In Assisi, St. Francis' legacy has new relevance thanks to pope

Followers of St. Francis hope namesake in the Vatican lives up to him

ASSISI, Italy -- Old Assisi perches high on a mountainside, overlooking Italy's broad Umbrian plain that is bright green with the new growth of spring. It is where St. Francis began a 13th-century movement that would save the Roman Catholic Church from corruption and malaise as he awakened faith in the common people.

The question now is whether Pope Francis -- the first ever to take the name of the world's most beloved saint -- can live up to that legacy.

"When you come to Assisi, you are overwhelmed with a sense of peace. It is a holy place. The people living there and serving there have a spirit of Francis in all that they do," said Archbishop William Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, who is a Franciscan friar.

A look at the legacy and environs of St. Francis of Assisi

Old Assisi sits high on a mountainside, overlooking the Umbrian plain. It is where St. Francis began a 13th-century movement that would save the Catholic Church from corruption and malaise. (Video by Ann Rodgers; edited by Melissa Tkach; 3/24/2013)

The name Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose for himself has great meaning, Archbishop Skurla said. "There are problems in the church and we need to be in the process of healing and rebuilding the structures of the church."

Those who minister in Assisi say the pope has walked in the steps of St. Francis during his first days in office, but they believe he will face difficult times as he begins to make difficult decisions. St. Francis, after all, wasn't a pope and refused to be ordained a priest. What authority he possessed was rooted in love.

Over the centuries the residents have taken his example seriously. During World War II, Assisi was a refuge for Jews. Pope John Paul II made it a site for leaders of all religions to gather annually to pray for peace.

The Rev. Jerome Vereb, a Passionist from Pittsburgh who worked in Rome during the early pontificate of John Paul, recalled that the Polish pope didn't win the hearts of Italians until he visited Assisi. As his helicopter ascended on the return flight to Rome, bouquets of roses were released as a sign of love for St. Francis.

Pope Francis "is giving more than roses to show his attachment to the holy Francis. He is giving himself totally," Father Vereb said.

One week into Pope Francis' pontificate, the Rev. Michael Pratt and another priest were leading students from Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, Okla., through Assisi.

"This pope's devotion to St. Francis and his love for the poor has renewed our love for the poor and our desire to be with them and bring the joy of Christ to them," Father Pratt said.

The two priests "have talked about doing walks in downtown Tulsa and approaching the homeless, perhaps buying them a meal, showing them attention and treating them with dignity. We talked about simplifying our own lives in terms of possessions."

Worked within the system

Many Americans tend to think of St. Francis as a fanciful saint whose chief virtue was love of animals. Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant who gave up all he owned to follow Jesus, did rescue lambs from slaughter, save a wolf and preach to birds. But he did so as he walked from village to village, bringing the Christian gospel to people in the town square. His dedication to renewing the faith of people who had been spiritually neglected by a power-mongering hierarchy brought sweeping revival across Europe.

"He's credited with rescuing Christendom in the Middle Ages, when the church was at a historical low in terms of credibility among the masses. There were terrible sexual scandals among the clergy and financial scandals. The church was embroiled in power politics. There were crusades going on against the Muslims. People were disillusioned," said the Rev. Ian Morgan Cron, an Episcopal priest in Nashville, Tenn. His autobiographical novel, "Chasing Francis," about a mega-church pastor who loses his faith and finds it again through St. Francis, is about to be published by Zondervan.

Despite the problems, St. Francis "chose to work inside the institution, not outside of it. He always turned to the pope for his blessing on the different things he did," Rev. Cron said.

"I think Francis was a pretty smart political animal. He kind of feigned ignorance ... but underneath at times, I think, he was a little crafty. He knew that to make changes he would need to work within the system or he would be shut down. I also think Francis was the kind of guy who said, 'If you want to criticize what the church does, just go out and do it better. Let the excellence of your ministry serve as the best indictment of the bad job the church is doing.' "

St. Francis' ministry had interfaith and anti-war dimensions. The man who had once been a prisoner of war went to Egypt during the crusades. He preached the gospel and a message of peace to the crusader army and also managed to preach to the Muslim ruler. The sultan didn't convert, but he was impressed with Francis and treated him kindly.

At an audience for journalists three days after his election, Pope Francis abandoned his prepared text and told the story of how he had chosen his name. As the names of candidates were read aloud in the conclave, cardinals applauded as he reached the crucial 77th vote. Then the retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a good friend, "gave me a hug and a kiss and said, 'Do not forget the poor,' " Pope Francis said.

As he told the tale to reporters, he tapped his forehead to indicate that he thought deeply about those words as the rest of the votes were read aloud in the conclave ritual. He pondered what name he would choose.

"Right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars ... Francis is also the man of peace," he said. "That is how the name came into my heart. Francis of Assisi -- for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?"

A pope for the poor

Just outside the old city of Assisi, at the end of a long path through an olive grove, Sister Rosanna Sabatini, a Franciscan Missionary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, sat in the sunshine on a stonework ledge, outside the first church that Francis rebuilt, San Damiano.

Well before March 13, some sisters at San Damiano had a spiritual sense that the next pope would take the name Francis, Sister Rosanna said. They watched the white smoke on television and, when they heard "Francesco," they stopped everything they were doing and celebrated. The more they learned of his personal humility -- as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he rode the bus to work and lived in a small apartment rather than the official mansion; as pope, he is keeping his old black shoes rather than wearing red papal ones -- the more they saw him as worthy of the name.

"He chose the name Francis because he has already been living in the style of Francis. He was on the side of the poor as a priest, as a bishop and as a cardinal. There is nothing new about it," she said through an interpreter.

"The personality of this pope is such that even nonbelievers are reconsidering their position. From what we can gather here, now they not only see the sins of the church but they see the sanctity and holiness of the church because of the friendliness and brotherly love of the pope."

At the age of 22, St. Francis organized the rebuilding of San Damiano, an old Byzantine church, after hearing Jesus speak to him from the crucifix, saying, "Francis, go repair my house." Only later did he understand it as a metaphor to rebuild the worldwide church. St. Francis gave the church to St. Clare, his friend and follower, for her community of women.

"The things that Francis did for her showed her that he had great respect for women," said Judy Bejna, who was among a group of nursing instructors and nurses from Loyola University in Chicago on pilgrimage to Assisi on Thursday.

"Popes came to visit St. Clare just to talk to her. I hope that means that this pope will also treat women with respect."

Her colleague, Ida Androwich, who organizes an Assisi pilgrimage every year for nurses at Loyola's Rome campus, has been deeply concerned with problems in Rome, ranging from a laggard, sometimes indifferent, response to sexual abuse to what she regards as a distorted indictment of an umbrella group for sisters in the United States.

"So far Pope Francis has shown that he has the courage to be different and to stand for what he wants," she said. "All the trouble in the church is discouraging. I hope this is a pope who sets a direction in the way that the church needs to go."

Difficult days, hard decisions

Early on a Thursday afternoon, the streets of the old city were quiet, despite occasional groups of chattering pilgrims and a Brazilian television crew walking through. The sun bore down on stone buildings hewn in cream, tan and pale rose tints, and flowers grew in terra cotta pots on the sills.

Above the old city, about 21/2 miles up a winding mountain road, is the Carceri, which friars say most clearly retains the essence of St. Francis' presence. He often went there to pray with his first followers. They stayed in caves. A hollow in the rock where St. Francis slept is enclosed in a simple shrine.

About 200 years after St. Francis' death, Franciscans built a hermitage there for friars to make retreats. They still maintain the Carceri as a place of prayer.

Far below in the valley, where the modern city of Assisi sprawls beneath the ancient one, is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, one of the largest in the world. Inside its ornate interior is the original tiny St. Mary of the Angels, called the Portiuncula. St. Francis rebuilt that humble chapel with his own hands, lived most of his adult life there and died there in 1226, at the age of 44.

The Portiuncula "looks like a little dollhouse inside the church. But that's what the Franciscan movement is like. It's a movement inside the big, universal church," said the Rev. Terence Henry, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, which has a replica of the Portiuncula on campus.

Inside St. Mary of the Angels, the Rev. Federico Marra was among the priests busy hearing confessions. There are always many confessions at the basilica, so it's difficult to know if the new pope has led to an increase, he said. But some people have volunteered that they were making their first confession in years because they were inspired by the new pope, he said.

So far, he said, Pope Francis is living up to the legacy that he chose.

"He is the shepherd of the poor," he said through an interpreter.

But despite the wide outpouring of respect and admiration, Father Marra predicts difficult days ahead. Good popes must make hard decisions and challenge people to do hard things. St. Francis, who was rejected by his own father, wasn't always popular. "Christ was unpopular," he said.

But Pope Francis, like his namesake, isn't putting on an act, he said.

"He is just one personality. He only has one face. There is nothing hidden about him."

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416., First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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