A pilgrimage to Assisi is an affair of the heart. In Assisi one feels close to the Heart of Christ and to his servant, Francis. May the Lord speak to your heart as you follow Francis in his life of conversion and subsequent immersion in the pierced Heart of Christ. Like Francis, may you find in the Heart of Christ a sanctuary, a source from which you can drink unlimitedly and draw new strength.
Let us begin with a brief history. Assisi is located in Italy in the Province of Perugia in the Umbrian region, about 108 miles from Rome. This ancient Umbrian city was taken over by the Etruscans from 450 B.C. until the Romans took control of central Italy in 295 B.C. The Romans called the city Asisium. They built the city on a series of terraces on Monte Subasio. From that period, there still remain many noteworthy monuments, such as the façade of the temple of Minerva (now the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva), traces of a theater and an amphitheater in the upper part of the town, as well as some parts of the ancient walls of the city. A small basilica was built around 412 AD to host the body of San Rufino who introduced the Christian faith to the people of Assisi and who was martyred at the Chiascio river near Cortona in 238 AD. The present Cathedral Church of San Rufino, begun in 1140, was built over the smaller basilica of 412 AD and is said to contain the remains of the martyred bishop, San Rufino.
During the early Middle Ages, Assisi was often the scene of strife and civil war. For several centuries, Assisi continued to be embroiled in battles as it passed from the hands of one ruler to another. Not until 1860 did the town become part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
The Culture During the Time of Francis
Francis (1181/1182-1226) lived in a time known as the “High Middle Ages,” which began around 1130 and ended around 1250. During his lifetime, Italy was not a unified country, but composed of a number of city-states that were either independent dukedoms or controlled by the pope or the emperor. The emperor at the time was Frederick II, who was born and who lived in Assisi’s castle, the Rocca Maggiore. During Francis’ time, Assisi was under the rule of the emperor, along with its nearby cities, Foligno and Todi. Perugia, on the other hand, was under the rule of the pope. There were frequent feuds and wars. Everybody in Assisi was born armed and grew up armed, always ready to invade, attack, and defend.
In 1202, Perugia overcame the forces defending Assisi and took many prisoners. It was during the battle at Ponte San Giovanni that Francesco di Bernadone was imprisoned in Perugia for over a year. Early biographers say that Francis did his best to keep spirits up and to reconcile disputes among prisoners. Imprisonment was difficult on Francis mentally and physically. By the time of his release his health was severely damaged. He had seen companions and friends killed in battle, and he continued to suffer, worn down by a long illness. At home, he wandered listlessly about the house for a year and a half. His former, “normal” life no longer existed.
This difficult period in his life set in motion the events that led Francis to devote himself to serving God, to following Christ through serving the poor, and to living in poverty himself.
POINTS FOR REFLECTION:
What is the good that God is bringing out of my inactivity or confinement during this pandemic?
How am I helping my co-Sisters and how are they helping me in this difficult period of our history?
What are the graces that the Lord is giving me to deal with the illnesses and deaths of family members, friends and co-Sisters?
Assisi was controlled by the descendants of ancient nobility, whose ranks had been increased by feudal lords who had moved into the city from the rural areas. Land became commonly controlled in order to defend the area. Many fortified structures were built, and the people took the common oath: “One in blood and war.” The classes of people were composed of either the “majors” (greater ones) who were the nobility and successful merchants or the “minors” (lesser ones) who were mostly artisans and farmworkers. Choosing to be called after the poorer class, Francis named his first order of brothers the “minores” (lesser ones). The Church, too, was not free of the corruption of power. There was also an abuse of wealth; for instance, in levying taxes.
Reacting to this setting were radical groups known as Catharists and Waldensians who were heretics. On the other hand, there was a strong spiritual culture of devotion to saints and relics, and a true belief in the existence of miracles. Because the people were becoming prosperous, parishes were frequently rebuilt and churches were restored and enlarged. There was a search for adventure which was fed by taking a pilgrimage, sometimes by foot, sometimes on horseback, to Rome, to Santiago de Compostella, and even to the Holy Land.
The 12th century was a time when art, songs and entertainment of the day were used to express mystical love and courtly love. St. Francis himself is remembered as the “Troubadour of the Great King” (Bonaventure, Major Legend, II) for his mendicant lifestyle and joy.
Today, Assisi is called the City of Peace. We are traveling virtually to this holy city, where Francis and Clare were born, to encounter the Assisi experience, the spirit of Francis and Clare, the spirit of peace and virtue.
Youth and Conversion
Let us wind our way through the enchanting streets of the town, and let us recall the stories of Francis’ youth and conversion. The piazza communale is in the center of Assisi and echoes the story of various periods. It is the place where Francis ran around during his lively, carefree youth, begged stones to restore the Church of San Damiano, bread to eat and oil to keep the lamp burning while he restored the church (Legend of the Three Companions), and where he and Bernard opened the Gospels. The piazza was a familiar place to Francis, a place close to his parent’s home, and one which held many different kinds of memories.
On the west side, behind the new Post Office, are the remains of the old Church of San Nicolò, where Francis, Bernard of Quintavalle, and Peter Catanii went to consult the Scriptures about their way of life.
On the north side of the piazza stands the Torre Communale and an iron grating that leads down to the ancient Roman Forum.
The Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, as the title reveals, was built over the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. The Corinthian columns alone remain from the first century structure. The interior dates from 1539 and was renovated in 1994.
There is a beautiful picture of the death of St. Joseph inside the church.
POINTS FOR REFLECTION:
In this Year of St. Joseph, how do I imitate the obedience of St. Joseph? Am I willing to listen to God’ voice?
How is God speaking to me? (through prayer, Scripture, words or deeds of a co-Sister or spiritual director)
Am I willing to convert and to go new ways with the Lord?
On the south side of the piazza is the Palazzo Comunale, built in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the time of St. Francis.
Making our way south of the Piazza Comunale we come upon the Chiesa Nuova. This church was built in the 17th century over the supposed site of the home of Francis’ parents, Pietro Bernardone, a cloth merchant, and his wife, Lady Pica, a noble woman from Provence, France. Statues of them are found outside this
house/church. In 1181 or 1182 Francis was born here and it is where he lived for 25 years. This is the family home where he developed a specific relationship with his father and mother. It was from this home that Francis went off to war against Perugia, dreaming of military victory and of becoming a magnificent knight.
As we enter the Chiesa Nuova and continue past the first pillar on the left, we see the “cell” where, in 1206, an angry Pietro Bernardone imprisoned Francis for selling bales of his cloth for the restoration of San Damiano. His mother, Pica, set him free.
The high altar and sanctuary are supposedly constructed on the site of the room lived in by Francis.
Exiting by a door to the left, let us go down a flight of steps past the old entrance to Francis’ house, to what may have been the workshop of Bernardone. Here we can imagine Francis working among rolls of finest cloth.
Another house or property of the Bernardone family included a stable (San Francesco Piccolino), just a few feet down the road from the Chiesa Nuova. There is a pious tradition that Francis was born in this stable. The story goes that Francis was the first child of Lady Pica. Her husband was away in France on business. She was in labor, but could not give birth to the child. Then a Prophesying Pilgrim came to the front door of Pica’s house saying to a servant that the child would not be born until the Lady of the House went to the stable to give birth. Invoking the aid of the Blessed Mother, Lady Pica asked to be taken to the stable. The servants hurriedly prepared the place as best they could and there, by candlelight, among a fresh bundle of golden straw, Francis was born. It is a beautiful story, and with a spirit of prayer and devotion. Is it true or is it an attempt to note a coincidence between the life of Francis and the life of Christ and maybe stretching the imagination? We do not know.
Anyway, Lady Pica had the baby baptized and called him Giovanni. When Pietro Bernardone came home from France, he nicknamed his son, Giovanni – Francesco (Frenchman).
Not far from the house of Francis, is the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore located in Piazza del Vescovado. It is one of the oldest churches in Assisi. According to tradition, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore was founded by Bishop Savinio in the 4th century and built over a pagan temple dedicated to the god Janus. Through excavations carried out in 1864 and 1954, remains of a Roman domus (house) dating to the 1st century AD were also found next to the pagan temple and identified as the home of the elegiac Latin poet Propertius, a native of Assisi, who lived at the court of the emperor Octavian Augustus.
In the early Middle Ages, Santa Maria Maggiore became the cathedral of Assisi until 1036 when the title of “cathedral” was transferred to the church of San Rufino, where the relics of the martyred patron saint were kept. It is one of two churches that claims to be the site of Francis’ baptism.
The interior of the church has a basilica plan with three naves or aisles, like the basilicas of Rome. In the naves, in the semicircular apse and in the sacristy, there are remains of frescoes dating from the 14th to the 16th century.
Many times Francis was a guest of Bishop Guido who lived in the adjacent Palazzo Vescovile.
By Decree of December 25, 2016, Bishop Domenico Sorrentino erected in the church a chapel, the Sanctuary of the Spoliation, recalling the act of renunciation that Francis made near here in 1206. In that year, Francis came before his parents, Pietro and Pica, and Bishop Guido to renounce any claim on his family’s resources and to depend on God alone. In front of the bishop’s house, Francis stripped naked and said, “Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernardino my father…. But from now on (I say): ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’ And not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” But it was his encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, that would be for Francis the core of his religious conversion (Testament).
Francis had a special bond with the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Bishop Guido was close to the Poverello (the Little Poor Man) in the period of his conversion in 1206, and he was in favor of Francis’ visit to Pope Innocent III in 1210, since he knew the pontiff well. Here, too, Francis and the brothers sang the second last strophe of the Canticle of Brother Sun about pardon, thus reconciling the mayor and the bishop. And finally, Francis resided here for a time in 1226, shortly before he died.
Of great interest today is the newly Blessed Carlo Acutis’ tomb located in the church’s Sanctuary of the Spoliation. His remains have been there since April 6, 2019. The beatification ceremony took place on October 10, 2020 in the Upper Basilica of St. Francis.
The Cathedral of San Rufino, mentioned earlier, was built in the Umbrian Romanesque style. It has a huge dome, but if you are standing in the square, the façade obscures the dome. Looking from other parts of the city, the dome is the key to locating the cathedral. A square bell tower stands alongside built from blocks of travertine. There are three rose windows as well as lions and griffins on the façade. The animals are symbols of Perugia under whose rule the city fell in the 1200s. The lunette (half-moon shaped arch) above the main door, depicts Christ enthroned between the sun and the moon (could this have influenced Francis when composing the Canticle of Creatures?). Also depicted in the lunette are the Madonna nursing the Child, and the image of St. Rufino.
Inside to the right of the entrance is the baptismal font where Francis and Clare, as well as many of Francis’ followers, were baptized. There is a question whether the baptismal font actually stood in San Rufino at the time. It is possible that San Rufino was being remodeled, and therefore inaccessible, and that Santa Maria Maggiore was used instead.
The Bishop’s “cathedra” is on display, and here we find the relics of San Rufino who converted Assisi to Christianity.
The family home of Clare was on the piazza adjacent to the cathedral, most likely in the area of the bell tower. Francis preached in this church regularly, and it is possible that Clare heard him on a number of occasions.
End of PART I. Please go to Part II.