Of big beautiful basilicas
My art professor flashed an image of a big beautiful Church on the overheads. It was a class in my undergraduate program at a Southern Baptist college where I was required to give the name, date, artist, and technique of the work. It was really a lesson in memorization where I frantically scribbled hundreds of images and facts on note cards in order to cram the information into my brain before a test. To be quite honest, I did not remember the date, artist, and technique of those paintings in that Basilica six months after having that class. It was all committed to short-term memory. However, out of all of that information, there was a name that stayed with me. This was the first time that I had learned of St. Francis of Assisi which was in 1982.
Over 20 years later in October 2003, I found myself on a visit to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. This time, no longer a student of art, nor a Southern Baptist; I was on a pilgrimage for the Beatification of Mother Teresa where a stop also had been planned to Assisi. Back in my days as a freshman in college, I never even thought that I would actually one day be able to go to Assisi. I didn’t even know to wish or even pray for such.
Not as a student of art, but as a believer on a pilgrimage
Imagine the joy of encountering Assisi not as a student of art at a museum, but as a believer in the Church on a pilgrimage. We had entered the lower Church first, had Mass, and then visited the crypt of St. Francis. After spending quite some time in the lower Church, I thought that this was all there was. Then we were taken to view the upper Church which contained the infamous works by Giotto – the same images that my art professor had flashed on overheads back in 1982.
In 1997 a series of earthquakes had hit Assisi causing huge damage and destruction to ancient buildings in the area. Many of the priceless frescoes by Giotto that depicted the life of St. Francis literally slid off of the walls in the upper Church and crumbled into tiny fragments and pieces. On my visit in 2003 many of these were in the process of reconstruction and restoration. But in spite the damage done to the Basilica by the earthquake, the life of the humble little friar continues to have influence even to this day, with and without the art work. The pure and joyful spirituality of St. Francis continues to leave an imprint in the Catholic Church.
I remember visiting the hills around Assisi where St. Francis had often gone and prayed. There was an area there where he, as a frail man, had slept on a slab of rock. I was fascinated by the little crosses that had been carved into the landscape there by pilgrims and perhaps even St. Francis himself. I kept thinking of the Stations of the Cross where it is prayed, “We adore You O Christ and we bless You. Because by your holy cross You have redeemed the world.” I have heard that this prayer originated with St. Francis.
The celebration of the Little Friar is upon us
October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Born in Assisi in 1181 to a wealthy cloth merchant, he is perhaps one of the most famous and venerated Saints of the Church. A lot of people know him as the patron saint of animals and ecology. This time of year many bring their pets to be blessed at many Churches, particularly those that are run by Franciscan friars.
St. Francis is also noted for having received the stigmata which are the Crucifixion marks of Christ. St. Francis had renounced his life of luxury and instead took on the habit of which his friars are still known today. Rather than finding a bride, St. Francis told everyone he was married to “lady poverty,” which was not an old woman on welfare that lived on his street. “Lady poverty” was his term for making a vow of poverty and being a helper to the less fortunate.
St. Francis “Repair my Church”
While praying in the Church of San Damiano near his home in Assisi the icon of the Crucified Christ there told him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My Church, which you can see, has fallen into ruins.” He took this quite literally and went about rebuilding the little Church of San Damiano. At the same time, however through his faith and humility he went about rebuilding the Church spiritually as well. Though never a priest himself, St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan order.
Thoughts of St. Francis and Assisi make me long to go back to that town. I had another chance a few years ago on a quick day trip from Rome. More locally, I have had the opportunity to volunteer in the adoration program at Marytown in Libertyville, IL which is overseen by the Conventual Franciscan friars. At my Confirmation in May 2003, I chose the name Mary Frances out of my fondness for the saint. Later, I discovered that my great grandparents who had migrated from Italy in the early 1900s also bore the first names of Mary and Francesco, a fact that I did not know. (For relatives who are screaming Teresa, yes, first names — great grandma was Maria Teresa and great grandpa was Francesco). Oh yeah, and grandpa was Benedetto (even though we called him Joe) and great great grandpa was Benedetto also who lived not far from Montecassino. But that is a story for another blog.
One never grows tired of this humble and fascinating saint. If you get a chance, check out your local Franciscan Church, rent the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, or at least read a copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis which contain stories on the life of St. Francis. You will be delighted.