THE BLOG
10/04/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Week of Popes: On Assisi, Francis I, and His Namesake

Today Pope Francis is visiting Assisi to celebrate the Feast Day of that saint whose name he assumed upon his papal election. His one-day visit will be a busy one, including speeches at charitable organizations such as the Serafico Institute and Caritas, a meeting at the archbishop's residence, veneration at the tomb of Saint Francis in the crypt of the great Basilica San Francesco, a mass in the adjacent piazza, meetings with clergy in San Rufino Cathedral, and other stops at other churches.

If all goes according to plan, he will return to the Vatican by 8:00 p.m., having arrived that morning at 7:45 -- by helicopter. That rather dashing means of papal transport delights me, in part because it reminds me of my own full day in Assisi about six months ago, and the moment when I realized I was captive to simpler, more challenging transportation.

That moment, holding me as if hostage, had lurked behind my prior reservations about driving a van full of college students to Assisi. I hadn't driven stick-shift in roughly 10 years, yet there I was: trying to ascend the steep, switch-backed roads of Mt. Subasio. I was at an uphill standstill, a few kilometers beyond Assisi's Cappucini gate. I needed to engage the clutch lightly in order to complete a three-point turn, or no, far from it -- more like a seven-point turn, or octagonal rotation, so as to make a sharp left and continue up the mountain while inching past a Euro-camper on my right, and all while watched by quiet but mightily attentive clusters of what appeared to be mainly German tourists or pilgrims. If they were contemplatives of any sort, they were contemplating me.

I confess it here: I used the emergency brake to engage the fuel pedal and thus more smoothly put the van into gear, lest the pressure of the moment overwhelm, or else, even worse, I in my nervousness jerk the van forward, hitting either the camper facing me or onlookers beside it.

"Wow, it's more crowded here than I have ever seen it," said the program director accompanying me. He was my host. I was in this stick-shift predicament because the usual parking spaces were all full near St. Francis's hermitage, tucked away amid the oak and ilex trees just above Assisi. We had to proceed farther up the mountain, but eventually found spaces for the three vans.

After a short walk we encountered a quietness and scarcity of people befitting a hermitage. Not even a guide was present to show us the way through the small rustic building and toward the pilgrim trail. We descended the small stairs in the relative dark, passing one woman earnestly praying in a stone nook.

The trail beyond the site was lovely. We soon approached a flat rock, roughly the size of a twin bed, which held a bronze statue of St. Francis in repose. Honestly, the best way to describe his posture would be to say that he was chilling: flat on his back, arms raised and behind his head. His face appeared restful, like the face of one who knew himself to be a creature of God. This was where Francis and his brothers would retreat from the world and undertake their spiritual disciplines. The scenic space made it easier to imagine the quirky saint giving his sermon to the birds and meaning every word of it.

Signs along the trail asked that visitors not scratch crosses onto the rock face nearby; nevertheless, there were many, many crosses thus marked. Visitors, it seems, have found doing so irresistible. Other signs repeatedly bore the message "Zono Sacro" as a way to encourage proper behavior, and a final one requested "Silenzio. Rispetto." The first word made me think of my one previous visit to the Basilica di San Francesco, with its massive stone presence on one end of Assisi like some humming generator fueling some greater machinery of grace. We would shortly end our day-trip there, where the stern friars hushed the murmuring visitors clogging the church's lower floor with a microphoned "Silenzio!" every few minutes.

Just before visiting the hermitage, we stopped at San Damiano, a still admirably rough church with its small cloister and wooden stalls, likewise just outside Assisi's hill-town walls. It was here in 1205, when Francis was 23, that a wooden crucifix was said to speak to him, ordering him to "Rebuild the church." The young man was then little more than a restless, eccentric son of a prosperous cloth merchant. (Today, we might speak of his "emerging adulthood.") He took the message literally, and began to restore stone by stone the church in which we were standing. The message, though, had broader implications, as the work and witness of his life and his posthumous legacy soon demonstrated.

That same crucifix today can be seen at another site Pope Francis is visiting -- Santa Chiara, the church on the other side of Assisi, near the Porta Nuova, named after Saint Clare. Inspired by Francis' example, Clare, a young woman in Assisi, cut her hair and was among the saint's most devoted followers. Eventually she became abbess of an order that bore her name, the Poor Clares, and resided and died at the church we were visiting. One of the more poignant frescoes in Giotto's magisterial cycle on Francis's life shows Clare and other nuns having raced forth from San Damiano to mourn over the dead saint as it passed by in procession.

Yet they and other townsmen sought out Francis' body, as Bonaventure explains in his Life of Saint Francis, not to intensify their sadness but "so that they could dispel all doubt and add joy to their love." Bonaventure compares one knight named Jerome to Thomas the doubting apostle, who was suspicious of the "sacred signs" on Francis's corpse -- that is, the evidence of Francis receiving the Stigmata. He touched the hands, feet, and side, and even moved the supernaturally present nails, "black like iron," that Bonaventure says were embedded in the flesh like "continuous hardened sinews." The knight's bold examination of these signs of Christ's wounds "completely healed the wound of doubt in his own heart and the heart of others."

If Clare and her sisters wept for Francis's death, many others through the centuries have found solace in his life and sainthood. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton included sweetly blunt prayers to Francis in his journals: "Holy Father Saint Francis, I believe that, in your immense and inexpressible love of Jesus Christ our Lord, you can look into my dumb, crooked soul and see what is there before I can say it in the selection of cheap, vulgar, stupid words presently about to flow from my inexpensive fountain pen." Help me, Merton asks, to follow your own example, "that I may laugh and sing when I am despised for God's love, and that I may dance and play when I am reviled for God's love, and called a mad man, and a fool and a crook."

On this day, San Damiano, too, was more crowded than my director friend had ever seen it. He had prepared me for the funny fellow we first encountered, who resided in a tiny building down from the church. It also served as a public restroom and shrine, and, as predicted, the man's laundry was drying on a line just outside the place. He also oversaw the parking lot, and at the moment of our arrival he looked vexed at the lack of available spaces. He shooed us to a roadside spot a little ways down the mountain. Later, after using his facilities, I left some coins and said, "Grazie, signore." So much for my politeness: he wagged his finger at me, slightly joking but not joking enough, and said, "No, no! Io non sono 'signore,' solo Francesco." That is, only Francis deserved the high-minded honorific, "signore," with which I had addressed the attendant.

When the students regrouped outside of San Damiano, the director led us up a path that eventually reached the green-grey setting of an olive grove, with a breath-catching, panoramic view of the valley far below. The one noticeable landmark seen from there was the dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which one guidebook fairly describes as "vast but uninspiring." (Pope Francis is visiting there, too.) Within it, though, sits one of the most inspiring Franciscan sites, the Porzuincola. This schoolroom-sized chapel was originally Francis's habitation, against which his brothers built outcropping shanties. It was a heavily wooded spot then, so remote as to suggest not at all, one safely imagines, Assisi's nearby train station. The marble floors and high pillars of today's grand church have been built around and above this modest originating spot.

This grove near San Damiano is reportedly where Francis composed his "Canticle of the Creatures," a rhapsodic poem of praise that, being written in the Umbrian dialect, makes it the great, inaugurating poem in the Italian language. "Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! / All praise is Yours, all glory, honor, and all blessing. . . . Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures. / Especially my lord Brother Sun, / who brings the day; and you give light through him. / And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!"

On the way to our culminating stop at the Basilica di San Francesco, we took in the pink and light-grey stone, the native materials from which Assisi's buildings were raised. We also marveled at the numbers of people. This hill town of fewer than three thousand residents welcomes around five million visitors each year. Assisi, then, is no stranger to huge crowds, and it also attracts its fair share of mystics and barefoot madheads. Yet we still contemplated why so many were here well ahead of the pre-summer rush.

During the first weekend of May, many towns hold medieval festivals, which in a well-preserved town such as Assisi may seem to risk gilding the lily. Everyday is like a medieval festival in Assisi, but hey -- small towns like to celebrate their heritage, whether it dates to the 1950s, as in some American suburbs, or to the 1200s or earlier.

Banners were on display throughout the narrow streets, emblazoned with ancient coats of arms. Many people, from children to venerable elders, were walking toward the town's central piazza for a civic pageant of some sort. That area was closed to passersby, which meant we had to take a less traveled, narrower route to reach San Francesco, in front of which the word "PAX" was carved into the shrubbery. The little girls and young women charmed in their pastel gowns and fluted headgear. This event partially explained the crowds, but there was another, greater reason, too -- Pope Francis I's election.

Jorge Bergoglio, shortly after being elected, declared to the world, "Good evening, I am Francis." He explained how the name of the "man of peace," the one called il poverello ("the little poor one") came into his heart, and how he found in St. Francis a model for anyone who loves and cares for creation. Francis I has been a refreshing spiritual voice so far, even if some of his first actions as pope have made some of the Catholic faithful nervous. Many around the world, though, welcome what is perceived as a newly emphatic concern for Gospel-centered values that St. Francis himself embodied: just as this Jesuit worked among HIV/AIDS patients in Argentina and, as cardinal there, spoke harsh words to clergy when necessary, so as pope he is speaking up for the poor and calling churchmen to a higher account.

Shortly after his election, he warned all believers against becoming "starched Christians" who discuss theology over tea, more polite than courageous or compassionate. He made these remarks in St. Peter's Square, from the stairs of the church, speaking with a forthrightness that has continued to characterize his papacy. He also admitted to nodding off sometimes during his evening prayers, and said it broke his heart that a homeless person's death is not considered newsworthy. He has agitated some with this tendency to extemporize, and with a signaled willingness to reprimand even the powerful within the Curia. However, maybe we need to hear a little more roundly about struggles cultural and ecclesiastical, and about the pope's own human challenges. These challenges came to the front earlier this year when Benedict XVI obeyed the dictates of his own ageing body. And now, a pope who struggles when attempting prayer with a sleepy body, with what St. Francis affectionately called "Brother Ass."

A Catholic friend of mine put it memorably: "We have an Argentinian-Italian Jesuit dramatically assuming the mantle of St. Francis . . . it's going to be a wild ride." This fact was made clear just recently when a long, topic-ranging interview with pope Francis was published. (The English version appeared in the Catholic publication America.) Once again, Francis spoke of himself frankly, calling himself a sinner: "It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre." Referring to controversial social issues that tend to divide those both outside of the church and within it, the pope regretted that sometimes the church "has locked itself up in small things"; it needed to find a "new balance," he said, so as not to lose "the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

Francis may neither be the church-destroyer that conservative Catholics fear nor the social-revolutionary pontiff that liberal believers or the church's usual critics wish to imagine. Undoubtedly, though, he is now one of our most interesting global figures. As the New York Times hailed, "Surprise Pope Keeps On Surprising."

Daniel P. Horan, writing earlier in America, hoped that the new pope will embrace St. Francis' unwillingness "to compromise with the world and its powers." He claims that the saint by rejecting medieval Assisi's "emerging market economy and activity of the rising merchant class," in which his own family was successfully central, foresaw today's global economy and the monetization of goods, labor, and even people.

There were obvious signs of excitement at the new pope's election and his choice of papal name at the Basilica of San Francesco. A sign just inside the church's upper level read in Italian, "Assisi shows gratitude and affection for Pope Francis," and as I walked around the church, I noticed two different issues of Review San Francesco on display-- one with Cimabue's famous medieval portrait of the saint, which can be seen in person on the lower level, and one featuring the new pope.Its first page featured two images-- Giotto's apotheosis of "Francesco santo" and, beneath it, a photo of "Francesco papa" greeting the faithful.

Our group eventually visited St. Francis' tomb in the church's crypt. When the new pope was announced, many believers viewed this space via webcam and said prayers for the pontiff. Of course we also enjoyed seeing the stunning frescoes by Cimabue, Giotto, and less known masterworks by two Sienese painters, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. In Giotto's first fresco, you can recognize the six Corinthian columns of the Roman Temple of Minerva, still visible just up the road in Assisi's main piazza.

Looking carefully at Giotto's cycle, I soon realized that I had had a week full of popes. There were a number of them in these frescoes. Innocent III dreams of Francis lifting on his shoulder the Lateran, one of Rome's great churches and papal residences. The image signifies that the saint would rebuild not just a little church outside of Assisi, but the entire Church. In another, he preaches before Honorius III, whom Giotto renders with the pope lifting a thoughtful finger to his chin. It was Honorius who accepted the new Franciscan order's "Rule and Life of the Lesser Brother." Late in the cycle, some of the final frescoes focus on Gregory IX's canonization of Francis.

It was popes, popes, popes, everywhere I looked and in everything I read, a newly retired pontiff here, a newly elected pontiff there, good and bad popes from church history here and there. Teaching a month-long Dante course with Gordon College's overseas program in Orvieto was the occasion of this particular Italy visit, so we in the class had been recently encountering several popes in The Divine Comedy. There are good ones like the pope in Purgatorio, who balks when Dante kneels before him, and who eventually begs off from their conversation in order to continue his penance. There are also bad popes like Nicholas III, who in Inferno is stuffed in a stone "purse" as punishment for his financial abuse of his office. He mistakes Dante's arrival for that of Boniface VIII. That's right -- Dante has one damned pope make it clear that another is fully expected to arrive in hell soon enough. Dante despised Boniface, and this is one of the nastiest digs at a pope in his poem, or at least till we read St. Peter's grand denunciation of the corrupt church late in Paradiso.

On the very day of our Assisi trip, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was all over the Italian papers because on the day before he had returned to the Vatican for the first time since his retirement. Pope Francis welcomed him at his new home, a monastery within the Vatican. And it was during the same week that Umbria's bishops had issued an invitation to pope Francis to visit Assisi today. La Stampa interviewed the head of the Sacred Convent of Assisi about this news, and the friar, Mauro Gambetti, remarked that the main similarity he sees between medieval saint and present pope is a sense of freedom, "through his gestures, attitude and way of being."

Apparently the pope will have no need to visit the papal apartment awaiting him at the convent. Gregory IX established it, and Sixtus IV, a Franciscan pope from the fifteenth century, moved the apartment to the convent's southeast side, where it remains today.

Soon it was time to leave Assisi. The three of us driving the vans exited San Francesco a half hour ahead of the group and walked briskly across town. We were going to surprise the college students by picking them up just outside of the great basilica, rather than making them walk all the way back through the town center and past Santa Chiara. Tired and a little sun-beaten by this point in the late afternoon, they were grateful to find the vans so nearby. As we loaded up, a silver, zippy convertible pulled up beside us. It had a large trash-can-sized object rising behind and above the driver and passenger, where the back seat should have been. It turned out to be a promotional vehicle for the Red Bull energy drink. The object was a four-feet-tall fiberglass simulacrum of the can.

Before we knew what was happening, two savvy Italian women were approaching the windows of our vans with great corporate friendliness -- "Red Bull? Red Bull? Do you want Red Bull?" Several of the students were avid partakers. This lovely pair of guerilla marketers had simply double parked their vehicle in a very busy lane. I watched, bemused, to see how bad the traffic back-up would become. The Red Bull Ladies, though, seemed hardly concerned. They even took a few minutes to board a coach bus the moment before it left Assisi. Perhaps they would reach their Red Bull giveaway-can quota on that vehicle alone. And then, just as quickly, they were gone, and we began to descend the mountain on our return trip to Orvieto.

These departing gifts of energy drink were not exactly gifts of the spirit, but they added a strange, welcomed note of serendipity to the day's visit. Perhaps, the director and I hoped, the students would be fueled not only by Red Bull, but, following this visit to Assisi, by other, better, more lasting things besides.