Rome Diaries - Week 72

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.

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March 4, 2009

It’s been 14 years since I visited Assisi. Today I am invited on a pilgrimage to this classic Umbrian hill town, virtually all its buildings constructed in the rosy-pink limestone of Mount Subasio, on which it is built. Assisi converted early to Christianity, in 238, under the guidance of bishop Rufino. The 11th century cathedral is dedicated to him and occupies its own terrace, away from the throngs of pilgrims coming to pay their respects to Francis and Clare, the 12th century saints who would make the town famous. Francis Bernardone, whose father was a cloth merchant, fancied he might become a troubadour and write French poetry; his father baptized him Giovanni but changed it to Francesco, the place of his very successful business trade. Eventually Francis enlisted in the army to fight the pope (Assisi was a town loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor and his Ghibeline party), but his year as a prisoner of war started, in him, a religious conversion. He joyously took the gospels at their word: ministering to lepers, giving everything to the poor and seeking out solitary places for prayer. His romantic vision of a gospel lived in the present drew followers from all over. When Francis, by this time a deacon, was preaching in Assisi’s Church of San Giorgio (now the completely rebuilt Basilica of Saint Clare), a 15 year-old noble, Clare Scifi, was in attendance. She desired the same direct approach to the gospel as Francis. Two years later, she accepted his rule of life. Today the Basilica of St. Francis, with its friary and piazzas, matches the size of the town’s castle and is the goal of pilgrim and art-lover alike. The lower church holds masterpieces by Cimabue, the last artist of the Byzantine style. In his “Madonna of St. Francis,” the artist added a much duplicated full-length image of the saint. Although the figure is different in style, it possesses a glowing presence. By contrast, large frescos of the upper church seem less inspired; these illustrate accounts recorded in Bonaventure’s biography of Francis (1263). A crypt, beneath the lower church, was created after the sarcophagus coffin of St. Francis was rediscovered in 1818; Francis’s remains had been intentionally hidden deep beneath the high altar six hundred years before. A column rises in the crypt church revealing the tomb amid a jumble of rocks and rubble, just as it was found. Here the pilgrim can have an obstructed view of the tomb and then walk around the column to acknowledge four early followers of Francis. Brother Elias was the builder of this complex; he was a flawed but charismatic Franciscan whose vision for the “little brothers” came to be ensnared by his own ambitions. In various capacities, he shaped the Order during its formative years, from 1220-1240, but his diplomatic talents drew him to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II. After a decade during which he was removed from the Franciscan Order and finally excommunicated, he had a death bed conversion and was solemnly buried not in Assisi but in the new church and friary he had enterprisingly constructed in Cortona, his birthplace. Clare Scifi, a young town noble, wished to follow the gospel just like Francis. Her basilica is less grand but still far from what “Lady Poverty” might dictate. Clare’s patched, gray garments are on display in the crypt. When her body was brought up to this basilica from San Damiano, the small convent Francis had built for her community, so was the convent’s miraculous crucifix. Francis had perceived this open-eyed Christ figure instructing him to: “rebuild my church.” To the minds of those shaping the Franciscan legend, San Damiano was too small and poor a place for them now. Nevertheless, every pilgrim should stop at San Damiano, a place emptied of its treasures, but rich in evocative spaces: the place where crucifix spoke to Francis, the prayer stalls of Clare’s religious women, their refectory tables, the place of her death. I would like precious hour or two here but my tour must keep to its schedule and we struggle to find taxis to take us back up the steep hillside on which San Damiano is built. Once on the bus, we head out of Assisi to see the chapel of Portiuncula, given to Francis in 1208 so he could start his religious community. The small building, now ornately frescoed inside and out, is surrounded by a hulking 16th century church. Next to it is a decorated alcove, memorializing the spot of ground where Francis died – just before the end, he asked, in a final bid for simplicity, to be placed outside so he could lie on the bare earth. I spend a short time here, but long for what the saint wish – to be close to the natural surroundings. The closest I get is a cooing pair of doves, inexplicably nesting near the immense gift shop. As our group exits the sales room, two modern-day friars elbow us out of the way, hurrying to their next appointment. Perhaps one of them is named Brother Elias.


March 5, 2009

Missed dinner last night, but today I enjoy leftover baked fennel (finoccio) with béchamel sauce. As with profiteroles, Catherine de Medici is credited with bringing the secret of white sauce from Italy to France when she married the Duke of Orleans, the future king of France. But the court of Louis XIV also lays claim to inventing white sauce and naming it after Marquis de Béchamel, chief steward to the king. The royals can fight it out, fennel never tasted so good.

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