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I was privileged to spend yesterday, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in Assisi with Pope Francis. With him came the Council of Cardinals, or group of eight, which held their first meeting this week. It was an overcast, pleasant day, the predicted thunderstorms holding off until last night.
The last papal event I attended in Assisi was the 25th anniversary of the first interreligious day of prayer for peace with Pope Benedict XVI, which was dubbed ”Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” Two cornerstone pieces of the original event were missing however – prayer, and the Sant’Egidio community who organize the annual prayers for peace in the spirit of Assisi. Subsequently, perhaps, attendance was surprisingly low.
Yesterday was a different story. The Eucharistic celebration in the lower piazza of San Francesco was witnessed not only by a full piazza there, but also in the upper piazza, all the side streets, and in the other major piazzas of Assisi (Santa Chiara, San Rufino, Piazza del Commune) where jumbotron screens were set up. It was an almost all-Italian gathering, and there is no question of the broad appeal of this reforming pontiff.
It came at the end of an amazing week in terms of Church news – especially with regard to Church reform. I commented already on some of them, but there has been so much, it has been hard to keep up. Thankfully, there are professionals to do that for us: John Allen summarizes this week in Vatican and Church news, in what he contends to be the biggest week outside of a conclave in his nearly 20 years of Vatican reporting.
The biggest news is probably the meeting this week of the Council of Cardinals, dubbed in some circles the G-8. They have discussed the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the reform of the Synod of Bishops into a more permanent exercise of synodality and collegiality, the reform of the Roman curia to such an extent as to require a new constitution emphasizing decentralization and service to the local churches, changes to the Secretariat of State that might remove it from its current role as über-dicastery, and serious questions on the role of the laity in the church, including the role of the laity inside the curia itself. Their second meeting is set for just two months from now. They seem to really be addressing the half-finished business of Vatican II, or at least getting started on it.
When my students asked me last week why no pope or bishop has ever talked about the Church in the way that Francis has, and why there’s never been so much energy in the church, I was reminded of my own experience as a university sophomore, in my own 200-level theology class (on Vatican II) asking a similar question, “why are we still waiting for the changes promised by the Council? How can 35 years have passed and we are still waiting [on things like decentralization, synodality and collegiality, the role of the laity, the full restoration of the diaconate, overcoming clericalism, etc]?” – I had no idea 15 years later I would be the one trying to answer these questions, and under what different circumstances!
Two highlights of John Allen’s highlights, aside from the meeting of the Council of Cardinals, worth particular notice:
Allen reports that
“Von Freyberg told me recently it’s his ambition to put gossipy newspaper reports out of business by making it so easy to get information directly from him that journalists don’t have to rely on whispers in Roman bars.”
If that is not argument enough for getting more lay people in positions of responsibility of the Roman Curia, i do not know what is. When was the last time you heard any cleric tackle communication and transparency issues so directly? Well, before this one…
The second point is less about this week in particular, but about Allen’s comments about his own book on religious persecution around the world, after talking about the killing of about 500 Christians in India during 2008 riots:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s what a real “war on religion” looks like. One aim of the book is to reframe the conversation over religious freedom among Western Christians so we don’t allow our metaphorical battles at home to obscure the literal, and often lethal, war on Christians being waged in other parts of the world.
In the view from Rome, there was a bit of discomfiture last year with the whole tone and tenor of the ‘fortnight for freedom’ in the U.S., because it seemed to ignore the real problems of religious freedom. Officially, of course, the Vatican backs its bishops, but, unofficially (and remember this was still under Pope Benedict) there seemed to be a current of thought around the Vatican and in Rome that there was a little too much partisan politicking, and not enough focus on the fact that there are more Christian martyrs around the world today than at any point in history. It is hard to be quite so concerned about contraceptive funding when there are Christians dying at the hands of radical elements in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and secular Atheism – especially when it is part of a universal health care plan that the Church supports in principle, if not in every detail.
This is, of course, not to say to ignore the small problems before they become big ones, but to keep everything in perspective. That is something we Americans have a hard enough time doing when it comes to global events, but for which membership in a Church so universally oriented that it is called Catholic ought to be a corrective.
For the full run-down of the week, read Allen’s article here.
In brief, what happened this week:
- Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II set for April 27
- Discussion of regional tribunals to adjudicate clerical sex abuse cases
- G-8 formal established as a permanent Council of Cardinals
- A “stunning Q&A with the pope” published in La Repubblica
- The Vatican Bank (IOR) released its first-ever annual report and its lay president demonstrates the kind of transparency attitude needed all over the Church
- The Vatican Bank announced the closure of 900 accounts for dubious activity
- The Council of Cardinals began its first meeting, as mentioned above
- Feast of Francis of Assisi . Francis took aim at the ‘right’ by calling on the Church to “strip itself of the cancer of worldliness”, and took aim at the ‘left’ by asserting that the peace of Francis is not a ‘kind of pantheistic harmony with the forces of the cosmos’, but a Christ-centered peace.
The last time I was in Europe, I had only made a day trip to Assisi. This time, we spent three full days in this quiet Umbrian hill town made famous for its twin medieval saints, San Francesco (Francis) and Santa Chiara (Clare). It was probably my favorite part of our holiday, and I cannot thank Nancy enough for arranging for us to stay there as long as we did – and in such comfort as we did.
Through her timeshare, we landed a last-minute deal at some vacation condos 5km from the old city. (I wanted to stay in a cave to get the full Franciscan experience, but she convinced be that the on-site sauna would serve just as well: both are dark and damp, and not very spacious. Not sure Francis would be sold on the idea though…)
The first day was a beautiful, cold, crisp, clear day, sunny and freezing. I cannot tell you how nice it is to have the lucury in this town not to feel as though one has to see everything in a day. You can – it is not very big – but you get so much more out of the experience with a leisurely pace. We decided to roughly follow the Rick Steves’ Assisi stroll, and started at the higher end of town with the old Roman Amphitheatre, now converted for use as a restaurant with a garden.
Because of the fame of Francis and Clare, I always think o Assisi as the quintessential medieval town that it became by the 13th century, but forget that long before that it was also a Roman town, built in 295 BC. Before the Romans, it was Etruscan. Before that, there were Umbrians in the area, perhaps as early as 1000 years before Christ.
By the end of the third century AD, the town and environs had been largely converted to Christianity by Bishop Rufino, a martyr and the patron saint of Assisi, for whom the cathedral is named. We arrived there just in time to join the Sunday Eucharist, which happened to have an American Franciscan presiding (in Italian). The small baptismal font is near a plaque noting some of the notables who had been baptized there, including Sts. Francis and Clare, Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (the young Passionist saint whose sanctuary we visited in novemeber) and Frederick II.
After mass we took a tour of the Cathedral crypt, one of Francis’ frequent places of prayer, mostly dating from the 9th century and later, but including the third century ossuary thought to have held the remains of Bishop St. Rufino, the martyr Apostle of Assisi.
Down the hill from the Cathedral is the Basilica Santa Chiara and a beautiful view of the valley below, including the “new” part of Assisi, also known for its major church, Santa Maria dei Angeli. In addition to the resting place of the little rich girl who “fell in love” with the older Francis and his order, a side chapel holds the cucifix that was in the Church of San Damiano, where Francis had his conversion experience.
Just off the piazza Santa Chiara was the site of the best meal we had all week, a small trattoria 50 meters off the main street boasting traditional Umbrian cuisine. Plenty of time in the shops nearby, and we did not make it much further than the central Piazza Communale, on which you can find an original Roman temple rededicated as a Christian church.