· The Pope’s spiritual walk in the footsteps of St Francis ·
This pontificate, already rich in expression, hit a high note in Assisi on 4 October. Eighteen popes before Francis have made the same journey (between 26 May 1228 and 27 October 2011) and within the same span of time popes have prayed 34 times before at the saint’s tomb. This would be sufficient reason not to ascribe any special descriptive to the latest papal visit but for the fact that he is the first bishop of Rome to build his pontificate on the name and message of St Francis; and, as he indicated during the visit, the Church’s path forward can be found in the life and choices of the Poverello.
Indeed, on the seraphic saint’s feast day, Pope Francis set out precisely where Francis’ journey had commenced some 800 years ago, with Christ Incarnate found in those who suffer. The saint found Christ in lepers. Pope Francis found him in the children at the Serafico Institute in Assisi.
Brother Francis’ love for every creature is still present at the Serafico Institute, and the Pope knows this. This is why he chose to immerse himself completely in his visit with the children, which took place in the chapel of the institute. The Pope set aside his prepared text, recollected himself and launched a bitter attack against a society that fails to recognize the wounds of Christ.
In the meantime, a small crowd had gathered around the Shrine of San Damiano, which holds the crucifix before which Francis heard the Lord say to him: “Go, rebuild my house”. Pope Francis meditated for a long time before this crucifix. An almost surreal but very eloquent silence surrounded him.
Surely the most poignant and most anticipated moment of the pilgrimage occurred at the Archbishop's Residence. In the Room of Renunciation where St Francis renounced all worldly wealth in order to offer himself to the Lord, the Pope proposed the image of a Church stripped of all worldliness, since “spiritual worldliness kills”.
The hall was packed with the homeless who are helped by Caritas Umbria, by former prisoners and by fathers of families who through lack of work have lost everything, including dignity. In front of them, Pope Francis once again set aside his prepared address and spoke from his heart, as he had done in Cagliari when he spoke to workers.
He then went on foot to the nearby Basilica of St Mary Major, Assisi's only cathedral. Then he continued on his pilgrimage, making his way by car to the major Basilica. The Holy Father first went down into the crypt and knelt in prayer before the tomb that holds the saint's mortal remains. He then went to the St Francis’ Square where he presided over the concelebration of the Holy Mass together with his eight recently appointed cardinal advisers who accompanied him on the visit.
The morning concluded in pure Franciscan style. Pope Francis took leave of his hosts, and even of his entourage, and went by car to the welcoming centre located near the railway station of Santa Maria degli Angeli. There he had lunch with the poor, who receive a hot meal each day from Caritas Umbria. It is a place where discomfort fades away, through a frugal meal and through the peace and human warmth with which it is offered. Pope Francis sat down at a brown wooden table fashioned in the shape of an “L”, and he placed himself right in the corner so that he might be able to see everyone eye to eye. “A lesson in simplicity” was written on one of the many welcoming banners. And this is precisely what Pope Francis did in Assisi: he imparted a great lesson in simplicity. At the home of his teacher St Francis, he could not do otherwise.
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