<![CDATA[St. Francis Pilgrimages - Blog]]>Wed, 25 Apr 2018 23:23:33 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[New year invites us to look forward and backward]]>Tue, 30 Jan 2018 12:47:01 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/new-year-invites-us-to-look-forward-and-backwardThe month of January derives etymologically from the Roman god Janus. According to ancient mythology, he was a two-faced figure: one face looking backward, the other while the other looking forward. He stood at the threshold of doors or, in this case, at the beginning and end of the year. As our calendar marks the month of January, we, too, can look forward and backward and ask ourselves various questions.
 
On pilgrimages, we often take groups to the Catacombs of San Callisto. As we drive along the ancient road, the Via Appia Antica, leading up to the entrance just outside the old city walls, there sits a nondescript little church. Its name is unusual as it is a question: “Domine, Quo Vadis?”; Latin for “Lord, where are you going?”

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The church of Domine, Quo Vadis? on Rome’s Via Appia Antica.

The legend has it this was the spot where Saint Peter, who was fleeing Rome to escape persecution, had a vision of a risen Christ.
 
According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Peter asked Jesus; “Domine, quo vadis ?” meaning “Lord, where are you going?” to which Jesus answered; “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”.  This made Peter turn around, go back to Rome and face his martyrdom
 
In some ways, Peter’s question is similar to a different vision that took place some 12 centuries later, although this time it was the Lord who posed the question. A young Francis of Assisi was still seeking worldly honors and was on his way to fight in the Crusades in hopes of becoming a knight and nobleman. However, while overnighting in Spoleto, he heard a voice speak to him in a dream: “Francis, who can do more for you, the Lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?”
“The Lord, of course,” responded Francis.
“Then, why are you serving the servant?” asked the Lord again. “Go back to your home and you will be shown what to do.” (See Bonaventure, Major Legend, Chapter 1.3).
 
God was trying to help Francis change direction. God wanted Francis to understand who he was serving: himself, his own will and desires, the expectations of his culture, the desires of his earthly father. Indeed, Francis awoke and, like Peter, promptly turned around. He went back to Assisi to fulfill God’s will by renouncing his dream of knighthood and taking on the life of a penitent.
 

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Statue, by Umbrian artist Norberto Proietti, in front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, shows Francis returning from Spoleto.


The question God posed to Francis makes me think of yet another divine query — perhaps the first time God ever questioned anyone. In the Book of Genesis, after Adam sinned, God asked the first man: “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9).
 
We know that God is omniscient and therefore knew exactly where Adam was: hiding naked in the garden with Eve. God, however, was not asking for his own sake; instead, he was posing the question for Adam’s sake. God wanted Adam to look inside and realize what he had done, that he had violated God’s command and sinned against him.
 
Of course, God does not speak only to great saints or biblical characters; he speaks to all people. All of us can ask ourselves: “Where are we?” “Where we are going?” and “Who we are serving?” Then, if need be, we, too, can turn around and move in another direction — the direction God wants for us in our lives.
 
Yet, if we are already sincerely seeking God’s will for our own lives (as most Secular Franciscans probably are), January is a good time to look back at the previous year as well as look to the future. It is a good time to take stock of what is happening around us and then seek God’s will.
 
Regardless of what has happened in this past year, we must look forward to the future with hope. We are a people full of hope. Looking forward, there may very well be more tragedies and difficulties. But there will also be countless graces and blessings: for God is always at work in this world. So let us be full of gratitude and give thanks while we live.
 
As you walk the road wherever God leads you this year, remember our ultimate destination. Christ gave us hope when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). For our hope is in the Resurrection: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
 
Bret Thoman, OFS, is director of St. Francis Pilgrimages and author of St. Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty, and the Man who transformed the Catholic Church and St. Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister.

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<![CDATA[Christmas Reflection, 2017]]>Fri, 22 Dec 2017 10:30:10 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/christmas-reflection-2017
The end of year is a good time to reminisce about the year. As I look back on our third year in Loreto, I am reminded of Scripture: “I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous deeds” (Psalms 9:1). As I reflect on the past twelve months, I have much to praise God and be grateful for.

I started writing about fifteen years ago, but it has only been in the past two in which my writing has begun to bear fruit. My new book on St. Clare was just released in July; thanks to the marketing people at TAN Books, the launch included a flurry of radio and print interviews. I wrote it as a follow-up companion book to my Francis biography, published a year earlier. Earlier this year, after a chance encounter with the guardian of San Damiano (who is also the director of Edizioni Porziunola), a Franciscan publishing house based in Assisi, they purchased the rights and Katia and I spent the beginning of the year translating it into Italian. It should be on the shelves in Italy in late winter/early spring. Lastly, sales in the English edition were good and a second print edition will be forthcoming (in paperback making it more economical). To those who have purchased my books, thank you. (And to those of you who have not, they are available on Amazon!)
 
I even sent Pope Francis a copy of each book. Will he read them???


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Letter from Vatican
If you’ve been following my posts on social media, you may have noticed frequent pictures and posts on Walking Camminos, particularly the “Way of St. Francis” from Assisi to Rome. You’ve probably realized that I’m a big fan of the Italian mountains and countryside. Just a few weeks ago, Robert Duncan, of Catholic News Service produced a wonderful video of me and a few pilgrims walking the Cammino into Rome. Others have caught on and I’ve worked with a number of individuals and small groups. Though physically challenging, it is a true experience of a lifetime.
 
(BTW, for those who prefer to stay closer to Assisi, I’ve begun creating an easier walking itinerary. “Franciscan Walks” will be a series of easy to light self-guided walks around places associated with Franciscan events and spirituality in Assisi and Umbria. Stay tuned for more!)


When not walking the Italian trails, I made a few trips abroad. In the spring, I went to Portugal where I met the owner of a local pilgrimage company to help me with a group I was putting together to Fatima and Spain.
 
When they came in September, I took Claremarie with me and joined them in Madrid and Toledo. Like Italy, both Spain and Portugal are rich in history, culture and spirituality. Fatima, in particular, is one of those few and extraordinary places in the world.


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Bret and Claremarie in Toledo, Spain.
Our Italian pilgrimage groups this year were perhaps smaller than in the past. We had a number of families who came to Italy to walk in the footsteps of the saints. Working with small groups, nonetheless, is special for Katia and I as it gives us a chance to get to get to know people in a more intimate way and bond with them.

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Bret and the Nugent family in San Giovanni Rotondo.
Lastly, as I look back at my year, there were two other highlights. The first is in the spring when I had the honor of interpreting for Gianna Jessen, an abortion survivor who travels the world telling her story and the circumstances of her birth (a botched abortion), and preaching the Gospel. I realized that most of her witnessing is not in speaking: her life in and of itself preaches the truth.
 
I worked with her during four conferences in southern Italy near Benevento and all were packed to capacity. It was a singular joy getting to know Gianna who is a rare witness on many levels.


The other highlight was the honor of meeting Pope Francis in September … Well, sort of… I joined a group of 550 young people and families from Loreto who were invited by Pope Francis himself to be his personal guests of honor in the Vatican. He gave us a full four hours of his time on a Sunday. That was a day I will never forget.

Of course, most of my time is spent as a husband and parent -- driving the kids back and forth from school, soccer and volleyball events, catechism, doctors, recitals, grocery store and pharmacy, etc. My biggest source of joy and gratitude is in being a dad and a husband.  
 
In fact, this Advent season has taken on extra meaning for Katia and I. In just a few days, on December 27, Katia will give birth to our third child. 
 
Living here in Loreto, near the Holy House of Mary in which the “Word became flesh,” this Advent has truly been a season of “waiting and joyful expectation.” Please remember us in prayer on December 27, the feast of St. John.
 
Finally, Katia and I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas: to all who have been with us on a pilgrimage; to those who are planning on coming; and to those who follow and support what we are doing. We truly do hope your Christmas season is full of joy and thanksgiving. Emmanuel is with us… God is truly with us!

 
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<![CDATA[The Earthquakes of 2016: One Year Later]]>Sat, 28 Oct 2017 13:46:29 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/the-earthquakes-of-2016-one-year-laterIt’s now been one year since the horrible earthquake of 2016. I still remember the ordeal vividly.
 
It was early in the morning when I was awoken by a combination of strange sensations and noises: the bed was shaking; an abnormal, rumbling sound was coming from outside; car alarms were going off; neighbors were screaming.
 
While I lay there disoriented and confused, my Italian wife, Katia, knew exactly what was happening: “Terremoto!” she shouted. It was an earthquake! After the house shook aggressively for ten to fifteen seconds, it started swaying for about the same amount of time. Finally, it stopped and everything became, once again, still. Eerily still.
 
Katia and I immediately went downstairs and turned on our tablets hoping for some news. The quake was so violent where we lived, I was worried about the epicenter. Finally, news reports came in. It was bad.
 
The first reports were that the magnitude was 6.2 and the epicenter was close to Perugia, about seventy miles from where we live in Loreto, city known throughout the world for the Holy House of Mary. There was tremendous loss of life and property, the news said. The most affected areas were the mountain villages along the border of the Umbria, Lazio and the Marches, our region. The damage was catastrophic and some towns were razed to the ground.
 
It was August 24, 2016 when that first quake hit. Initially, the death toll was just two. But then it climbed to six, then ten, then twenty. Eventually, it reached 299 victims. Another 365 were injured, while approximately 2,100 people lost their homes. It was a true tragedy.

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Amatrice, one of the most devastated towns.
In the weeks that followed, there were some aftershocks, which, according to geologists and volcanologists, were normal as the faults released pressure and the earth readjusted. Fortunately, they were small… That is, until October.

In the last week of October, there were some more strong quakes -- a 5.5 and a 6.1. While they were mainly concentrated near Norcia and Rieti, we felt them lightly in Loreto. But the “big one” came on Sunday morning, October 30, at 7:30 am.

I was getting ready for Mass when the house started shaking. The quake was so long, my family and I had time to go outside where we had to hold a railing to maintain our balance After it stopped, we turned on the television. Journalists in Rome -- on the opposite side of the country -- felt it violently, too. The entire peninsula had shaken from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Seas.

This was the worst of the year. It was a 6.6, the epicenter just north of Norcia. To my horror, news reports showed pictures of the church built over the birthplace of St. Benedict in Norcia. The church was no more: it was completely leveled. By grace, no one was killed; damage from previous quakes had already forced people out of their homes
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The Basilica of St. Benedict in May, 2016
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The Basilica of St. Benedict the morning after the earthquake
It’s now been one year since that last violent quake. The hotels here in Loreto took in many who were affected -- “terremotati” they are called. You can still see the pain in their faces as these people lost not only their homes, but also their jobs, livelihoods, and communities.

And so the age-old question is asked: “Why does God allow suffering?”

In the olden days, people believed that natural disasters were “acts of God” (which term is, I believe, still applied in insurance and legal verbiage). Yet there are still some within the Church who still believe. Speaking on the esteemed Catholic radio program, Radio Maria, a Dominican priest last year opined that the earthquakes were “divine punishment” against Italy after Parliament enacted legislation establishing homosexual civil unions. Hmmm….

Indeed, his comments were met with a sharp rebuke from the Vatican: “Statements like this are offensive to believers and scandalous for those who do not believe,” responded Archbishop Angelo Becciu, one of the highest ranking prelates in the Vatican and closest collaborators of Pope Francis. He went on to say that such views are “pagan and pre-Christian, and do not respond to theology of the Church because they are contrary to the vision of God offered to us by Christ who revealed the face of God’s love not of a capricious and vengeful God.”

The archbishop’s response certainly offers a more merciful image of God, not one as a petulant divinity who would punish an entire people for the sins of some.

Yet, is it not fair to ask where the “face of God’s love” was that night when people’s roofs came crashing down on them as they slept, or now as they wander around aimlessly with no homes, jobs, or futures?

St. Augustine taught that the hand of God is not in the evil which he permits (and is never the agent of) but in the goodness that follows: “God would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil.” This is most evident in Easter Sunday that follows Good Friday. Indeed, as often happens after tragedies, the “terremotati” were the recipients of generous and gracious aid offered by people of good will.

St. Paul discerned the presence of God more directly within the midst of suffering, not just subsequently: “God encourages us in our every affliction.” Yet, according to Paul, the consolation of God is for a higher purpose: “[and this is] so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor 1:4). Thus, the consoled can become consolers.

Indeed, for those who are spiritually mature, and called, suffering can have a much greater end. In the further words of St. Paul, it can be a way of “becoming like him [Christ] in his death” so that we, too, “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Here, then, suffering can become a way of mystically and graciously suffering with God for the salvation of all. In suffering, we, too, can “become a living sacrifice” (see Romans 12:1) in order to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (see Colossians 1:24). In this, we “pick up our cross and follow Jesus” (Mark 8:34).

Of course, there are no easy answers to suffering. The Catechism makes this clear: “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (CCC, 309).

Though our faith may not give us hard solutions to evil and suffering, it offers us hope and consolation. As our world continues to be plagued with natural disasters as well as acts of unimaginable evil, may we always look to God for hope.
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<![CDATA[The Transitus of St Francis]]>Tue, 03 Oct 2017 13:03:06 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/the-transitus-of-st-francis1576391
It was Autumn and the days were shorter. The cold rainy season had begun early that year, and the fragrance of smoke from the wood-burning stoves filled the cool air. Already a sheet of gray fog was blanketing the Umbrian Valley. The leaves, changing colors, were dying and falling to the ground foreshadowing the bitter Umbrian winter that was soon to set in.
 
Francis was taken to the residence of the bishop of Assisi where he stayed for several days. There he felt inspired to add the final lines to his Canticle of Creatures: “Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.” Francis now understood that death was no longer his enemy; it was merely part of the journey -- the Transitus. He requested that when his time should come, Brother Angelo and Brother Leo sing to him the Praises of Sister Death.
 
His last desire was to return to the place he loved more than any other -- Saint Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula -- the church he believed to be endowed with special graces and blessings. There in the place where he embraced poverty some twenty years earlier, he would give back to God the last thing he possessed in this world: his life. Several knights carried Francis on a litter from Assisi down to St. Mary of the Angels. When they arrived at the hospital of San Salvatore on the plain halfway between Assisi and St. Mary’s, he asked the bearers to stop and place the litter on the ground.
 
Francis turned and faced Assisi. Though he was by now completely blind, he raised himself up a little and blessed his beloved Assisi, saying, “Lord, just as in an earlier time, this ancient city was, I believe, an abode of wicked and evil men, now I realize that, because of your abundant mercy, and in your own time, you have singularly shown an abundance of your mercies to it. For, ‘where sin increases, grace abounds all the more’ (Romans 5:20). Solely on account of your goodness, you have chosen it for yourself, so that it may become the place and abode of those who know, in truth, acknowledge you, give glory to your name, strive to live of a holy life, of truest doctrine, of good reputation, and of evangelical perfection to the whole Christian people. I ask you, therefore, Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies, not to consider our ingratitude. Be mindful of your most abundant piety which you have showed to it, that it always be an abode for who truly acknowledge you, and glorify your blessed and most glorious name for ever and ever. Please bless this city and all those who will come here. Amen.”[1] Francis lay down again and was carried the short distance to St. Mary of the Angels.
 
It was Saturday, October 3, 1226. Francis was 44 years old. A true minor to his last day, his final desire was to be stripped and laid naked on the bare ground next to the church of the Portiuncula. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) He wished to return to that fertile Umbrian soil that had produced so many saints before him and from which he himself came.
 
He called his brothers together, consoled them, and exhorted them to love God. He told the brothers to never leave the Portiuncula, “See to it, my sons, that you never abandon this place. If you are driven out from one side, go back in from the other, for this is truly a holy place and the dwelling place of God.”[2] Francis then spoke to the friars with fatherly affection and consoled them over his death. He told them to remain faithful to poverty and to the Roman Church and he gave the Gospel preeminence over any other Rule of life. He then asked Brother Leo to read him the Gospel of John beginning with: “before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (John 13:1). As Angelo and Leo quietly sang his praises to Sister Death, Francis then uttered his final admonition, “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” [3]
 
As Francis closed his eyes, he thought he faintly heard the trumpeting of the Assisi city hymn in the distance announcing the end of the day and the closing of the city’s gates. He started to feel a deep, profound peace within. He felt the quiet, calm, familiar beckoning of the Holy Spirit -- the same voice he had heard numerous times in his life and that had said: “You will become a great knight… Who do you serve? … Go and rebuild my house…” This time, the voice was calling him for the final time saying, “Come home, Francis.”
 
As the sun disappeared behind the hills beyond Perugia in the west, the light in Francis went out. It was now nighttime on the fourth day of October. His earthly pilgrimage was finished, though his heavenly one just begun. A great flock of larks began circling and singing overhead with unusual joy, strange in that they usually preferred the light of day and avoided the night. The angels and saints in heaven rejoiced: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).
On July 16, 1228, less than two years after Francis’s death, Hugolino, now Pope Gregory IX -- Francis’s close friend and protector of the order -- declared in Assisi what everyone already knew: Francis was a saint in heaven. Now the prophecy was fulfilled: Francis had become a great prince and had done great things. Yet, the greatest thing Francis had accomplished was that he had shown the way of the Lord. In this, he had been true to his namesake, John, after all. He was a true herald of the Lord.
 
The next day the pontiff personally placed the first stone of the basilica to be built in his honor. [4] The cross -- death -- did not have the final word. The resurrection did. Maybe Francis had never been destined to be a Minor after all… Perhaps he had really been a Major all along. Even though he strove throughout his converted life to embrace lesserness -- going down in this world -- perhaps the true direction he had been going all along was up. With the angels and saints. Glorified. In Heaven. With God. For all eternity. Forever.
 

Adapted from "St. Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty, and the Man who Transformed the Catholic Church" by Bret Thoman, OFS

[Copyright, Bret Thoman, 2016]

 


[1] These were Francis’s words adapted from Mirror of Perfection, 124.

[2] Thomas of Celano, First Life, II, Chapter 7, 106. In fact, the friars still maintain a community at St. Mary of the Angels. Today it is considered the mother church of the OFM branch of the order.

[3] The end of Francis’s life is taken from Thomas of Celano, Second Life, Chapter 162, 214 as well as Bonaventure, Major Life, Chapter 14, 4.

[4] After Francis died, his body was placed in the church of San Giorgio (today the Basilica of St. Clare). Construction of his new basilica was led by Br. Elias, and had as its goal a beautiful basilica worthy of the most popular saint of the era, in addition to being a place of welcome to the many pilgrims that would come. The site had been called the “Hill of Hell” because criminals were executed there; however it soon became known as the “Hill of Paradise” after the church was completed and Francis’s remains placed within. Today the church is composed of three levels. The lower Basilica was completed after just two years of construction in Romanesque architectural style, and Francis’s body was buried deep underneath the main altar. It was designed to be a tomblike burial place. The upper church was completed in Gothic style in 1253. The ceilings were higher, and its nave brighter to symbolize the resurrection. The best artists of the day – Giotto, Cimabue, Martini, Lorenzetti – were called in to embellish both levels. In 1818, excavation was begun to uncover Francis’s tomb. After 52 days of digging, the sarcophagus was discovered beneath heavy blocks of travertine rock. The space around it was excavated and left austere and simple, true to the spirit of Francis. This created a third level – that of the tomb.

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<![CDATA[St. Francis and the Stigmata]]>Tue, 19 Sep 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/september-19th-2017 Picture
St. Paul wrote, “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal: 6:16), which has been interpreted by some that he received the stigmata on his body. St. Francis had this experience, too. The cross that was imprinted internally on his heart some twenty years earlier in San Damiano mysteriously manifested itself externally on his body in the stigmata.
 
Francis went to the mountain of Laverna in 1224, two years before he died, to fast and pray in honor of the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (Sep. 29). The month of September is replete with images of the cross, including the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14). On September 17, Francis received the stigmata. The Legend of the Three Companions said:
 
"From that hour [after the locution at San Damiano], therefore, his heart was wounded and it melted when remembering the Lord’s passion. While he lived, he always carried the wounds of the Lord Jesus in his heart. This was brilliantly shown afterwards in the renewal of those wounds that were miraculously impressed on and most clearly revealed in his body. From then on, he inflicted his flesh with such fasting that, whether healthy or sick, the excessively austere man hardly ever or never wanted to indulge his body. Because of this he confessed on his death bed that he had greatly sinned against “Brother Body.” … We have told these things about his crying and abstinence in an incidental way to show that, after that vision and the message of the image of the Crucified, he was always conformed to the passion of Christ until his death." [1]
 
Thomas of Celano said that the cross that was imprinted internally on his soul at San Damiano would manifest itself externally on his body in the stigmata on Mount Laverna. “From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.”[2]
 
There on Mount Laverna St. Francis prayed for two gifts: to feel in his body the pain which Jesus felt during his Passion and to know in his heart the love which Jesus felt for all humanity. And Francis, mysteriously, received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – on his hands, feet, and side:
 
"On a certain morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph having six wings, fiery as well as brilliant, descend from the grandeur of heaven. And when in swift flight, it had arrived at a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the likeness of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross…. As the vision was disappearing, it left in his heart a marvelous fire and imprinted in his flesh a likeness of signs no less marvelous. For immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet just as he had seen a little before in the figure of the man crucified." [3]
 
Francis was at once overwhelmed with joy, but doubled over with pain. The prayer that Francis made is remarkable. Francis had dedicated his life “carrying the cross” of Christ. The love of God that he discovered through the cross determined everything he did and how he lived his life. He loved Christ on the cross so much that he desired to be with him where he was – there on the cross. That is why he made this twofold prayer -- to feel in his body the pain of the cross, but also in his heart the love that Christ had for all people. In fact, there is a connection -- a oneness -- between sacrifice and charity. The cross, in fact, is the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate charity of God.
 
The life of Francis was now inexplicably and mysteriously united to that of Christ. The Incarnation of Christ, the “masterpiece” of God’s creation, indeed, the whole purpose of creation (in the words of Scotus) culminated in the Passion and crucifixion as the highest expression of God’s love, charity, and mission: “When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit” (John 19:30). The life, love, and mission of Christ were marked by the two great feasts of Christmas and Easter. Similarly, Francis’s life and devotion to Christ was defined by the two great events of the re-enactment of the nativity scene at Greccio (the Incarnation) and the reception of the stigmata at Laverna (the crucifixion).
 
Ultimately, the wounds of the stigmata were and remain a mystery. And as there were some who doubted at the time of Francis, so there remain those today who doubt it, as well. (Some have concluded that Francis had contracted leprosy). Yet, the stigmata remained a mystery also to St. Padre Pio who himself said that he himself did not understand the stigmata.
 
Finally, it is important to note that as Christians and Franciscans we do not put our hope solely in the cross. The cross was not the ultimate goal that the great saints sought: Heaven and the Resurrection were. The cross is not our final vocation: the Resurrection is. The cross is the mere pathway to the Resurrection. Without the cross there is no Resurrection; unless God comes down in the world, there is no way to go up to Heaven. Thus, in the end, suffering on the cross does not have the final word: the Resurrection does. By embracing the cross, Christ shows us the way. And Francis, by embracing it, is an example of how we should live.


[1] Legend Three Companions, Chap V

[2] 2 Celano 10 (Book II: 249)

[3] Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 13



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<![CDATA["St. Clare of Assisi: Light from the Cloister"]]>Wed, 23 Aug 2017 17:41:05 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/st-clare-of-assisi-light-from-the-cloister
St. Clare of Assisi: “Light from the Cloister”
 
By Bret Thoman, OFS
 
It was one morning, early in 1192, when a young noblewoman of Assisi was experiencing a difficult childbirth. And the Holy Spirit spoke to her saying: “Do not be afraid, for you will give birth in safety to a light that will give light more clearly than light itself and shine brilliantly in the world.” Her name, in fact, Clare, means “light.”
 
Clare was born into a family of status and means. Her father’s family name was Offreduccio and he, her uncles and cousins were all knights. Clare’s mother, Ortulana, descended from the family of Fiumi. Both Clare’s mother and father belonged to the Assisian aristocratic class known as the Majors and traced their ancestry back four centuries to Charlemagne and King Pepin, the first Holy Roman Emperors.
 
While the men of Clare’s family spent much of their time in business affairs and training for combat, the women devoted their time and resources to prayer, works of mercy, and service to the poor. Her mother was particularly pious and virtuous, and had made pilgrimages to Rome, Monte Sant’Angelo in southern Italy, Campostela in Spain, and the Holy Land.
 
As a child, Clare was formed by these experiences and from an early age she took on the life of a penitent: she embraced asceticism, prayed frequently, performed acts of charity, especially giving to the poor. During her canonization process, one of the witnesses said: “Although their household was one of the largest in the city and great sums were spent there, she nevertheless saved the food they were given to eat, put it aside, and gave it to the poor. While she was still in her father’s house, she wore a rough garment under her other clothes. He also said she fasted, prayed, and did other pious deeds, as he had seen, and that it was believed she had been inspired by the Holy Spirit from the beginning.”
 
Despite the religious zeal of the women, the men were seeking to direct Clare in another direction: they needed her to enhance the family’s position through an arranged marriage. In fact, it was in such an environment -- surrounded by holy women devoted to religion on the one hand and on the other men absorbed in worldly concerns -- in which Clare grew up. And it would be this dichotomy that would sign her leading to her “conversion” -- when she “left the world” and took the veil.
 
It is unclear when Francis heard of Clare, however, he knew very early that she would come: one day, soon after his own conversion, while rebuilding the little country church of San Damiano, he felt the movement of the Holy Spirit. He announced to all who were near: “Come and help me build the monastery of San Damiano, because holy virgins of Christ will dwell here who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy church by their celebrated and holy manner of life.”
 
Clare was acquainted with Francis either by hearing him speak in the cathedral of San Rufino, next to her house, or through her first cousin, Rufino, who had joined Francis’ movement. During her meetings with him, something powerful took place within as she discerned her life’s calling: following Francis in poverty as the first Franciscan woman. The day would be Palm Sunday, 1212.
 
During the Mass, the bishop of Assisi distributed branches to the faithful. When he looked out, he saw Clare and went down from the altar and placed the branch personally in her hand. In this, it is believed that he acknowledged her decision: the 18-year-old woman would leave her home with its privileges of wealth and power to become the first woman to follow Francis with only one privilege -- Poverty.
 
That night, she secretly exited her home and, with a companion, left the walled city of Assisi walking to the little church of St. Mary of the Angels in the valley. There she met Francis who gave her the tonsure and covered her head with a veil both signifying consecration to God; in place of her fine clothes, she donned the penitential habit.
 
The brothers then accompanied Clare to a Benedictine monastery for women known as San Paolo delle Abbadesse. With a papal interdict in force prohibiting outsiders from entering the cloister, San Paolo would grant Clare sanctuary and keep her safe from any attempts by her father or the knights of her family to draw her away: to remove a consecrated nun by force would incur excommunication. And when they came, indeed, Clare had to simply lift the veil from her head and reveal the tonsure. The men had no choice but to leave her.
 
San Paolo was one of the most prominent women’s monasteries in the diocese of Assisi. It was made up of both noble women who entered the convent with dowries (known as choristae) who spent their time primarily in prayer, as well as the “serving sisters” or “lay sisters” (known as conversae), who looked after the practical needs of the monastery such as cleaning and cooking. True to Franciscan poverty, Clare radically departed from this tradition by giving away her possessions before entering. Thus, she renounced her birthright, arriving not as a noblewoman but as a servant!
 
After a brief time, Clare left San Paolo for another women’s community known as Sant’Angelo in Panzo. Though traditionally believed to be a simpler Benedictine community, some believe it was more akin to a Beguinage -- a community in which women, not vowed to a traditional rule, lived together and engaged in charitable works of mercy, perhaps in an adjoining hospital.
 
Here Clare was joined by her sister, Caterina, who changed her name to Agnes. Their relatives came for her, too, but due to Clare’s intercessory prayers, Agnes became so heavy that a dozen knights were unable to lift her. This was Clare’s first miracle. After Francis tonsured Agnes at Panzo, the two left for their final home: San Damiano.
 
As Francis rebuilt San Damiano with rocks and mortar, Clare and the sisters would become living stones who would spiritually edify not only that particular church, but the universal Church. Her community would eventually consist of forty women including her own mother and her other birth sister, Beatrice. From the cloister, the women would live a Franciscan life centered on fraternity, mutuality, work, prayer, and evangelization. And underlying it all was a life dedicated to radical poverty. From within the enclosure of San Damiano, Clare was a light for all to see.
 
Clare died on August 11, 1253 just two days after her rule was approved by Pope Innocent IV. This was the first time in the history of the Church that a rule written by a woman was accepted. Her body was moved to the little church of Giorgio. Shortly thereafter, construction was begun on her basilica and on August 15, 1255, she was declared a saint. Her body remains there to this day and her “light” is available for all to see.


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<![CDATA[Pilgrimage: The Journey]]>Tue, 13 Jun 2017 08:43:48 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/june-13th-2017
Life is a journey, a pilgrimage. The word derives from Latin, peregrinare, and means “to wander through fields of grain.” Pilgrimage seems to be almost instinctive to humankind. Throughout the centuries, people of all faiths and traditions have set out on sacred journeys or quests. Pilgrimages are present in classical and mythological literature; in the ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, Homer recounts the ten year voyage of Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War. They are innate to virtually all religious traditions: Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, is the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith, and the journey is a once in a lifetime requirement for every able-bodied Muslim; Buddhists make pilgrimages to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, Bodh Gaya, the place of his Enlightenment, Sarnath, where he delivered his first teaching, and Kusinagar, India where he died; Hindus have made pilgrimages to places associated with legendary events from the lives of various gods.
 
The Bible is filled with stories of God beckoning a person or groups of people to move forward from one place to another. The first biblical “pilgrimage” is recounted in Genesis 12: 1-4. Abram was called by Yahweh to leave his pagan past and his father’s home in order to migrate to the land of God’s choice, where he would receive divine blessings:
 
"The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.’ Abram went as the Lord directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran” (Genesis 12: 1-4).
 
In these stories, Abraham and Moses follow the voice of God who leads them out of the place they were. God calls them to go forth on a journey, at the end of which he gives them covenants. Abram leaves pagan Haran for Canaan, and later receives a new name, Abraham; Moses leaves Egypt where the Israelites were enslaved by the Pharaoh for Mount Sinai where God gives him the law. In both cases, the journey involved a long period of struggle, uncertainty, doubt, desert (literal and metaphorical), and difficulty in which they felt lost. However, in both cases, they ultimately arrived at a better place. Certain ideas are introduced – that of hearing the call of God, leaving, wandering as a foreigner or stranger in exile, and ultimately arriving in a purified place and state.
 
In the New Testament, similar themes of departure, exile, and arrival continue; however, they are largely focused on Jesus, and later, his followers. Jesus’s human life on earth can be viewed as sojourner and stranger. His mission was the ultimate pilgrimage – a divine pilgrimage. The divine and human “journey” of Christ is summarized in the Nicene Creed:
 
"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."
 
Like the narratives of the Old Testament prophets, we see similar themes: Jesus, whose “kingdom was not of this world,” (John 18:36) listened to the voice of his Father, obeyed, and left his “home” by becoming incarnate in the world. In his worldly life as “sojourner” he identified with the prophets who also passed through this world as aliens and experienced suffering and exile. As Abraham and Moses “wandered” through the desert, Jesus on earth “had nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58). His mission was to journey through the “foreign” land of this fallen world in order to redeem it and its inhabitants. And, like the prophets, Jesus ultimately went to a better place after his Resurrection; unlike them, however, Heaven was the place whence he had originally left. Jesus’s mission was to make humanity heirs of the eternal kingdom through his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. Thus, his pilgrimage took him full circle from his Father in heaven through the “insecurity” of earth and back to heaven.
 
And this is the struggle for Jesus’s followers whom Christ called to have faith in and imitate him. Christians, like Jesus and the prophets, are also called to become “strangers and aliens on earth” (Hebrews 11: 14). Peter urged his followers: “as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). And “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning” (1 Peter 1:17). Yet, the state of exile is not the Christian’s ultimate goal – Heaven is. Thus, the Christian calling is to remain pure and undefiled by the corruption of the world in hope of a better world to come.
 
It took some time before Christians began to interpret the Christian life as pilgrimage. In the first few centuries after Christ’s death, there was little collective desire to return to Palestine to revisit the sites of Jesus’s life. The first Apostles, on the contrary, left Palestine in an effort to spread the Gospel in all corners of the world. It was only after the fourth century AD largely as a result of the legalization of Christianity that pilgrimages began in earnest. After legislating Christianity’s freedom in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, built large basilicas in Rome over the tombs of Peter and Paul, as well as other basilicas in honor of Jesus, Mary, and John. Meanwhile, his mother, Helena, erected churches and shrines in Palestine to memorialize events from the Gospels. These large edifices paved the way for Christians to come and offered them space in which to worship. Additionally, Helena brought relics from Jerusalem back to Europe, sparking interest in the holy places of Jesus’s earthly life. Thus, Christians from around the world slowly began to journey to the tombs of the martyred apostles in order to honor them, connect with the events of their lives, and do penance.
 
However, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the practice of pilgrimage became widespread and entered into Christian devotional practice. And without ignoring the violence of many crusaders, the stories told by them after returning home did much to give people a knowledge and desire to go to the sacred places of Jesus’s life. And while the Holy Land was the main destination of pilgrimage in the beginning, in later centuries, huge numbers of Christians from all classes set out to Rome to visit the tombs and Basilicas of Peter and Paul, Compostela in Spain to visit the tomb of St. James, Loreto to the Holy House of Mary, Monte Sant’Angelo to the grotto where St. Michael the archangel appeared, and elsewhere. In the year 1300 AD, Pope Boniface instituted the first Jubilee year granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who made the journey to Rome. The desire to go was so strong that the pilgrim risked disease, violence, shipwrecks, and strife. Few returned home as dangers were great, and often pilgrims often settled down in other lands. So before setting off, the medieval pilgrim prepared a last will and testament, gave away or sold his/her possessions, and celebrated the Church’s sending-off liturgical rite similar to that of a funeral. After donning the recognizable pilgrim’s tunic with in-sewn cross, the walking staff, and leather pouch to carry food and money, the pilgrim set off on the journey. A broad-brimmed hat was used with a long scarf wrapped around the body from the back to the waist. The symbol of the scallop shell was worn on the tunics of those headed to the tomb of St. James in Compostela, while the keys were worn by those going to Rome. The distinctive dress set the pilgrims apart and identified them as such for protection.
 
Much of the motivation for traveling on pilgrimage in medieval times was to receive the indulgence, as the pilgrimage was considered a very important form of penance and as a way of internal purification in hopes of lessening punishment for sins. The indulgence required sacrifice, prayer, penance, and the arduous journey itself. During this time, monks began using pilgrimage as a metaphor for the inner journey of the heart and soul; they linked the outer external pilgrimage to the inner contemplative spiritual journey.
 
Other reasons for going on pilgrimage were to connect with saints to whom the pilgrim felt devoted. In the same way that today we commemorate the birth-home of a famous person with a plaque or monument, shrines and sanctuaries were built to mark places where certain spiritual events occurred. Such places were often linked to events in the life of a saint: the saint’s birthplace, the site of his/her martyrdom or natural death, the place where he/she received a particular grace or experienced a mystical event, and the church or shrine containing the saint’s relics. Thus, a pilgrimage to such shrines were methods of “re-living” such events.
 
Ultimately, pilgrimage had a goal: to encounter the living God. Therefore, pilgrimage was fundamentally about going to particular “holy” or “sacred” places in order to receive special graces through the spirituality or sacredness of place. In this, we have a Christian – yet firmly Franciscan – basis of the sacramentality of the world. This is important for the pilgrim who goes forth in the world, which was created good by God the Father through the Word, sanctified by the Incarnation and redeemed through the crucifixion of the Son. However, there is a paradox in this. We have discussed the calling and the journey of the Christian as being a “pilgrim and stranger” in the world. However, perhaps the Christian life is not one of complete exile and separation from God and heaven while on earth, in hope of a “future” heavenly reward. Perhaps Christ’s promise of salvation was not “out there,” but one that begins right now in this world. “For behold, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Despite Francis’s admonitions to remain as “pilgrims and strangers” in this world, didn’t he seem to be quite at home in it? Didn’t he seem to be already living the kingdom of Heaven within? Certainly, his attitudes towards creation, culminating in his Canticles of the Creatures, suggests his belief in the goodness of the world.
 
In fact, this has been called “spirituality of place,” which has its origins in the theology of creation and the Incarnation. Assisi and other pilgrimage destinations are special, because they reveal an incarnate God – a God who comes among us. People have been touched by God in these places. By going to the places where our predecessors have experienced God, we can connect with the events and receive graces, too. Thus, the sacred places help us to connect with the living God – the God who “took on flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
 
Pilgrimage had a lasting impact on culture and society in Italy and Europe. The father of the Italian language, Dante (a Third Order lay Franciscan), wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is the first major work of Italian literature written not in Latin, but in the vernacular dialect spoken in Tuscany. In the poem, Dante narrates his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. At a deeper level, however, it is an allegorical journey of the soul towards God.  It began with the following lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

At the midpoint of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest
because the straight path was lost.

Dante begins his poem as a pilgrim and stranger. His journey is complete only when he arrives in Heaven; like the prophets of old, he is called to pass through a “desert” only to arrive at a better place.
 
Of course, not every pilgrimage was from the outset an intense spiritual undertaking, and some were more “profane” in nature. In the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the same century as Dante, wrote “The Canterbury Tales.” In this Middle English classic, he recounts the episodes of a group of pilgrims as they traveled from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at the Cathedral of Canterbury, England. Each pilgrim takes turn telling stories in a contest. The book is a wonderful close-up look at real medieval pilgrims, some holy, some not, some looking for a good time, others for genuine holy experience. The prologue begins by saying that people desire to go on pilgrimage in the springtime when nature is coming back to life after the dead of winter. (The following version is adapted into modern English.)
 
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end.
 
Devotional geographical pilgrimages fell into decline after the Protestant Reformation which challenged the theology of the Indulgence, as well as medieval devotions. In the 17th century, John Bunyan, a Puritan jailed for preaching without a license in Anglican England, used pilgrimage as allegory in his tale, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In this enduring work (it was recently made into a movie), Bunyan offers insight in the Christian life by narrating the temptations and pitfalls of Christian, the Pilgrim, as he journeys to Celestial City and meets Evangelist, Charity, Hypocrisy, Goodwill, Obstinate, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and more characters along the way.
 
The Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries virtually eliminated the devotional pilgrimage as modern people rejected it as a medieval superstition lacking in reason. At about the same time, modern tourism was born in the form of the classical Grand Tour. Lasting several months, this tour was the foundational part of the education of European young men (mostly British) from well-to-do families. The itinerary exposed them to the classical antiquities of Rome and Greece as well as the Renaissance art cities of southern Europe. It was predominantly educational, not spiritual, in nature. The Grand Tour flourished until the advent of the railway, which afforded people of lesser economic status the possibility of traveling.
 
In the past few decades, interest in pilgrimage has increased, and modern pilgrims have once again sought out the spiritual dimensions of the faith journey. Money, leisure, and especially the jet airplane have opened the doors to travel to many people today who could have only dreamed of such a journey in generations past.
 
Certainly, the conditions and motivations of pilgrimages are quite different from those of Abraham and Moses, and Francis and Clare: jets, luxury coaches, and modern hotels have rendered the journey less perilous and penitential. Nonetheless, jet lag, sore feet, and the absence of the comforts of home can still demand patience. Despite the differences, however, the pilgrimage remains a response within the soul to move closer to God – to leave the ordinary in order to embrace the unknown within the context of faith. Modern pilgrims may be less concerned with earning indulgences, but they are still seeking that inner transformation that accompanies the journey. They still set out to the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, sites of apparitions and locutions, and the birthplaces of their favorite saints. Today’s pilgrims often want to free themselves of restraints at home in order to find God without clutter in their lives; they hope to witness miracles, signs, and truth; they often wish to find an answer to their heartfelt prayers. A pilgrimage to a holy place is still a way to find answers to such prayers, though sometimes God’s answer is different from the one we seek.
 
In summary, pilgrimages are a calling from God to the journey. Pilgrimage involves a process of departure, wandering, and arrival. It entails a sense of rupture when the pilgrim leaves what is familiar and enters a new place where they become, in the biblical words so often quoted by Francis and Clare, a “pilgrim and stranger.” However, at some point on the journey, that feeling of being a stranger passes, and a sense of familiarity rekindles within. It may happen during the wandering, upon arrival, or even after returning home. And in the process, the pilgrim becomes something they were not before, as they arrive home transformed. They have gone through the same inner spiritual journey as the prophets and pilgrims of yesterday and are no longer the “old man”; the pilgrim is “renewed.”  The pilgrim has moved through loneliness, exile, sin and wandering to grace, purpose, reassurance and wholeness in God.
 
The calling of a Christian is to set out and follow the footsteps of Christ as a pilgrim. And the Christ whom we follow became incarnate in a broken world to redeem its fallen, sinful nature. Yet, at the same time Christ penetrated it as the center point of all creation to reveal the might and wonder of God the Father. In the same way, your pilgrimage may at times be risky as you encounter unsuspected difficulties in an unfamiliar land that is sometimes scarred and broken – one that is “groaning and crying out.”  Nevertheless, the same land will reveal a world created by God that is beautiful beyond imagination – “a place of wellsprings.”  So whether you are preparing for an actual journey to Assisi or your journey will be “inward” and take place in your home, it is my hope and prayer that your life will be enriched and transformed as a result of it. Ask the Lord now to bless you as you embark on the journey. And, in the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”



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<![CDATA["Go and Rebuild My Church" The Benedictine Monks of Norcia]]>Mon, 24 Apr 2017 09:43:06 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/go-and-rebuild-my-church-the-benedictine-monks-of-norcia"Go and rebuild my House, which, as you can see, is totally destroyed." These were the words Christ spoke to St. Francis through the crucifix of San Damiano. Francis knew what to do: rebuild the church.
 
Though those words were directed to St. Francis eight centuries ago, they could have been spoken to St. Benedict today.
 
Yesterday, I went to the town of Norcia to visit the Benedictine monks whose church and monastery were destroyed in a series of earthquakes last year. On the night of August 24, 2016, a powerful 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck near Rieti in central Italy. It was a horrible tragedy: the towns of Accumuli, Pescara del Tronto, and especially Amatrice were destroyed. 299 people lost their lives, 365 were injured, and approximately 2,100 lost their homes.
 
Here are some pictures I took yesterday while driving through the area:

Then, in late October, several more powerful quakes struck further north. On October 31, at 7:30 am, the worst struck: a 6.6 with the epicenter near Norcia.
 
On the left is a photo I took last summer of the Church of St. Benedict; on the right is what it looked like on October 31: it is totally destroyed.

The rest of the town did not fare much better. I took the following pictures of the town of Norcia yesterday. (Today the facade has been fitted with structural support.)
Here is a video I shot yesterday while walking through the town:
The importance of the Benedictine church and monastery cannot be overemphasized. It was built over the birthplace of the founder, St. Benedict (born AD 480), and a community of monks lived there continually from the sixth century AD until the suppressions of the Napoleonic and Italian State of the 19th century. Then the monastery sat empty for more than a century.
 
Finally, in the year 2000, several American monks -- guided by faith and hope -- left their land and homes and took up residence once again in the ancient monastery. Since then, their vibrant international community has grown tremendously with vocations.

The charism of the Monks of Norcia is "to return to the spirit of the founder", following the appeal of Vatican II. The monastery is unique in that in 2009, the Holy See entrusted the community with the special liturgical apostolate of celebrating the liturgy in both the Extraordinary Latin as well as the Ordinary Italian form.
 
The monks have made a name for themselves also through their enterprising know-how. They have developed a successful beer brewery (Birra Nursia) in addition to producing a CD "Benedicta: Marian chant from Norcia" (for a while, it was above the likes of Andrea Boccelli
on the billboard charts!)
Visit the monks' website
 
However, all this came crashing down on the morning of Sunday, October 30, when their church -- already compromised from previous quakes -- crumbled to the ground.
 
Today only the facade stands. In the words of the Prior, Father Benedict, the town of Norcia appears "like those photographs of bombed-out churches from the Second World War".
The monks are now living a few kilometers outside of town in temporary wooden housing provided by the government. While their material needs are being met, they are currently engaged in a massive rebuilding effort. It is their hope to rebuild a Capuchin hermitage as their permanent monastery.
 
Here are some photographs of the Capuchin church they are hoping to rebuild:

In the following video, Deep Roots, the monks explain their situation and their plans:
In an effort to help the monks, I have pledged to walk in the footsteps of St. Benedict along the Cammino di San Benedetto (the Way of Benedict) to raise awareness to their situation.
 
The entire Way is about 310 kilometers, broken down into 16 walks. I will walk it over the course of several stages. (For more information on the Way of Benedict, click here; Italian only!)
 
I will be posting videos and photos from the walk, in addition to textual information.
 
To make a donation to the monks, there are links in the above video, as well as on their website by clicking here:

https://en.nursia.org/donations/
 
Please help spread the word by sharing this blog.
 
Blessings on your journey!

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<![CDATA[Gianna Jessen: "God is Gracious"]]>Tue, 28 Mar 2017 09:09:10 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/gianna-jessen-god-is-graciousI spent four days last week in southern Italy with Gianna Jessen, abortion survivor and pro-life advocate. Though her story is remarkable, Gianna herself is all the more so.
 

I met her in Loreto last November when she gave a talk here at the Basilica of the Holy House of Mary. I introduced myself and, as a fellow American, we had some things in common. We exchanged contact information and after she returned home, began corresponding. After we got to know one another, I agreed to translate for future conferences. Thus I had the privilege of spending four days with her (and the two event organizers) in the region of Campania, near Naples, in southern Italy.
 

Gianna started coming to Italy to speak in 2012. By now she has become something of a sensation. The three conferences I interpreted in Benevento and Caserta drew crowds between 500 and 600 people each. A conference she just did yesterday drew upwards of 1,500 people. Her story is moving Italians in a powerful way.


 
This grisly procedure involves the abortionist administering a saline solution into the mother’s womb which the child drinks and is, in turn, blinded, burned inside and out, and suffocated. Then, after twenty-four hours, the child is delivered dead. Gianna, however, was born alive.
 
It was 6:00 in the morning when she was born, a fact Gianna emphasizes: had she been born while the abortionist was at work, he would have strangled her, suffocated her, or otherwise left her for dead. Instead, a nurse (whom Gianna sometimes refers to as an angel) called an ambulance.
 
Thus began Gianna’s journey from what should have been death, to life. Yet, her difficulties only increased.
 
After being placed in an NICU incubator and surviving (the medical staff did not think she would make it… and Gianna jests that “she does not die easily”), she was placed in emergency foster care. Yet, even there she experienced ill treatment.
 
It wasn’t until Gianna was taken in by a woman named Penny and her daughter that her life began to change. By now she had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a burden she refers to as a “gift.” Even though they said she would live as a “vegetable,” Penny taught Gianna how to sit up, crawl, stand, and even walk. When Gianna speaks of Penny, who died just three years ago, it is clear how much she loved her.
 
On Christmas Day, when Gianna was twelve years old, she was told of the conditions of her birth (though she inexplicably already knew in her heart). Two years later, she was asked to tell her story to a group of ten or so people in a Mexican restaurant. Little did Gianna know that a journalist happened to be there taking notes: she soon published an article and Gianna became known throughout the world.
 
Today Gianna works full time as a Pro-life advocate and speaks in the US and beyond. She has met Presidents at home and Prime Ministers abroad, and has told her story to the US Congress and Parliaments.
 
Yet, a keen listener will discern that her message is really not about her birth or abortion, which takes up just a few minutes at the beginning of her talks. The thrust of her witness, instead, is about life and overcoming adversity.
 
And this in the crux of her message: she constantly gives honor, praise, and thanks to God the Father, her “best friend,” Jesus Christ, and the Spirit for saving her and giving her the strength to overcome.
 
In this, her name is telling. The name, Gianna, is actually Italian; it is the diminutive form of Giovanna, which is the feminine name of “John.” (It was given to her [casually or providentially?] by her adoptive father who had an Italian business associate.)
 
In Hebrew, John (Yohanan) means “YAHWEH is gracious.” Indeed, it only takes a few minutes in the presence of Gianna to know just how gracious He has been with her. Her name was providential as she seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the Baptist -- the preacher, prophet and "Herald of the Messiah". Yet, it is also clear that she easily fits the role of the other Evangelist -- the beloved disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
 
Or perhaps her adoptive father knew something about Gianna Beretta Molla, the Italian doctor who gave her life for her child. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, she developed a benign tumor on her uterus leading to the doctors suggesting she abort the child. Gianna refused and the tumor was removed during the pregnancy, but she developed complications and died about a week after the baby was born. Gianna Molla was canonized a saint in 2004.
 
Indeed, spirituality comes naturally to Gianna, as she frequently digresses from her story during her talks. “And another thing…” she begins before offering spiritual nuggets and pearls of wisdom on issues like relationships, roles between the sexes, forgiveness, and avoiding bitterness and victimization.
 
Directing a message to women, she encourages them to seek love and acceptance first in God the Father before seeking it in men (particularly if their fathers were unavailable). To the men she frequently apologizes on behalf of “angry marching feminist women who seek to emasculate them”; yet, she also admonishes them to seek purity by avoiding pornography, making covenants with their eyes, and to honor a woman by marrying her before sleeping with her.
 
And in all this, Gianna arrives at one of her main themes: the difference between “average love” and “epic love.” Average love is what most people experience; “epic love” is what God wants.
 
And here Gianna’s evangelical faith becomes evident, as few people in Catholic Italy are accustomed to hearing such language and expressions in church settings (and some were not easy to translate, either).
 
But none of this matters to Gianna: she is not here to “put on a show.” She lets everyone know that she is not ashamed to proclaim the Name of Jesus Christ. Were she to avoid mentioning the Name of Jesus, everything about her would be for naught.
 
In fact, underlying everything about Gianna is her absolute conviction that hers will be “Victory.” Some years ago, to this end, she ran two marathons (on her toes due to her cerebral palsy). And she frequently does things like this in order to “live the impossible” and “make God real.”
 
Today, though she is now experiencing difficulty with her balance due to her cerebral palsy (which makes walking unassisted difficult), she nonetheless wants to climb a mountain. Gianna, in fact, has no doubts: she will do it. And neither does anyone who hears her story: everyone knows that she will be “victorious.”
 
Yes, it is clear that something happens when Gianna speaks. One of the more moving moments took place when a woman of thirty or so came up to speak with her after the first talk I translated.
 
“Please ask Gianna to forgive me,” she said in Italian sobbing. I nodded and told Gianna what she said.
 
“I wanted to end it… End it all… I tried to… I did not deserve it…” she continued rambling and obviously so broken she was having difficulty speaking.
 
“You tried to commit suicide?” I asked trying to make sense of what she was saying.
 
“Yes… Five years ago…” she said between choking sobs.
 
“It was the right thing to do… A life for a life… I had to…” she said before finally revealing what she was trying to say.
 
“I took my unborn child’s life, so it was right for me to give my own for my child… A life for a life… Please ask Gianna to forgive me…”
 
I told Gianna what she said. Based on her composed reaction, it was clear that she was accustomed to encounters like this.
 
Speaking gently and peacefully, Gianna told her that she forgave her on behalf of her unborn child. Yet, she added that she is worthy of mercy and that Jesus can forgive her, too. Gianna made her promise that she would do no harm to herself, and said that she should work on forgiving herself, perhaps through a Christian counselor or spiritual director.
 
Though this was one of the more dramatic moments, it was clear that many other people were also moved. After another conference, another woman came up to her. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she explained how she had watched one of Gianna’s talks online over “twenty times.” She said that each time she listens to Gianna speak, her heart is filled with a peace and joy she cannot explain.
 
Indeed, it is clear that something about Gianna is moving and touching the hearts of the Italian people in a deep way. Perhaps it is because of her infectious laugh and radiant joy, or her pretty face and beautiful smile. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she comes from a faraway land, a place where so many Italians once emigrated to so many years ago where they were welcome and made their fortune.
 
Or, perhaps, it may be that Gianna gives hope to people whatever their circumstances. Certainly very few people can relate to being born into the world as she was. Yet certainly there are many among us who can relate to rejection and refusal, not being wanted, being a burden, and being unloved.
 
To all these people, Gianna is the embodiment of the Gospel and God’s Promise never to abandon His people. She is a living example of that Scripture that consoles and shows how close God is, especially to the brokenhearted:
 
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you (Isiah 49:15).
 
Yes, Gianna shows us that “God is gracious.” Indeed, gracious.

www.giannajessen.com

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<![CDATA[Tom Zimmer - "The Hermit of Loreto"]]>Mon, 06 Mar 2017 16:05:39 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/tom-zimmer-the-hermit-of-loretoAbout two weeks ago, I started receiving a barrage of emails and Facebook messages asking me about the American “Hermit of Loreto.” Though I, too, am an American who lives in Loreto, Italy, I had never heard of him.
 
I was forwarded a YouTube video to watch:

In the video, an American priest -- Fr. Giacomo Capoverdi -- recounts how he encountered this holy man who lived in Loreto. He says that some seventeen years ago, a friend of his -- an Italian American doctor named Claudio Curran -- told him that he had to get up to Loreto on his upcoming trip to Rome to speak with a holy man there by the name of Tom Zimmer.
 
He said this "hermit", an American layperson, had left everything behind in the US to live in Loreto as a hermit. He added that he was very prayerful and had written a book, “Pieta'” which sold upwards of “ten million copies.”
 
Fr. Capoverdi says that after arriving in Rome, he indeed took a train up to Loreto and went inside the basilica where he saw an elderly gentleman, hunched over, sitting on the floor next to the Holy House in prayer. He sat down next to him, introduced himself in English, and they had a wonderful conversation.
 
So then Fr. Capoverdi fast forwards until a few weeks ago when he was talking to his old friend, the doctor, who said that back in the 1980s, Tom Zimmer had told him (the doctor) that he had received a “premonition” and that he (Tom) believed that a certain man would lead America back to God. And that man would be none other than Donald J. Trump.
 
“The millionaire playboy from New York?” asks the incredulous doctor. “Yes,” responds Tom. In fact, Zimmer was so convinced that Donald Trump would become a great spiritual leader of America that he wrote his name on a brick and had it placed in the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Holy Door after the Jubilee in order that Trump would receive blessings from the many Masses that would be said in the Vatican.
 
Fr. Capoverdi says that he wanted to get this message out after he saw Donald Trump’s wife begin a political rally in Florida by beginning with the Our Father.
 
Now, I have to admit that my first impression after watching this video was somewhere between skepticism and suspicion. Although I believe that God reveals his plans and messages in advance to his prophets, it is not always clear who his prophets are, or, when people speak as “prophets” whether or not they are true or false. Further, my reaction was the same as the incredulous doctor: "Preisdent Trump will lead people back to God?" I thought to myself, eyebrows raised.
 
Nonetheless, after a number of people asked me if I would look into Tom Zimmer, I did so. Additionally, I was curious to discover more about this "hermit of Loreto". So I decided to look into who this Tom Zimmer was, not to weigh in on whether or not Donald Trump was "chosen" to "lead America back to God."
 
The Holy House of Loreto (the house of Mary of Nazareth) was transported to Italy in the 13th century by Crusaders returning to Europe. Since the 1920s, the basilica has been staffed by the Capuchin Franciscan friars. Due to my membership in the Third Order of St. Francis, my work organizing pilgrimages, and my own prayer and Mass attendance at the Holy House, I know a number of friars and personnel who staff the basilica. And so I began my “investigative research.”
 
First, I ran into a jovial, 84-year-young friar named Fr. Mario who I’ve known for years. He was in Loreto for a week-long retreat, though he lives not in Loreto, but in the mother house in Camerino where his order began in the sixteenth century. (When we take groups to Camerino, I sometimes joke with Fr. Mario by asking him if he was there when Matteo da Bascio founded the order in 1527.) Since all the Capuchins of this province, the Marches, come here often, as it is one of their most important churches and communities, I asked Fr. Mario if he knew anything about Tom Zimmer.
 
Fr. Mario said he recalled an American man who prayed in the basilica, but he added that over the years, there have been many such “penitents” or “oblates” who come here for weeks, months, or even years, and he did not know much about him.
 
He said the friars all knew of him and referred to him simply as “L’Americano” (the American), and found him to be courteous and polite, if not a little “particular.” They were aware that Tom attended upwards of four or five Masses every day and that he spent the rest of his time praying in and around the Holy House. (The Holy House itself is a small structure comprised of three marble-wrapped walls in the center of a large basilica.)
 
Since he didn’t have any more information about “The American,” Fr. Mario told me I should speak with Fr. Giuseppe Santarelli, who has been in Loreto for decades and would surely know more.
 
I had heard of Fr. Santarelli and knew that he was one of the more erudite and learned friars in Loreto and works as the director of the “Congregazione Universale della Santa Casa” which promotes devotion to the Holy House and publishes a magazine, among other things. So I popped in and introduced myself.
 
I immediately sensed that Fr. Santarelli, not much taller than five feet, was a kindly gentleman. I told him that I was there to inquire about an American “penitent” who lived in Loreto back in the 1990s and prayed frequently in the Holy House.
 
Fr. Santarelli promptly cut me off, “Ah sì, Thomas Zimmer, si chiamava... certo che mi ricordo...” (“Ah yes, Thomas Zimmer was his name, of course I remember him...”). He went on to say that everyone in Loreto knew of him.
 
I told him about the “premonition” he had made about Donald Trump and that a video of an American priest discussing it had just gone viral on the internet. Fr. Santarelli just smiled and added that he did not know anything about that, but that him making such a prophecy was perfectly in character. I asked him what he knew about Thomas. 
 
He said he was in Loreto for about ten years, he was very pious and devoted, he went to Mass every opportunity he could, he was constantly in prayer, he spoke fluent Italian and possibly other languages, and the friars held him in high regard. The only issue that any friars may have had with him is that he received Communion more than twice daily, and they asked him to refrain from doing so. He said that he knew Tom had gone back to the US before he died. He didn’t recall exactly, but he thought somewhere around 2008.
 
He said that the basilica had received word of his death and they had a record of it. He took me into another room where there were some archives and pulled out a ledger or two, but could not find the document he was looking for.
 
He then said that he had a photo of Tom, and he pulled out a hardbound book from a different shelf. It was a type of album. In it, Tom Zimmer can be seen frail and hunched over leaning on a cane sitting in front of the Holy House. He let me take a picture of it.


I asked him what he thought about Tom’s prophecy, but Fr. Santarelli said he did not him well enough to have an opinion on that. He said I should speak to a woman who worked in the bookstore next to the basilica. Her name was Michela. He said that she knew Tom quite well and even referred to her as a “faithful devotee” of his.
 
So I went next door and, after a large crowd of French speaking pilgrims cleared out, I found Michela and introduced myself to her and explained why I was there.
 
She said she believed Tom was a very holy man, and she used to accompany him back and forth to the Holy House from the retirement home where he was staying, Oasi Ave Maria. She said he used to joke that he had lived in Mary’s House longer than St. Joseph.
 
During the time she knew him he taught her many prayers, including a devotion to St. Bridget, which helped her during a difficult period while she was pregnant with her child. She also said that after he returned to the US, he wrote to her saying that he regretted his decision to leave Loreto, but that he felt strongly that he needed to return to his homeland. Without saying so, it was clear that Michela was very fond of Tom.
 
I told her about his premonition and what he said many years earlier about Donald Trump, and she said she did not know anything about that. I asked her if he had ever confided to her any other such premonitions or prophecies. He had not.
 
My last stop was to Oasi Ave Maria retirement home, about 3 km (2 miles) from the Holy House. I introduced myself to the receptionist who called the director, Dr. Montuoro.
 
Dr. Montuoro said that he knew Thomas well as he had lived in their home for many years. I told him about the premonition he had made some years ago, and he said it was not surprising. He said he frequently made such statements privately to people he knew, though never publicly.
 
I asked the doctor if Tom had ever talked about any such statements, including the premonition, to him. He said no, at least not referring to Donald Trump, but he had heard him speak in such a manner, though he was not specific.
 
I asked the doctor about Tom's character, and he said that Tom was well-liked by the staff, he had numerous friends and acquaintances who visited him often and spoke with him and gave him rides back and forth to the Holy House. He said that he read constantly in English, Italian and German, and his room was overflowing with books. Tom was always passionate when he spoke with people about spiritual things, though he was a little "particular".
 
The doctor said that In the end, due to his poor physical health, his family members insisted he return to the US, though it was against his will and he regretted it. He died at his home in the US.
 
After looking into Tom Zimmer, the “Hermit of Loreto,” I have no reason to doubt Fr. Capoverdi’s statements that Thomas Zimmer communicated to his friend that he received a “premonition” that Donald Trump would “lead America back to God.” Yet, when seeking to determine whether a prophecy is true or false, the Church leaves us some criteria to guide us in discernment.
 
The first is to look at the recipient of the prophecy. Generally, that person should be a good and virtuous person and, additionally, the person’s temperament should be considered, as well as his or her physical and mental state.
 
Here, it is clear that Thomas Zimmer was prayerful and devoted, was courteous and helpful toward others in need, and appears to have been of sound mind, though his body was failing.
 
Next, a private revelation must not state anything contrary to publicly revealed truth. Here, too, there is nothing Scriptural or in Church teachings that would suggest that a political leader (even someone less than virtuous) cannot lead people to God; on the contrary, Scripture indicates it as a duty. (Some have even seen Trump in the figure of King Cyrus [see Ezra 1:1-11]).
 
Lastly, the prophecy must, obviously, come true. And on this, it is my opinion that we will have to wait and see … And even then, I will wager that whether Donald Trump “leads America back to God” will be open to interpretation…
 
In any case, it seems extraordinary to me that an elderly "hermit of Loreto" would have had such such an intuition or premonition about Donald Trump as a future "Christian" leader when, at that time, he was no model of Christian virtue or living.
 
Regarding the brick in St. Peter's with Donald Trump's name on it... I am assuming the Jubilee year referred to was in 2000, and it would likely take a miracle to track it down... Although "with God all things are possible".

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