We left the beautiful hill country Of Lorenzana today with its olive trees and grape vineyards blooming. We are bound for Rome via Assisi today. The Tuscany region of Italy this time of year is green and the spring air is filled with wonderful scents of blossoming flowers. After spending a cozy night in our warm farmhouse that was built in 1846, it was time to head first to Assisi, about three hours away. We didn’t have a lot of time before we needed to rendezvous in Rome and meet the owner of the apartment we are renting for the next four days, return our rental car and see a family friend who is a 2nd year seminarian student in Rome.
Seeing Assisi is striking for the first time as our GPS unit routes us through a back country road. The view is spectacular. (See photos from today’s story at this link, http://gallery.me.com/markarmstrong2/100363 )
We park next to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in a massive underground parking garage named after Pope John Paul II. My three fellow pilgrims, including my newly-confirmed daughter Teresa, and her two friends Samantha and Rebecca find it rather amusing that such a great Pope had this named after him.
We reached the great Basilica by hiking up beautiful cobblestone streets lined with shops selling everything from rosaries to prayer cards and lunch items to toy figurines of St. Francis. Knowing our time was short we quickly decided to purchase a 15-minute guided tour that would take us up the scaffolding to the very top of the Church to see the restoration work being done on frescoes that date back centuries.
With an hour before that tour began we went inside the massive Upper Church and found a Franciscan monk there offering pilgrims a chance for a mass to be said for them. I struck up a conversation with Brother Sebastian and learned he was the youngest of 9 children. He was delighted to know that we had 10 children and Rebecca comes from a family of 9 as well. Interestingly he had a prayer card of Our Lady of Guadalupe that he had next to him. We talked briefly about her importance and said he was deeply devoted to the Blessed Mother. Explaining that I was writing articles about our pilgrimage to Italy, we exchanged email addresses to keep in touch. I asked him to say a Mass for all the intentions of our families and those reading this on Catholic Exchange.
When our time arrived to climb the scaffolding to see the frescoes up close it was amazing to realize the detailed work that these artisans put into their paintings especially when you realized that no one could ever see it. From the bottom of the church floor to the top reaches of the ceiling, minute details in the frescoes, with deep spiritual symbolism and meaning, could only be seen by those who created it, or as our guide said, “the eyes of God or the angels themselves.”
Climbing down, we entered underneath the Basilica to see the tomb of St. Francis. Remarkably Francis only lived for 44 years. He was canonized in 1228, just two years after his death, and the foundation stone for the church was laid by Pope Gregory IX himself in 1228. Two years later, and four years after his death the uncorrupted body of St. Francis was brought in a solemn procession to a temporary resting place while the church was finished. In 1230 St. Francis was finally laid to rest. We all spent some silent time in prayer, repeating the St. Francis Prayer. It is such a beautiful prayer and little did any of us even imagine three weeks ago we would be kneeling and praying it here at Assisi.
Sadly our time to leave and head for Rome had come. The 90-minute drive is simple today over high speed highways. Nearly 800 years ago, Francis made to journey to Rome on foot and we can only imagine the hardship such a journey of over 100 miles would have entailed for him.
Arriving in Rome was like seeing a movie. We kept seeing the sights we hope to spend more time at over the next few days. We met our friend Bob Shea at the apartment we are renting. Bob will be a deacon next year, and then ordained to the priesthood the following year. It’s the second vocation is his family; his older brother, Father James Shea is president of the Catholic University of Mary, the youngest college president in the country.
Our apartment is located right outside the Vatican walls and Bob takes us on a walk to St. Peter’s square. We see it in its evening splendor and find a place to eat a few blocks away outside in the moonlit sky. We will back Sunday morning for Mass and Pope Benedict’s balcony prayers and blessings. We have plans to see and experience even more of Rome and its Catholic sights and sounds through Tuesday.
Spending these last few days in Turin, Pisa, Lorenzana, Assisi and now Rome gives a Catholic an understanding of the richness of their faith. Whether it is the latest scandal, the lack of Catholics receiving the sacraments, or being disobedient to Church teachings, you can sometimes feel like things are not going well for the Church. But in reality, throughout the course of its history, there have always been good times and bad times. St. Francis lived only 44 years and look how he changed, through the grace of God, the entire Catholic community. Or John Pail II; who would have guessed that a young man that wanted to be an actor, caught in Nazi-occupied and then Communist-controlled Poland would one day become one of our greatest Popes?
If we all choose to follow what God is calling us to be, we will all become God’s instruments and the world will be like heaven on earth. What has been heaven for me this trip is seeing these young girls ages 12-14 learn more and more about the Catholic faith (especially since Samantha is Baptist!). Rebecca told us at dinner tonight that she wants to become a nun, “not one of those who dress ordinary, but one who wears a habit.” And my daughter Teresa at Assisi caught sight of several nuns and instantly asked to have her picture taken with them in front of the Basilica. I know God has a plan for these girls, and that the fruits of this trip will all come if we continue to nurture them on the way.