In front of the Basilica of St Francis
After an early breakfast we jumped in to a bus bound north to a little town that would have no significance if 800 hundred years ago it hadn't had among it's citizens a man whose name was Francis. For European standards it was a long trip (2 hours) for us in Australia it would be a little jump. Anyway the drive was long enough to say our daily priestly prayers. I was curious to see the home town of the Pauper of Assisi. The first thing that struck me was the size of the the Basilica. From a distance it looks like a enormous fortress. I prepared to see another magnificent Italian church, as St Eugene de Mazenod wrote: One needs to come to Rome to learn how to build a dwelling for God. As the Basilica of St Francis is divided into the lower and upper church it doesn't looks so huge inside. Still, it's interior is magnificent. However what struck me when I entered the lower church for some brief moment of prayer before a Franciscan friar gave us a tour it wasn't the magnificence of the Basilica. Simply I felt at home. Even more, I believe that I experienced presence of St Francis. I don't want to say that it was like visiting a haunted house. If I had to describe it, it was like being with a friend. Somebody who is interested in you, who cares about you. That's why I can say that visiting this Church I felt like when I enter houses of my dear friends. Often we say that coming to know saints means studying their life, what they did and said. When I prayed in the Assisi Basilica I experienced that he is very close to me, that he is a kindred spirit to me. It was like meeting a person and even if you know very little of the person you know that this person is special to you. Later on the bus back to Rome I spoke to a priest to me and he had a simple answer: It is Communion of Saints. It means that our Saints can be close to us not only because their words inspire us but because they are alive with the Risen Christ. I experienced that closeness of St Francis while in Assisi. It was a moment of grace to go down to the crypt where in a simple stone coffin his remains rest. St Francis who possessed nothing during his life still shares with others what filled abundantly his hear - love for Christ. When at midday we celebrated Eucharist in the Basilica I thought about the intention I should offer the Mass for, the thought I couldn't get out of my head was to pray for our Catholic Church and Pope Francis who chose the Saint from Assisi for his pontificate. After lunch I couldn't resist and I returned to the Basilica to spend more time in the crypt.A gate to Assisi
When the time of pressing on me I made my way through the narrow and steep streets of Assisi to the meeting point. As I was walking I thought of the power of God's grace that touched here the heart that young man who left everything behind in order to be free to follow Jesus. These walls at some stage couldn't contain his spirit that was growing with his love for Christ. St Francis had to go outside the walls of the town where living with the poor he experienced freedom the riches of his father would never give him. It was explained to me that the earthquake that caused some significant damage to the town a few years ago was the beginning some renovation that has given Assisi a bright look that probably is close to what St Francis saw when he walked these streets 800 years ago.
Before meeting the rest of the group I went to pay visit to another saintly citizen of the town - St Clare. When she saw what God was doing in the life of Francis she desired to do the same. Under his guidance she started a new order known today as Poor Clares. The main job of her nuns is praying. They are an enclosed order. During the brief time I had in the Basilica of St Clare I spent some time in front of her tomb and then the silence of the place was filled with the voices of the nuns who in their chapel were singing their afternoon prayers. It was like being immersed in a millennium long tradition of praying for the Church and the world. The basilica also hosts a treasure, it is the Cross of St Damiano from which Jesus spoke to St Francis: “Go repair my Church, which as you see is falling completely in ruin”. First Francis thought that Jesus asked him to fix up some of the churches in the area that were falling apart. That’s what he did. But later he realised that the Lord was calling him to a bigger project. Brining spiritual renewal to the Catholic Church. Kneeling there I prayed for all people I have known so that we could have the faith of St Francis to hold Christ as our greatest treasure.
The last part of our pilgrimage was the Portiuncula. It was a damaged little church that Francis rebuilt with his hands following the request of Jesus from the Cross. In this church he prayed and served the poor. He loved the church as it was accessible to those who were kicked out of Assisi. At that time only those who were on the town's books were allowed to reside in the town. All the others: unemployed, homeless, leppers etc had to stay at the outskirts. There Francis wanted to serve them. Later in order to preserve this tiny church a big basilica of Mary of the Angels was build. However once you enter the little church that is in the middle of the basilica you feel you are praying with St Francis who loved the church and who wanted to die there. Next to the church there is a rose garden. According to tradition when Francis was going through severe temptations he threw himself into roses and then the thorns disappeared making no harm to his poor body.
Fr Daniel OMI
An Oblate Priest