Assisi, Italy: Amid the ruins, a spirit prevails and restoration begins
The earthquake in central Italy September 26, focused considerable world attention on Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis. Pat Kerrigan, managing editor of Strides and director of Viterbo’s office of Public Relations and Marketing was in Assisi just a week prior to the earthquake, participating in a Franciscan pilgrimage. He prepared the following account of that experience.
Today Assisi, Italy, the home to St. Francis and considered one of the holiest shrines of the world, lies shattered and battered by the devastating effects of an earthquake and aftershocks that left in its wake, 11 dead, thousands of homeless, and priceless sacred relics in ruin.
Just a week earlier, my wife and I, along with our traveling companions, who included Viterbo’s admission director, Dr. Roland Nelson, were completely immersed in the beauty, serenity and sacredness of this holy place, called by many, “the New Jerusalem.”
The trip, which had been planned for months, was not a vacation. We were fortunate to be part of a Franciscan pilgrimage group which included a number of people connected with Franciscan institutions. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, founders of Viterbo College, had extended an invitation to a number of us from the La Crosse area. We represented institutions sponsored by the Sisters. As part of a mission effectiveness program, a pilgrimage to the places made sacred by Francis and his followers seemed like a logical opportunity to share a common bond with the Sisters, and in the process, become better acquainted with the importance of the Franciscan influence. We were not disappointed and the 5,100 mile journey, 10-day pilgrimage was a grand experience.
As pilgrims we travelled the path of Francis.
We celebrated mass at the tomb in the Basilica of St. Francis and at the Porziuncola, the “little church” Francis restored and the place he loved more than anywhere else. We did the same at San Damiano church, where in early life, a confused Francis struggled to find meaning, and God spoke to him, “Francis, rebuild my house.” Later his companion Clare would come to San Damiano which was to become the home of the Sisters of the Poor Clare.
In the mountains of LaVerna, we prayed where Francis received the stigmata. Farther away, in Greccio, our mass was celebrated on the site where Francis, with permission of the pope, had the townspeople reenact the nativity scene.
We saw Chiesa Nuova—believed to be the childhood home of Francis; we walked to the Carceri on Mount Subasio, where in solitude, Francis prayed and meditated in cave-like hermitages.
In the end, we visited the Basilica of St Francis, the final resting place of this popular and revered saint.
We heard about the earthquakes and the destruction which occurred centuries ago, completely unaware that most of what we saw and experienced, would in less than a week, be closed to the rest of the world.
That in part is the legacy of this pilgrimage, which was filled with many powerful, insightful and memorable experiences for all 32 of us who shared the journey.
The twin earthquake and hundreds of aftershocks literally leveled several medieval towns near Assisi and caused significant damage to the 750-year-old Basilica. The first quake occurred at 2:35 in the morning; when the second shock hit seven hours later, portions of the ceiling collapsed, killing four people who were inspecting the earlier damage.
Inside the Basilica, the quake destroyed a fresco attributed to the artist Cimabue and part of another attributed to the school of Giotto.
Despite the extensive damage, the Tomb of St. Francis was spared. Even so, all the sacred places of Assisi are changed for now.
Italy is in mourning and the rest of the world shares its pain.
The British Museum was sending experts to help in any potential reconstruction of damaged artifacts; the Louvre Museum of Paris pledged two months of admission fees; the central government of Italy was rushing millions in its effort to aid the victims, but the restoration process which will take years. Pope
John Paul expressed sorrow and called for relief and reconstruction efforts.
Even the United States Air Force sent engineers to central Italy to help rebuild the shattered town of Assisi and clear debris with bulldozers at four sites where prefabricated shelters were constructed for some 4,000 displaced people.
The shock of such devastation has not been lost upon my traveling companions. Our pilgrimage was directed by Franciscan Friars Tod Laverty and John Wijtowicz of Chicago and Sister Ramona Miller, program director at the Winona (Minn.) Tau Center. Several weeks after we returned from Assisi, Sister Ramona wrote to us: “This St. Francis Day will have new meaning for all of us and feelings on many levels, right? The earthquake news from Assisi has muted my ordinary spirit of celebration
hese days as I grieve for the loss of lives and of homes of Assisians....The churches are closed so the remaining days (of those currently on pilgrimage) will be creative ones of experiencing the spirituality of place without getting into the sanctuaries. The liturgical celebration of the feast of Francis will be held on the piazza in front of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.
As we celebrate the memory of Francis, let us continue to pray for each other that we may ever be conveyers of God’s peace and love,” wrote Sister Ramona.
Although most of us returned early enough to read about the September 26 quake from the safety of our American homes, one fellow-companion, Fr. Jim Lobacz from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, stayed in Italy to meet his parents who would be traveling throughout Italy as part of a long-anticipated 50th wedding anniversary present to themselves.
Assisi was on the itinerary which he later described to us via e-mail.
“Dear Friends from the Assisi Leadership Pilgrimage,” he wrote,You may recall that I was meeting my parents and we were going to tour with a group. Our second from the last night was in Assisi. We arrived around 4 p.m. on September 30th. The quakes had hit on the 25th and 26th. I could tell that things had changed.
“The Basilica of San Francesco is surrounded by emergency vehicles and barriers keep the general public quite far away. It is closed. On the lawn out in front there are tents where people are sorting out rubble. One can see a pile of cut stones about four feet square and three feet high... each marked with a grease pen.
“On the night I was there the whole city was closed by 9 p.m…even thecoffee shops in the piazza commune closed quite early. As you walk the city streets you see an occasional barrier and then notice further up the wall great cracks with stone and mortar missing.
There is a rather large Red Cross camp set up outside of the city walls down on the floor of the Umbrian valley. Many locals were still sleeping in their cars outside the city and then driving into town for the days activities.
“After dinner I took my parents in a cab to the church of St. Clare, it too is closed and surrounded by barriers. We walked to the fountain and found the same thing in front of the church of Mary of Minerva...barriers and police.
“I did not experience the same peace or sense of life that I did when we were together there. This is sad. Some say that the people think St. Francis is angry with all of the bars, shops, and commercializing that has been taking place in the city. Others grieve the loss of life and the loss of art, the loss of heritage....No one can get close to anything. All the holy places are closed.”
Much like Sister Ramona, Father Jim also asked us to remember Assisi in a way that goes right to the purpose of our being there. “ I hope that this little set of notes can do two things. That it can help you appreciate that we had a very fine experience with all the shrines and spaces open to us. And second, that each of us needs to carry a piece of our Assisi peace back home... to every place.”
Back at Viterbo, I was and continue to be constantly asked about the earthquake. I cannot help but grieve for the great loss of life, property and access to the sacred places of Assisi. Efforts are already under way to reopen many sites, and the restoration process moves forward. God’s thirteenth century message to St. Francis, “Rebuild my house,” takes on modern meaning.
Meanwhile, the many dedicated leaders who promote the Franciscan pilgrimage program, vow to continue offering the experience regardless of the progress of the renovations. Because as Father Roch Niemer OFM explained recently in a letter to previous participants: “The best thing anyone can do for Assisi now is to show up and walk the streets. This helps bring hope and encouragement to the people.
“We have developed new ways to tap into the spirituality of each place, even if we may not be able to enter some of them directly.
“Can we do ‘The Assisi Experience?’ Without question, and in a deeper and more meaningful way than ever before.”
Meanwhile, I am back at work, distanced by thousands of miles and weeks of time from the renewing effects of this very sacred place.
It doesn’t matter, though. As Franciscan leadership participants, we were challenged to bring Assisi back home. Even though the peace, simplicity, and tranquility of Assisi is impossible to completely replicate—especially in America—we are trying our best to keep the experience close to us. If the e-mails, notes, conversations and other correspondence that continues among the group I was with, is any indicator, the spirit of Franciscanism is indeed alive and well, far beyond the walled city of Assisi.
For many of us, the journey to Assisi is a journey that has just begun. The physical part is over, but that part which remains continue to unfold in new ways.
We were told that Francis of Assisi, a man who died nearly 800 years ago, is a saint for the modern man and woman and that his movement is more relevant than ever before.
Who can disagree? A concern for the environment and all living things…a penchant for simplicity in the midst of plenty…a willingness to treat all people as equals…the courage to speak out without fear, for issues of peace and justice, were all issues important to Francis. He would indeed feel at home in the twenty-first century, as these are many of the same issues we face in approaching a new millennium.
The rebuilding which began in the twelfth century by Francis continues today in Assisi, at Viterbo College, and in other places across the globe where the Franciscan spirit prevails.
A pilgrim’s notebook
Just who are these modern-era pilgrims, and what effect has sending them to Assisi, homeland of St. Francis, had on the institutions they work for? The group that returned this fall was the fifth to make such a journey. Since 1993, over 75 individuals have participated in the Franciscan Leadership Pilgrimage Program.
Participants from Viterbo College, Franciscan-Skemp Healthcare, St. Rose Convent, and St. Anthony Regional Hospital and Nursing Home in Carroll have made the trip.
Even members of the Board of Directors who oversee these organizations have traveled to Assisi.
According to Sister Celesta Day, FSPA, the idea came about in discussions with an advisory board. “We were talking about ways to develop a sense of mission and I mentioned the idea of the Assisi trip. The group just sat there quietly and said little. The next time we met, they were all talking about it,” said Sister Celesta, who directs the mission effectiveness program for the FSPA congregation.
Before long, the idea became a reality and the reaction from the participants has been good.
“Every time a group returns, I sense a feeling of excitement. I think it’s the way the pilgrimage is set up. The participants are encouraged to reflect in the settings of Assisi which are very sacred.
“Francis had a feeling and great appreciation of the power of certain places to convey things, and participants do lots of walking, talking, and reflecting away from work pressures, the telephone and so on,” Sister Celesta said.
The results vary— as they should. “Our purpose is to equip people who are leading our sponsored institutions now,” Sister Celesta said, “to not only tell the Sisters’ story, but their own as well.
Several years ago, LoriLee Rebhan, along with several other administrators from Viterbo College, travelled to Assisi and while the effect of the experience is hard to put into words, she believes the pilgrimage has made a big difference in her life.
“It made a profound impact,” said Rebhan who leads the development effort at Viterbo. “I share a new sense of responsibility to carry on in a manner that the Sisters intended. Viterbo is different and our students and donors sense that this is a special place. Consequently, I feel more of an obligation to base decisions on more than just dollars and cents, but rather on what is right and just. More often than not, I discover that the Franciscan approach is the one that is right for Viterbo.”
Not surprisingly, Sister Celesta said, others share similar attitudes regardless of their background.
“The Franciscan traditions are very hospitable to all and we are inviting our leaders and their respective institutions to participate and share in our very important mission in today’s world.”
(Editor’s note: There are a number of Franciscan Pilgrimage programs that are open to the general public. For a brochure describing the trips planned for 1998-2000, write: Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, 1648 South 37th Street, Milwaukee,