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Some Reflections on Assisi
Andrew Conradi ofs

Santa Maria Maggiore, Assisi

May the Lord give you peace!

After my JPIC Animators Course at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome on “The Ethical Use of Environmental and Economic Resources” which was a very intensive 10 days, I went to Assisi. I escaped Rome to the peace and quiet and fresh air of a hill town in Umbria for six days. I loved it and did not want to go back to Rome where I had a hard bed and noisy nights opposite a hostaria (but living in a friary I had plenty of good food, wine and interesting company and well, Rome itself - so do not feel too sorry for me!).

I stayed at the Third Order guesthouse of the Institute of the Little Franciscan Fraternity of St Elizabeth of Hungary (Sr Chiara [email protected]) right in the piazza where Francis took off his clothes and returned them to his father in front of the bishop outside the bishop’s palace. A defining moment in his life and a wonderful place for me. I was in no rush to see things and was able to return several times to the basilicas of St Francis and St Clare. I am glad I was not in a tour group and used written guides rather than audio. In Rome a friar had lent me a book about Assisi, which I devoured (and then bought my own copy: “Assisi In the Footsteps of St Francis” by Théophile Desbonnets).

In the guesthouse the sisters did not speak English but with my Spanish and their Italian there was no problem although I nearly missed my first supper due to the posted time having been changed to half an hour earlier, which I did not know.

My window overlooked the square and I could see the tower of the Basilica of St Clare. I went to mass in the presence of the original icon of San Damiano and the sweet singing of the Poor Clares. I found that mass in Italian was still distracting because I had to follow it in a missalette instead of listening. But at least I could say most of the responses and the Lord’s Prayer. Twice in the Basilica of St Francis I attended an English mass both times with American priests. I attended vespers in both basilicas in Italian and was able to understand enough and sing the Magnificat and the psalms. I did that in the lower basilica above the tomb of Francis and also in Sta Maria Maggiore opposite the guesthouse. I also attended a rosary there and broke down in tears although I have no idea why. One day the Holy Spirit maybe will tell me.

The problem with a pilgrimage is the other pilgrims! They can be very distracting but there are several churches where sometimes there was peace and quiet. I think that the place that is the most Franciscan is San Damiano. Simple and unadorned and the site of St Clare’s rebuffing the Saracens and later her transitus. The walk down there and back is through farms and the swallows of Assisi are very much in evidence. Although Francis preached to the birds elsewhere maybe some of them are descendants of the ones he did preach to! The Porziuncola is also a very special place and the site of the transitus of Francis just a few feet away. Close to Santa Maria degli Angeli is the Franciscan bookshop. It is a trap. I went in with money and came out with books that weighed me down!

I am glad that I stayed in the Third Order guesthouse because of the Franciscan setting and the fact that I could eat with English speaking people since I was alone. I met a wonderful Swiss/German couple who go to Assisi often and were very interesting and also an Australian couple. They remarked that they had noticed some wild poppies, which they had never seen before because they do not grow in Australia. They do wear paper poppies on Remembrance Day like we do and that lead to mention of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lt Col John McRae, which we recited together.

The Museum of Assisi had an exhibit entitled “Assisi Memories of 1943-44”. This was very interesting because of the role of the church in protecting refugees, especially Jews, from the Nazis. Just down the road were three convents where Jews were hidden by three different congregations of Poor Clares: Italian, French and …. German. They helped shelter and protect Jewish refugees at great risk to themselves. I call that action really living the faith. Prayer would not have been enough. Especially for cloistered nuns to do that took courage and I admire them.

Actually Assisi was saved by the actions of a German Catholic Medical Officer, Oberst (Colonel) Valentin Müller, who persuaded the German Commander-in-Chief in Italy to declare Assisi a hospital city free of combatants. This was respected by the Allies and thus Assisi was spared destruction in battle (unlike the famous Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino). When the Germans finally withdrew, Assisi was “liberated” by Italian partisans and the first Allied troops in were Scottish who hardly had to fire a shot.

In effect I was on a retreat in Assisi – no tv, computer, newspapers or phones - only books about Francis and Clare and their spirit and the town of Assisi and its people and other pilgrims. I want to return but next time with my wife. But also I would like to visit the Holy Land and Santiago de Compostela in Spain and even walk a few miles on the Camino!

The course and my time in Assisi will be with me for the rest of my life. I ask myself what I am meant to do with this knowledge. I have seen, now I must judge, then act by actually living the Rule. Lip service is not enough. We must live our faith as in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us stop just saying we love people, let us really love them, and show it by our actions.” And as Francis told the OFM, and would undoubtedly say again today (and also include sisters of the Poor Clares, TOR and SFO): “Let us begin, brothers, ... for up to now we have made little or no progress.” (1 C, n.103)

Pax et bonum!