the states.
After he learned that we were on our way to St. Clare’s for morning Mass, he invited us to join his group for Mass at the tomb of St. Francis. While I thought he might be joking, or at least obligatorily inviting us to join, he was serious, and he insisted that we join their group; it wasn’t a hard sell on our part! Two hours later, we were standing at the tomb of St. Francis ready to start Mass. After a beautiful Mass, offered for several Franciscan orders who asked for my prayers in Assisi, the group invited us to dinner that evening at their hotel.
Again, not wishing to wear out our welcome, we said, “We’ll see,” partly because we also intended to be out visiting the sites around Assisi all day, and were unsure of when we’d return to town that night. Thus began the great walk/bus ride to San Damiano, Rivotorto, and Santa Maria degli Angeli
where St. Clare and St. Francis first lived in their newly-formed, newly-approved respective religious communities. Lo and behold, we got back just before dinner and ran into them again, and they were insistent that we join them! After a wonderful Italian dinner, we were invited to join them for an after-dinner drink with some Franciscans from the states who live in Assisi.
While chatting at the home of these Franciscans, we mentioned our intention to hike up the mountain to the hermitage to which Francis and his brothers would sneak away and pray in the solitude of the mountains. One of the Franciscans expressed interest in joining us and even said he could show us around. SURE! After Mass on Sunday at the lower Basilica of St. Francis (yes, there are two Churches in one), we began the journey up the mountain, and got to prayerfully and peacefully reflect on these little “caves” where the first “Franciscans” would spend their days in prayer during the heat of summer and the snowy cold of winter.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! After a side-trip to the Rocca Maggiore (highest point within the walls of Assisi, an old fortress) with this kind, young Franciscan, we had a quiet dinner (pizza and beer Italian style, which might be better than American style) back at their house.
Not only that, but both the tour guide and the Franciscans offered their generous assistance to us should we want to come back for private retreats, for “vacations”, or for even pilgrimages (even though I’m sure there’d be some personal gain on their part). All that being said, I point out that we went to Assisi with only a general plan of “cool things to see and do,” but God had another, more beautiful trip planned for us, in which we would not only see the churches and holy sites of Assisi, but also get to experience His fatherly love and providential care in profoundly concrete ways.
As I said at the beginning, the saints share with us their spiritual gifts, and I’m sure of the power and desire of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi, their earthly home, to share their capacity for the love of God and of their neighbor. I’m also sure that it requires us to remove ourselves from the world regularly to know that divine love more deeply and, with the help of God’s grace, to express it more perfectly in our daily lives.
Even 3 days later, I’m still dumbfounded by the nearly-unbelievable series of events that happened this week (click here for more picture evidence), and there’s a temptation to just relish in this moment, but as St. Paul famously reminds us:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1Corinthians13:1-3)
And St. James sums it up by simply writing:
…just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:26)
Thus, in the words of the Lord, Go and do likewise! (Luke10:37)