<![CDATA[St. Francis Pilgrimages - Blog]]>Fri, 26 May 2017 01:04:33 -0700Weebly<![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, an abortion survivor and well known 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.
 

She said they had had some issues with interpreters and asked if I would be willing to translate for future conferences. I agreed. 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. Today, 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 began receiving a barrage of emails and Facebooks messages asking me what I knew about the American “Hermit of Loreto.” Though I, too, am an American who lives in Loreto, I knew nothing about him.
 
I was forwarded a YouTube video to watch:

In the video, an American priest named 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 gentleman, 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, “Pietà” 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.
 
In any case, a number of people asked me if I would look into Tom Zimmer to see what I could find out. And so I did.
 
Since the 1920s, the basilica of the Holy House of Loreto has been staffed by the Capuchin Franciscan friars. Due to my participation 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 went to find to do some “investigative research.”
 
First, I happened to run 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 the 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.
 
He said that 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 building comprised of four 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 kind man and a 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 may have been possible. I asked him what he did know about Thomas. 
 
He said he was here in Loreto for about ten years, he was a very pious and devoted man, he went to Mass every opportunity he could and was in constant prayer, he spoke fluent Italian, and the friars held him in high esteem. 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 he 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 being 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 to be 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, called Oasi Ave Maria. She said he used to joke that he 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 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 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. Though not far from my house, I had never been there. As I introduced myself to the receptionist, I was impressed by the number of residents, at least fifty or so, and their visitors sitting with them in a large gathering room with residents.
 
The receptionist called the director, Dr. Montuoro, who said that he knew Thomas well as he 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. He was not specific.
 
The doctor said that Tom was well-liked by the staff and had numerous friends and acquaintances who visited him and spoke with him and gave him rides back and forth to the Holy House. He said that he was a little particular He read constantly, in English and Italian, and his room was overflowing with books. Tom was always passionate when he spoke with people about spiritual things.
 
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 prophecy must not state anything is against revealed truth. Here, too, there is nothing Scriptural or in Church teachings that would suggest that a political leader (even a less than virtuous one) 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. Here, at least for now, at best, I believe 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 does seem extraordinary that an elderly "hermit of Loreto" would have had such such an intuition (premonition) about Donald Trump as a future Christian leader when, at that time, he was no model of Christian virtue and living.


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<![CDATA[ St. Francis Option]]>Thu, 26 Jan 2017 07:54:08 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/january-25th-2017"And in the enclosure, where they live, they should not permit any person to enter.”
The Rule for Hermitages, 7
 
“All the brothers, however, should preach by their deeds.”
The Earlier Rule; chapter 17, 3
If you’ve turned on the news lately, you may be aware that the United States has a new President. If you paid attention, you may also be aware that there are some who are not pleased. On the other hand, you may have observed that there are others who are, on the contrary, quite satisfied. Oh, and the two groups are not happy with each other, either. Everywhere, it seems, there is chaos: the news and social media are filled with images of people attacking one another with vitriol and sometimes even fists.
 
Unfortunately, these divisions have hit close to home: family members are pitted against one another; colleagues are giving or receiving the silent treatment; longtime friendships have ended. Even parishes and churches are split along partisan lines. To some, the new president is clearly anti-Christian whose positions on immigration, the dignity of the human person, the environment, and the vulnerable are incompatible with the Gospel imperative to aid those in need (see Matthew 25:35-36). To others, however, he is seen as a champion of religion -- a King Cyrus-like figure whose election was orchestrated by the hand of God to shore up Christian institutions and stamp out vices plaguing contemporary culture (see Ezra 1:1-11).
 

In all this, what are we to do? How are we -- as committed Christians -- to live in today’s society?
 
What
does God want Christians to do? What about a “St. Francis Option”?
 

I believe that the life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi -- though he lived eight centuries ago -- can and still does suggest a relevant and timely way to approach our increasingly secularized contemporary world.
 

First, as Scripture assures us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), Francis’ era was no less wicked than our own. Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, described Assisi in the late 12th century in not-so-virtuous terms: “shameful and detestable; lust and wantonness; every kind of debauchery; wickedness; sin” (see First Life, chapter 1). If Thomas’ description is accurate, it seems that the high middle ages in Assisi were no golden age of Christian sanctified living. And Francis, before his conversion, was quite at home in such an environment.
 

Full of pride and seeking to increase his social standing, Francis set out to become a noble knight. While overnighting in Spoleto on his way to fight in the Crusades, however, he heard a voice say to him, “Francis, who can do more for you, the Lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?” When Francis responded that the Lord could do more, he was told to go back to Assisi where he would be shown what to do (see Bonaventure, Major Legend, Chapter 1, 3).
 

After Francis returned home he felt, like perhaps many of us today, the need to leave his native city and retreat from society. Francis, too, desired to separate himself from the vices and transgressions of his townspeople in order to heal and listen to what the Lord had to say to him.
 

And so he did. Francis retreated with a companion to a cave on the outskirts of Assisi (see Thomas of Celano, First Life, chapter 3, 6). The sources do not specify where the grotto was. It may have been up on Mount Subasio in what is now a hermitage called the Carceri, or it could have been in a crypt underneath the ruined church of San Damiano. In any case, it was there -- in the solace in the hills outside the city of Assisi -- where Francis discovered his “great and precious treasure.”
Some statues of Francis and two brothers in the Carceri hermitage.
Francis found great solace up in the mountains away from the vices and turpitude of the people of Assisi. It was there where he could be alone, contemplate, and consider spiritual things. Thomas of Celano, in fact, said that Francis frequently chose solitary places in the caves where he could direct his mind completely to God: “There in the clefts of the rock he would build his nest and in the hollow places of the wall his dwelling” (see Thomas of Celano, First Life, chapter 27).
 
Yes, Francis loved the mountains. In ancient times, mountains were called the “seats of the gods,” as they were believed to be closer to the heavens. In the bible, mountains are places of important events: Moses received the commandments on Sinai; Elijah challenges the priests of Baal on Carmel; Jesus was transfigured on Tabor.
 

On the mountaintop, Francis, too, surely experienced God’s power and omnipotence. God revealed himself as the God who was sacred, creator, lawgiver, mysterious, incomprehensible, omniscient, almighty, imposing and omnipotent. God is before the world, above the world, outside of the world. The mountains were like the vertical beam of the cross -- the part that pointed up: transcendence.
 

But, like Peter -- who also wished to build a tent and remain forever on the mountaintop (cf. Matthew 17:4) -- Francis was not to remain in permanent retreat. Francis -- like Peter -- had to descend, once again, back down to the “valley” where his work would be carried out. Yes, God had another mission for Francis.
 

After returning from the mountain, God revealed to Francis how he wished for him to live. Francis soon embraced a leper (which he referred to as the beginning of his “penance”; see Testament, 1-3). He then dressed as a penitent, renounced his possessions, and begged for alms.

A statue of Francis embracing a leper in Rivotorto, near Assisi.
Then, within the little church of San Damiano, he heard another voice speak to him: “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house, which, as you can see, is totally in ruin” (see Bonaventure, Greater Legend, chapter 2, 1; Thomas of Celano, Second Life, 10; Legend of the Three Companions, 13). This would become his life mission: rebuild God’s Church.
 
Francis set out promptly to restore the particular church of San Damiano. He then moved on to another one down in the valley, St. Mary of the Angels, in addition to a third church called San Pietro di Spina, further away, still in the valley. Yet, the larger meaning of that command revealed itself over the course of his life: Francis was called to rebuild the universal Church.
 
Soon brothers began following Francis. Bernard of Quintavalle -- a canonist -- came with Peter of Catania; then Giles, a peasant, joined him. They slept in animal sheds near a crooked stream known as Rivotorto, while they did odd jobs during the day. They traveled itinerantly, lived on alms and Providence, and preached to the people about the goodness of God and calling on others to do penance. Soon, when they were twelve in number, they went to Rome speaking directly with the Holy Father, Pope Innocent III, seeking approval for their way of life, which they were granted.
 
From that moment on, in 1209, the movement exploded, and people from all walks of life flooded in. They served lepers and other marginalized people, they preached in the city squares and in churches, the priests heard confessions and celebrated Mass.
 
The charism given to Francis by God was, thus, one of direct interaction with the people; it was not one of retreat or flight.
However -- and this is very important -- Francis continued to withdraw to the mountains throughout his life. Francis went, in fact, frequently to the hermitages. He would go there for fasting and prayer after long stretches of ministering to the people, or, he would spend numerous “forty-day” “Lents” in preparation for major feast days.
 
He would often spend four or five “Lents” each year in the hermitages. In addition to the “forty days” preceding Easter (today’s Lent), he would also pray for the forty days after the Epiphany (January 6); from the forty days preceding Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29); from the Feast of the Assumption to St. Michael (August 15-September 29); and the forty days preceding Christmas (today’s Advent). If one does the math, this adds up to about half the year, or -- assuming Francis did this every year -- half his converted life. This is a tremendous amount of time spent in silence and prayer.
 
But Francis’ time in the hermitages served an important purpose: through prayer, Francis became more and more united to God and a channel of his grace and love. Thomas of Celano said of Francis: “Thus he would direct all his attention and affection toward the one thing he asked of the Lord, not so much praying as becoming totally prayer” (Celano, Second Life, 95). He also said that after praying, Francis was “changed almost into another man -- another Christ” (ibid., 99).
 
The hermitages were so important to Francis that he even wrote a rule describing how the friars should live there. He eventually founded some twenty mountain hermitages in his life in various parts of Italy; many of them, in fact, still have active communities of friars who follow Francis’ Rule for Franciscan hermits within.
 
Francis loved the hermitical life in the mountains so much that he once felt tempted to remain for the rest of his life as a hermit (see Little Flowers of St. Francis, chapter 16). Not trusting in his own discernment, however, he asked a friar, Sylvester, as well as Clare and the sisters to pray for him to know the will of God. Clare and the sisters received the same response as did Brother Sylvester: Francis was called by God not only for himself, but to bear fruit and bring others to God. “He had to continue preaching,” they told him.
 
Indeed, once again, the hermitage was not a monastery for Francis, and praying in the mountains was to be temporary, never permanent. Prayer was his connection to God to give him that energy to allow necessary to re-dedicate himself to the active life. Like Jesus, Francis would leave his retreat and go back down to the valley to serve the lepers, the community, the Church. The “Total Gospel Life” would call him to once again descend to the plains below to continue the preaching and serving the poor.
 
And when Francis descended down from the mountains to the valley below, he embraced that other aspect of Christian spirituality: immanence. For the cross has two beams -- vertical, as well as horizontal. Down in the valley, Francis would live out the horizontal imperative serving others.
 
The valley was like the Incarnation -- Christ humbling and lowering himself from the heavens above to be with humanity below. God reaches down, stoops down, from heaven to be with us. God did not stay a mystery, he became a child. He did not hide from humanity, he revealed himself as a man. In the Incarnation, Christ became close to man and allowed for relationship and unity in the material world.
 
Thus, Francis -- like Christ -- would always have a strong concern for the world: he would always desire to help the poor and the marginalized; he would focus on being together in community and fellowship; he believed strongly in the individual conscience. For Francis, God was not just an all-powerful “being” up in heaven somewhere; he was with us here where we are: God is immanent; God is love.
 
But in this, Francis was really walking in the pathway of much bigger footsteps. For it was Christ who alternated between praying in solitude and serving people. For though Christ “often withdrew to the wilderness to pray” (Luke 5:16), he was always called back down to the valley where he preached, healed, performed miracles and taught.
 
For Francis, then, his entire spiritual life would be like walking up and down mountains. And it is this dichotomy -- retreating temporarily to the mountains and returning to the valley -- that is a characteristic hallmark of Francis’ spirituality. Going up: being on the mountaintop alone with the transcendent God in prayer and hermitage to receive strength. Going down: being in the valley to serve the lepers and preach in the cities.
 
Francis’s life, thus, would not be prayer alone or ministry alone; it would be both to prayer and ministry -- transcendent and immanent -- alternating between the mountains and the valleys. Francis’s mountain would be Mount Sinai as well as the Mount of Beatitudes. Never the first or the second -- but both -- one in fulfillment of the other.
 
And this is what I would call the “St. Francis Option.”
 
Thus, the St. Francis Option alternates between the two: temporary separation followed by likewise temporary engagement with the world -- “in the world, but not of it.”
 
The St. Francis Option challenges us to discern the delicate balance between the contemplative life and the active life. It keeps our gaze fixed on God above without neglecting our feet and hands in this world below. It places us in the roles of both Martha and Mary (see Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). It gives us hope in eternal life without neglecting the Gospel call to those suffering and in need of the Good News we have received. It allows for receiving as well as giving.
 
Though Francis lived in a different era from our own, the Option he chose is still relevant today. It can both give us guidance as we, too, ask ourselves the same questions that he asked himself eight and sixteen centuries ago in ages of cultural decadence and wickedness (similar to our own):
 
“Lord, what do you want me to do?”
 
What is the answer for you? Which "Option" do you choose?


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<![CDATA[January 18th, 2017]]>Wed, 18 Jan 2017 08:30:14 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/january-18th-2017The Holy House of Mary
There is something special about the house we grew up in. I think about this from time to time, as I now live some 5,000 miles from my childhood home. I often feel nostalgia for that house on Appleseed Court in Peachtree City. Within those walls are countless memories, joys and sorrows: learning to crawl and walk; relationships with siblings and parents; childhood friends; beloved pets.
 
Here in Loreto -- where my family and I have been living since 2014 -- there is preserved underneath a magnificent basilica the childhood home of a different sort: the “Holy House of Mary.” What remains of Mary’s house is quite simple: just three walls of stacked stones. Yet, it is believed that within those walls Mary, the daughter of Anna and Joachim, grew up and received the Annunciation.
 
What a mystery to consider the memories that are contained within! For this is the place where the angel, Gabriel, appeared and she responded with her Fiat, “Yes, may it be done to me according to your will; I will be the mother of the Lord, the Messiah” (Luke 1:38).
 
The walls were originally affixed onto a grotto in Nazareth which can still be visited today within the Basilica of the Annunciation. Two years ago, Katia and I spent five days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but, unfortunately, did not make it up to Galilee. We did see photographs of the grotto, however.

When we take visitors to see the Holy House, the question is inevitably asked: “So if the Holy House of Loreto is from Nazareth, how did it get to Italy?” For many centuries, the tale was told how the Holy House had been flown miraculously to Loreto by angels; in fact, there are numerous artistic depictions and statues within the basilica of angels “flying” with the house. Modern research, however, has shown that the House -- like many relics from the Holy Land -- was transported by ship at the end of the Crusades. Pilgrims and crusaders alike, fearing reprisals by Saracen soldiers, brought back a number of Christian relics with them.
 
In this case, it was a Greek nobleman who financed the relocation of Mary’s House as part a wedding dowry for the duke’s daughter who married Philip of Taranto in 1294. But it never made it to Taranto. The stones arrived first in Croatia in AD 1291 and then, between December 9-10, 1294, were placed among a forest of laurel trees (in Latin, Lauretum), now called Loreto. Since that time, the walls here have been revered as the house of Mary.
 

It should be noted that there is more to the Holy House than simple pious devotion. In the 1970s, studies were conducted and archaeologists determined that the stones in Loreto were, indeed, not from this region and were, instead, cut according to first-century Palestinian methods. Additionally, they studied the numerous ancient inscriptions (called graffiti) engraved in the rocks and confirmed they were ancient Christian symbols used in Palestine prior to the fifth century AD. Further, the three walls that are now in Loreto fit perfectly within a sunken space around the cave in the Nazareth basilica.
 

But what about the tradition of the “angels” who brought the house here? The name of the family who financed the expedition, in fact, was “Angelos.” Therefore, it seems that there was even some truth to that old tale as well.
 

There is no doubt, hence, that the stones in Loreto were once affixed to the grotto underneath the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Whether or not the house belonged to Mary, however, is unclear. According to tradition, the ancient home in Nazareth was identified as Mary’s House by the Apostles in the first century. Later, in the fourth century, Constantine’s mother, Helena, constructed the first basilica. The site in Nazareth has remained as a place of devotion for pilgrims ever since -- even after the house was removed in the 13th century.
 

Some say that it is not important whether Mary lived within the house, as the Holy House of Loreto remains a special place of prayer and devotion. Over the centuries, in fact, millions of people have come to Loreto to honor the sacred relic. Pilgrims and the sick as well as tourists and beach goers alike come here from all over the world. Many receive graces while some testify to true miracles. Doubtless, the faith of many increases.
 
Testifying to the blessings received is a huge hall with Renaissance-era frescoes known as the Pomarancio within the basilica. The walls are filled with “ex-voto” offerings -- gifts given after fulfillment of a vow made to Mary (ex voto suscepto “from the vow made”) or out of gratitude or devotion for blessings received through her intercession. The gifts are expressions of the countless gifts received through Mary’s intercession over the centuries.


Over the years, pilgrims have often recounted to Katia and me experiences they had at the Holy House. Just a year ago, a priest who was with us on pilgrimage told the story of another priest and friend of his. When the priest was young, he felt the desire to enter the seminary; however, he had an inordinate fear of loneliness. So he went on pilgrimage to Italy that included Loreto as one of the destinations. He said that when he went into the Holy House, he closed his eyes and immediately felt the presence of a woman brushing up against him with her dress. When he opened his eyes, and saw he was the only person there. And at that moment, his fear of loneliness left him. He entered the seminary after returning home and has lived joyfully as a priest ever since.
 
The feast of the “Translation” of the Holy House is celebrated on December 9 each year -- when it arrived in Loreto. Our Lady of Loreto is the namesake of women named Loretta, Lori, and other derivatives. Our Lady of Loreto is the patroness of aviators including astronauts and pilots, as well as the sick and infirmed.
 
Since the 1930s, the Holy House has been administered by the Capuchin friars. It is a wonderful place to go for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, or confession.
 
If you have any prayers or intercessions, Katia and I regularly pray for people and their intentions in the Holy House -- here, where the handmaiden of the Lord said “Yes, I will do your will.”

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<![CDATA[Earthquakes in Italy and Suffering]]>Thu, 12 Jan 2017 08:35:57 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/earthquakes-in-italy-and-sufferingIt was August 24 of last year, at 3:40 in the morning. I was sleeping soundly with Katia in our apartment in Loreto. Suddenly, 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 shrieking.
 
While I lay there disoriented and confused, Katia, lying next to me, knew what was happening: “Terremoto!” she shouted. It was an earthquake! After the house shook aggressively for about 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 went downstairs and immediately turned on our devices to get some news. The quake was so violent in Loreto, I was worried how bad it was at the epicenter. Our Italian friends were online, too, and were declaring themselves safe on social media. But then the news reports came in. It was bad.
 
The first reports were that the magnitude was 6.2 and the epicenter was close to Perugia or Rieti-- about seventy miles from where we live. There was tremendous loss of life and property, they said. I worried about Assisi. It turned out that the affected areas were some mountain villages along the border of the Umbria, Lazio, Abruzzo and the Marches. The damage was catastrophic; some towns were razed to the ground.
 
Initially, the death toll was just two. But then it climbed to six, then ten, then twenty. Eventually, it reached 299 people. Another 365 were injured, while approximately 2,100 lost their homes. It was a true tragedy.

Amatrice after the August 24 quake
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 late October, there were some more strong quakes -- including a 5.5 and a 6.1. They were all concentrated in the same area near Norcia and Rieti. We felt them lightly in Loreto. But the “big one” came on Sunday morning.
 
It was October 30, at 7:30 am. I had a large group coming in that very morning and was texting my guide in Rome when it hit. When the house started shaking, I put the phone down and went outside with Katia and the kids. It was so strong I had to hold onto the railing. When it stopped, I texted my guide telling her we just had a strong earthquake. She said she felt it strongly, too. But she was in Rome -- on the opposite side of the country. The entire peninsula had shaken violently from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Seas.
 
This was the worst one of the year. It was a 6.6, the epicenter just north of Norcia. To my horror, I saw on the news the Benedictine church built over the birthplace of St. Benedict in Norcia -- where we regularly took groups to -- completely leveled. By grace, no one was killed; damage from previous quakes had already forced people out of their homes.

A photo I took of the Church of St. Benedict in Norcia in May, 2016

The same church in November, 2016

It’s now been well over two months without a big quake. Yet, things are not the same. People talk about it all the time and you can still see it on their faces. Hotels here in Loreto or at the beach nearby have taken in the “terremotati” -- homeless victims of the earthquakes. Many are confused and depressed as their lives have been completely destabilized.
 
The Franciscans in this region have suffered, too, as about one third of their friaries are either severely damaged or otherwise uninhabitable. The retreat center next door has taken in some of them. The Poor Clares, too, have been hit hard. The sisters of Camerino had to abandon their church and monastery (which they spent ten years rebuilding after the 1997 earthquake!) and have joined the sisters in nearby San Severino. However, parts of their monastery are uninhabitable, and the twenty-six sisters are sleeping in the guest house and in the speaking parlor and are cooking in a small kitchenette. It will be many, many years before their situation is rectified.
 
Yet, the friars and sisters are people of faith and so are, as much as can be expected, serene. However, many here are not. I’ve heard that during times of calamity, people tend to become more introspective. I believe it. When something like this happens, an earthquake, it forces us to question certain assumptions. For when the land we live and walk on -- our “terra firma” (“firm or solid earth”) -- shakes, it rattles the very foundations of our lives.
 
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 certain insurance or legal verbiage). Some still believe this to be true. Speaking on the esteemed Catholic radio program, Radio Maria, a Dominican priest recently opined that the earthquakes were “divine punishment” against Italy after Parliament enacted legislation establishing homosexual civil unions. Really?
 
Indeed, his comments earned 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 prelate in the Vatican and among the 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 seems more Christ-like than the first image of God as a petulant cranky divinity who deliberately wills calamity as punishment against innocent people for the sin of Adam and man’s misguided free will. Yet, where was that “face of God’s love” that night when people’s houses came crashing down on them as they slept, or now as they wander around aimlessly with no home, business, or future?
 
St. Augustine sees the hand of God not in the evil which he permits (and 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.” The supreme example of this in Easter Sunday arising from Good Friday. And, as often happens after tragedies, the affected people here have been the recipients of generous and gracious aid offered by people of good will.
 
St. Paul sees the presence of God more directly involved in the midst of suffering, not just subsequently: “God encourages us in our every affliction.” Yet, it seems the consolation God offers has 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).
 
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 “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).
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<![CDATA[January: "Where Are You?"]]>Mon, 02 Jan 2017 14:59:19 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/january-where-are-youOn 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?”

According to an ancient legend, a vision took place on that very spot during the Christian persecutions. As Peter was the “rock” of the Church, he was particularly sought after by the praetorian guards of the notorious emperors, Caligula or Nero, who launched the persecutions. And, prone to fleeing and hiding in times of duress, he was hightailing it out of there.
 
As he was fleeing, however, he saw Jesus in a vision walking the opposite direction into Rome. Confused, Peter asked him: “Lord, where are you going?”
Christ’s response: “I am going into Rome to be crucified a second time in your place.” Peter, devastated by his Messiah’s answer, stopped, turned around, and returned to Rome to meet his fate and martyrdom: crucifixion upside down on Vatican hill.
 
In some ways, Peter’s question is similar to a different vision that took place some twelve 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,” Francis responded.
 
“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, in effect, was trying to help Francis change direction. God wanted Francis to understood 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 and went back to Assisi to fulfill the will of God. He renounced his dream of knighthood and returned to Assisi a penitent.

 
The question God posed to Francis makes me think of 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?” (see Genesis 3:9).
 
Of course God is omniscient and knew exactly where Adam was -- he was hiding naked in the garden with Eve. God, however, was not asking for Himself; instead, he was posing this question for the sake of Adam. God wanted Adam to look inside and realize what he had done -- that he had violated his command and sinned against him.

January is the perfect time for all of us to ask ourselves certain questions. The month is named after Janus, the ancient Roman god. According to Roman mythology, he was a two-headed figure: one head faced backward while the other face looked forward. He stood at the threshold of doors or, in this case, at the beginning and end of the year.
 
As we stand at the beginning of a year, we, too, can ask ourselves questions. 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 you are already sincerely seeking the will of God for your own life (as most people who come to this blog probably are), January is still a good time to take a 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 the will of God.
 
And when we look back at of 2016, we don’t have to look very far to find reasons for worry or preoccupation: an unusually divisive election and increasing political polarization, ongoing terrorism and violence, an overall climate of fear and mistrust. And unfortunately, it looks like last year’s tragedies have already followed us into 2017. We woke up on January 1 with news of yet another bloody massacre in Turkey. The headlines of January 2 on a popular news outlet are not much better: “Brace yourselves for another year of global tumult.”
 
As Christians, however, how do we see these events? How do we interpret them? Do we allow them to fill us with despair? (The word “desperate” means, etymologically, “deprived of hope.”) Or are we a people full of hope?
 
When we recite the Creed, we say “I believe…” We say that we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our faith is in God, not in the world with its vices and corruption. So do we really believe in God? I once heard someone speak of “functional atheism.” By that he meant people who profess to believe, but they are so full of desperation in their everyday lives that they function as atheists - as if they don’t believe.
 
Regardless of what has happened in our world, we must look forward to the future with hope. We are a people full of hope. Looking forward, surely there will new tragedies and more difficulties. But there are also plenty of 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).


So maybe 2017 is the time for you to take on a new initiative or move in a different direction. If God asked you in this moment, “Where are you?” how would you response?  Perhaps it’s time to pick up a hobby or start a new ministry, to move or take a new job. Or, maybe God wants you to pray more -- to pray the Rosary daily, to go to daily Mass. Perhaps God wants you to serve the poor in a new way.
 
Katia and I would like to take this time to wish you all a Merry Christmas from Loreto! (Yes, it is still Christmas and the tree will be until the twelfth day of Christmas, which is the feast of the Epiphany, January 6). May 2017 be filled with infinite blessings, great joy, and much hope!

Pax et bonum
Bret Thoman
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<![CDATA[Advent: Incarnation and Greccio]]>Fri, 16 Dec 2016 15:16:05 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/advent-incarnation-and-greccio
In 1223, just three years before he died, St. Francis recreated the nativity of Jesus in Greccio, a small village in the Rieti valley in the same region as Rome. With the assistance of a local nobleman named John, they assembled some animals including an ox and donkey, a young couple with a newborn baby, and some hay in a cave on a cliff about one mile from the town of Greccio. Francis, as a deacon, sang and preached to the people and to the brothers gathered there about the humility, poverty, and simplicity of God who came in the form of a babe. No one had ever done this before. He began a tradition called the crèche, which name comes from the town of Greccio through the French.
 
Francis’s desire was to reflect on and re-live the historical, concrete, human dimensions of the life of Christ – in this case his birth. Through the nativity scene, Francis created the possibility of entering into the place. Through the presence of the characters – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, and the Christ-child himself – together with the animals, the hay, the manger, Francis enhanced the possibility of entering into the mystery of the Incarnation.
 
Today, we have many more opportunities to experience the Gospel stories; for example, through hearing the Scriptures in our own language, movies, paintings, pictures, etc. But in Francis’s day, religion tended to be loftier; earlier medieval liturgies were often difficult for laypersons to understand, as they were in Latin and preaching more theological.
 
Let’s listen to the story from Thomas of Celano. While I do so, I want you to close your eyes and use your imagination.
 
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The Manger he made in Celebration of the Lord’s Birthday
Thomas of Celano
 
"His highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things, to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to retrace His footsteps completely with all vigilance and all zeal, all the desire of his soul and all the fervor of his heart.
Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds with most attentive perception. Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.
 
We should note then, as matter worthy of memory and something to be recalled with reverence, what he did, three years prior to his death, at the town of Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ. There was a certain man in that area named John who had a good reputation but an even better manner of life. Blessed Francis loved him with special affection, since, despite being a noble in the land and very honored in human society, he had trampled the nobility of the flesh under his feet and pursued instead the nobility of the spirit. As usual, blessed Francis had John summoned to him some fifteen days prior to the birthday of the Lord. “If you desire to celebrate the coming feast of the Lord together at Greccio,” he said to him, “hurry before me and carefully make ready the things I tell you. For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Once the good and faithful man had heard Francis’s words, he ran quickly and prepared in that place all the things that the holy man had requested.
 
Finally, the day of joy has drawn near, the time of exultation has come. From many different places the brethren have been called. As they could, the men and women of that land with exultant hearts prepare candles and torches to light up that night whose shining star has enlightened every day and year. Finally, the holy man of God comes and, finding all things prepared, he saw them and was glad. Indeed, the manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. There simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.
 
The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy. The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sing, giving God due praise, and the whole night abounds with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger, filled with heartfelt sighs, contrite in his piety, and overcome with wondrous joy. Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated and the priest enjoys a new consolation.
 
The holy man of God is dressed in the vestments of the Levites, since he was a Levite [i.e. deacon], and with full voice sings the holy gospel. Here is his voice: a powerful voice, a pleasant voice, a clear voice, a musical voice, inviting all to the highest of gifts. Then he preaches to the people standing around him and pours forth sweet honey about the birth of the poor King and the poor city of Bethlehem. Moreover, burning with excessive love, he often calls Christ the “babe from Bethlehem” whenever he means to call Him Jesus. Saying the word “Bethlehem” in the manner of a bleating sheep, he fills his whole mouth with sound but even more with sweet affection. He seems to lick his lips whenever he uses the expressions “Jesus” or “babe from Bethlehem,” tasting the word on his happy palate and savoring the sweetness of the word. The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied there and a virtuous man sees a wondrous vision. For the man saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis. At length, the night’s solemnities draw to a close and everyone went home with joy.
 
The hay placed in the manger there was preserved afterwards so that, through it, the Lord might restore to health the pack animals and the other animals there, as He multiplied his holy mercy. It came to pass in the surrounding area that many of the animals, suffering from various diseases, were freed from their illnesses when they ate some of this hay. What is more, women who had been suffering with long and hard labor had an easy delivery after they placed some of this hay upon themselves. Finally, an entire group of people of both sexes obtained much-desired relief from an assortment of afflictions.
 
At last, the site of the manger was consecrated as a temple of the Lord. In honor of the most blessed father Francis, an altar was constructed over the manger, and a church was dedicated. This was done so that where animals once at the fodder of the hay, there humans henceforth for healing of body and soul would eat the flesh of the immaculate and spotless lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us with supreme and indescribable love, who lives and rules with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, eternally glorious forever and ever. Amen. Alleluia, Alleluia.
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So what is the message of the Incarnation and Greccio? God has appeared: he has revealed himself. Previously, God had revealed himself to mankind only partially. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Heb 1:1-2). In this, something new has happened: God has appeared and has revealed himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light and has come into the world. He is no longer merely an idea, a hoped for promise, an article of faith; now he has appeared.
 
But how has he appeared? In what form did he appear? Who is this Christ child? “The kindness and love of God our Savior for mankind were revealed” (Tit 3:4). This was the real “epiphany,” that God appeared to us as kindness and love. In the Christ child, God is not a wrathful executioner of justice, nor is he an angry judge; rather, he is “kindness and love.” We recall the prophecies of Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Is 9:5f). This is the only text in the Old Testament that prophesies the coming of a child, which tradition has assigned to be the Christ child. The prophet describes how the Child will be: “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Here, a child, in all its weakness, neediness, and dependence is the Mighty God, the Eternal Father. His peace “is forever.”
 
God has appeared as a child born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in the palaces of kings. This is the “epiphany” – the manifestation of God. The person that God assumes is a child; and this is striking in that it shows us who God is.
 
Saint Francis was very devoted to the Nativity of Christ and Christmas. He called Christmas “the feast of feasts,” the feast above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with “unutterable devotion” (2 Celano 199). He kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say, according to Thomas of Celano (ibid.). For the early Church, the feast of feasts was Easter – since Christ saved mankind from sin through the Resurrection. Francis neither changed nor intended to change this order of precedence among the feasts, centered on the Paschal Mystery; in fact, the Resurrection presupposes the Incarnation. And yet through Francis and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’s humanity in an entirely new depth.
 
This human existence of God was most obvious to Francis at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. For God’s Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love. In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God.
 
In this new experience of the reality of Jesus’s humanity, the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that God’s humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made himself dependent, in need of human love, he put himself in the position of asking for human love – our love. Today Christmas is often over-commercialized; its bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity.
 
Reflection Questions:
1.    Why was Francis so devoted to the crib? To the Christ child?
2.    When you think of God, what does he look like? Is he the “mighty conqueror” or the humble, needy child? Or is he both?


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<![CDATA[Feast of St. Francis]]>Wed, 05 Oct 2016 07:24:52 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/feast-of-st-francisThe Transitus of Saint Francis

by Bret Thoman, OFS
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. … He called his brothers together, consoled them, and exhorted them to love God. He told the brothers never to leave the Portiuncula …
 
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. … 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!”
 
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 that had said: “You will become a great knight… Whom 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 had 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).
 
(adapted from "St. Francis of Assisi: Passion, Poverty, and the Man who Transformed the Catholic Church" by Bret Thoman, OFS)



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<![CDATA[Earthquake in Central Italy]]>Wed, 24 Aug 2016 13:35:04 GMThttp://stfrancispilgrimages.com/blog/earthquake-in-central-italy Picture
(photograph from Amatrice)

Early on the morning of August 24, there was a massive earthquake in central Italy on the border between the regions of Lazio, Umbria and Marche. This natural disaster has brought untold suffering including loss of life, injuries, and destruction of property. The official death toll is currently over 240, but climbing as there are still hundreds of people missing. Please keep the people of the affected areas in your prayers.
 
What follows is my personal experience in an area well away from the epicenter:
 
We felt it in Loreto (where we live) -- as did everyone from the Adriatic Sea to Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea! Fortunately, there was no damage to Loreto, but a few mountain villages about 100 miles southwest of here have been devastated and the death toll keeps climbing.
 
Being from Georgia, I had never experienced such a phenomenon. Sure, I've been through plenty of nasty lightning storms and hail storms (and a near-miss with a tornado or two), but only a light earthquake once while I was in Assisi about six years ago. But it was nothing like this.
 

Around 3:40 am this morning, I was awakened from a deep slumber by various noises and sensations taking place at the same time: low rumbling sound, shaking bed, wife gasping, neighbors screaming, car alarms… Though I’d never experienced a real earthquake, I knew immediately that it was a big one.
 

After a few moments of disorientation, Katia and I lay on the bed hoping it would pass soon and not be very bad. And it wasn’t (for us…). After the house shaking fairly aggressively for about 15 seconds, it started swaying for another 15 or so seconds. And then it stopped.
 

Immediately, we could hear people talking loudly outside our window. This is Italy -- the land of no privacy. I opened up the door to our balcony and listened to two sisters who live in adjacent apartments in the building next door yelling at each other. They were arguing over whether it was better to go out into the open street or stay inside under the kitchen table. Our landlords (and neighbors) on the other side were also speaking loudly to each other as they were making sure everyone was okay. Meanwhile, car alarms were sounding and we could hear more muffled voices in the distance.
 

The shocks were strong here but not violent, so I wasn’t worried about Loreto. I was, however, worried about where the epicenter was. I went downstairs and turned on my phone. Immediately, though it was early, there were already some WhatsApp and social media messages. People were stating they were okay and were asking about their friends.
 

I tried to find a news report about the epicenter. In a few minutes, a short report popped up saying it was near Perugia. “Oh no!” I thought to myself. Not again. Assisi, just 15 miles away, suffered awful damage in 1997 from the Colfiorito earthquake. Fortunately, the report was false.
 

Then another report said it was near Rieti! My heart sank again. We have a walking tour from Assisi to Rome beginning in ten days and the itinerary passes through Rieti. Then I saw a post from a gentleman who lives in Rieti who said the city was fine.
 

Finally, I decided to turn it over to prayer and go back to bed. I gave thanks that I was okay and my loved ones were, too. In a few hours, more accurate reports would be out.
 

I awoke again around 6:30 and the official reports were out. Towns I’d never heard of were destroyed: Arquata, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto. However, other places I know of suffered damage, too: Norcia and Amatrice.
 

Unfortunately, the towns most affected are those in the mountain villages not retrofitted with anti-seismic reinforcements. The large cities (including Assisi, Perugia, Rieti, and Rome) are fine.
 
The initial victim count was two, then six, then ten. Now it’s over 240 and still climbing.
 
Here in Loreto, life goes on, but things are subdued as you can see it on people's faces and it's all people are talking about. Events are being cancelled both out of respect for the suffering as well as prudence for aftershocks.
 
I hope to drive down to the affected areas, but may wait a bit as there is the risk that I'd get in the way more than being of service.
 
Please pray for the victims and give thanks for life today.



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