Assisi welcomed Pope Francis on the feast of the saint, who is for the first time the namesake of the Bishop of Rome. The warmth of the welcome was evident from the moving participation of so many people, but the spirit of the visit was also marked by the latest heartbreaking tragedy in the waters of Lampedusa, which claimed the lives of hundreds. The Pope called it a “day of tears” — and its sadness could in some way also be expressed in the gray and rainy weather of early autumn.
Lampedusa was the destination of the Pontiff's first visit. He chose it in order to entrust to the mercy of God some 25,000 people who have died in the Mediterranean in recent years — men, women and children fleeing desperate situations. It was also an attempt to uproot the hardness of heart that Pope Francis so vehemently denounced as a globalization of indifference. The wreath of flowers that he laid on the tomb of Assisi's saint stirred the memory those he had laid upon seas surrounding that small Sicilian island.
And just as in the face of that tragedy the first word from the Pope's mouth was “disgrace”. The caresses and kisses that he gave in abundance to the disabled youth under the care of the Serafico Institute were also for the victims of this tragedy which has global proportions. The decision to begin his visit to Assisi in this place was eloquent, for it is there that attention and care the suffering flesh of Christ is first of all a choice for life. The choice to care for another — Pope Francis recalled — must distinguish Christians.
Thus, in his off-the-cuff meditation he wished to emphasize that it was precisely the Risen Jesus’ wounds — which are beautiful, he said — that allowed the disciples to recognize him. In fact, just as Jesus is at the same time hidden and present in the Eucharist, he is also present and hidden in his flesh that suffers in this world. It was that flesh which Francis of Assisi recognized and embraced in the leper, beginning his exemplary journey in which his contemporaries already saw the extraordinary traits of “another Christ” ( alter Christus ).
The journey of the Pope, who bears the saint's name, therefore unfolded in the footsteps of Francis. First in the Bishop’s Residence, where the son the merchant Bernardone stripped himself of his clothes and where Pope Francis, again speaking off-the-cuff, meditated on the need for continual renunciation on the part of the Church, in order to flee spiritual worldiness. In the Church of San Damiano, he exhorted religious to remain faithful to the vows they made to Lady Poverty. Then, he knelt before the tomb of Francis. And lastly at the hermitage — he was the first pope to visit it.
In his homily, the Bishop of Rome directly addressed the saint with words from the heart: teach us, he said, to remain before the Crucified One so that he might gaze upon us; teach us to be instruments of peace, peace that comes from God. It is this peace that Pope Francis implored yet again: peace for the Holy Land, for Syria, for the Middle East and for the world — a suffering world that desires and needs the peace and gaze of God.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 18, 2019
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