Saint Francis of Assisi

Patron saint of Italy (1181-1226)

People often ask what it’s like living in a Catholic country. True, the history of Italy has been entwined with the growth of the Catholic Church, in particular, that of the Papal States of which Umbria was a central part prior to unification. Our personal history therefore has been marred by the struggle between autonomy and Papal rule. That does not diminish the spirituality that can be found here.

Italians are a practical sort and I’m not quite sure how much is faith and how much tradition or whether one can distinguish between the two. However, there is an awareness of the connection to our religious past that is second nature to Italians. I’m coming to believe that faith does not seem very far from anyone.

In Bettona, Sunday mass is filled with families — from grandparents to the infants. It’s an extraordinary site to see generations worshiping, interacting, and joyously singing, together.  Here the church community is an integral part of the larger community.

There is a sense of spirituality that manifests itself in a quite way here. Let’s call it a ‘gentle spirituality.’ Yes, that’s it. And that spirituality has a lot to do with Saint Francis. Whether you believe in him as a great reformer of the Church or prefer the fables of his talking with the animals, he is, at the heart of it, the soul of Umbria.

The essence of Saint Francis is certainly not to be found in the industry he has become or even in the magnificent basilica built in his name. (I often wonder what Francis would have thought about all of that.) But here, looking out over the valley seeing what he saw, or walking the hillsides and forests where he walked, here, unmistakably, his gentle spirituality can be found. But Saint Francis is indeed much more than the humble mendicant and founder of the Franciscan Order. And the stories of his life, his mission, and works are told here in a glorious way.

If there is one thing you must see before you leave Umbria it is the Basilica of San Francesco. It is spectacular in every way and has always been so. Even if it is disputed that Giotto may not have painted the great fresco cycle in the upper church, it is an extraordinary artistic achievement and stellar in every way. As too are the frescoes of the lower church. In fact more so because they are less known. The frescoes of Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti are some of the most exquisite paintings I have ever seen. Even the greatly deteriorated frescoes of Cimabue retain the essence of the monumental spirituality they depict. You must come and spend some time with all of them as well as visit the Saint’s tomb beneath the lower church.

Another place, equally popular as the basilica of San Francesco, is the Porziuncola of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here, when one enters the enormous 18th century basilica, you are struck by the incongruity of the small medieval church under the great dome where the transcept crosses the nave. Although the many of the frescoes date from the early 19th century, the altar painting dates from the century after Francis and there is much of a beautiful Perugino on the back of the Porziuncola. Here too is the Chapel of Transition, the room in which St. Francis died, off to the right with a series of good frescoes of saints.

But to me, the place I find St Francis to be the most accessible is at the Church of San Damiano. Just outside the walls of Assisi you will find the church that called to Francis. It is here the young man heard the Byzantine crucifix speak. God told Francis to “Rebuild My church,” and he dutifully began restoring the building completely missing that God was asking him to restore the entire Church. Eventually he realized his larger mission and the course was set for his complete conversion, as well as the Church’s.

Here, within the walls that Francis knew well and a far cry from the regal depictions of him in today’s Basilica above, the simple friar’s gentle spirituality is glimpsed. In silence you may wander the church and take in the simpler life of the real Francis. Sitting in San Damiano’s courtyard, or looking from its vantage point over the valley, one finds the essence of the Saint a place to reflect on his greatest prayer.

Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow your love:
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith:
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Master, grant that I many never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Come, join us. I hope that you might be interested in exploring the region that St. Francis called home.

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