Where would I go if could be immediately transported somewhere? I and other bloggers were challenged to write a post, answering this question.
I would like to be soaring over the green Umbrian countryside of Italy, like a brown sparrow, heading towards the small Italian city of Assisi. It is an ancient city; most of the buildings were built during the Middle Ages, still being occupied. I am heading towards a large Catholic Basilica, the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the last resting place of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Saint Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. His father, who made his money selling fine cloth to French merchants, nicknamed his son Francesco as a tribute to the French. Francis was the city playboy; it was not a party if Francis was not invited. He was a social climber, who longed to belong to the nobility, to become a knight. He was a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran who was broken in body and soul. And because of his brokenness, Jesus Christ entered into Francis’ heart; and Francis experienced a conversion, a conversion to the Gospel life. He began to give his money to any poor person who asked for alms. He went among the lepers, caring for them, washing their sores, and binding them with bandages. In the solitude of caves, he began to develop a deep spiritual, prayer life. He reflected on the gospels, he entered into an intimate relationship with God. Francis strived to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
He gave away everything he owned, dressed like a beggar, in a grey, brownish robe. He went about serving the poor, preaching in the streets, and marketplaces; proclaiming to all who would listen to him; that God loved them all. Men, who heard his words, saw his lifestyle, were drawn to Francis, and soon he had twelve followers. Twelve became a hundred; the hundred became thousands, all promising to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, according to the example of Saint Francis. They became the Order of Lesser Brothers, Order Friars Minor. Women, like Clare of Assisi, were also drawn to this Troubadour of Christ. With Clare, he formed a contemplative community of women, the Poor Ladies of Assisi, now known as the Poor Clares. There were other men and women, farmers and tradesmen, wives and seamstresses, who also wanted to live the Gospel, and sought Francis’ guidance. They became the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the Third Order of St. Francis; today known as the Secular Franciscan Order.
I became attracted to St. Francis during my third and last year at the archdiocesan seminary. I had decided to take years’ leave from the seminary; I spent the year with a Christian ecumenical organization which provided worship services in the National Parks. I was sent to Yellowstone NP, lead services during the weekend, worked in the kitchen the rest of the time. And in the midst of all that natural beauty, I read about Francis and the Franciscan life. After two years, I entered formation to become a Friar. I was to realize that God had another path for me, so I left the Friars, but the Franciscan spirit was already embedded in my heart. I would later join the Secular Franciscan Order; I have been a professed member for over 25 years. And I am always wishing I had the means to make a pilgrimage to Assisi, to visit that Basilica.
Francis died on the evening of October 3, 1226, at the age of 44 years old. He was canonized a saint in 1228. The friars were already beginning the construction of the Basilica. The best architects, artisans and artists, the pioneers of the Italian Renaissance, were brought onto the project. The Basilica was constructed in two levels, the upper church with vaulted ceilings, and large stain glass windows. The lower church is more enclosed, but both levels are covered with beautiful frescoes, painted by Italian master artists. The Basilica is considered an international treasure. However, when the Basilica was finished; the Friars buried Francis in secret; for fear that rival cities would try to steal the remains. They did such a good job hiding the burial site, that Francis’ body was lost until 1819. When the burial site was rediscovered, a new crypt was constructed under the lower church. The crypt has a small chapel, with an altar. Above the altar is a stone coffin, containing the bones of St. Francis. It is bound with iron straps, and an iron grill over the entrance. The walls of the crypt are bare stone, simple, unadorned. It is there I wish I could sit, contemplating, in the dim light, the last resting place of a man who continues to inspire Christians and non-Christians. And in the stillness of that place, maybe I can hear a whisper, wishing me and all who come there: “Pace e Bene!” “Peace and Good!”