The Assisi tour had not originally been on our itinerary. Our pilgrimage leader had squeezed it in at the last minute. We arrived in Assisi mid-morning, and due to our guide’s too-tight scheduling, we had only a few hours before we would need to leave again. Our hotel, the Michelangelo, back in Rome about two hours drive away, was preparing a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and we needed to be there in time to eat it and then walk the few blocks to St. Peter’s for the evening’s main event and the focal point for my long-planned trip to Italy — the opening of the Holy Door and Midnight Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II to inaugurate the Holy Year, the Jubilee 2000.
I’d booked two tours back to back. The first was advertised to be a Catholic pilgrimage to Rome for the launching of the Holy Year at St. Peter’s. The Catholic group was returning to the states on Christmas Day. Three days later, after a planned side trip to Ravenna to see the mosaics, my son and I would join up with another tour group and go to Venice, Florence, Padua and Milan.
Even though my stay in Assisi was brief and botched and harried, I still remember it as a high point of my life. Especially because, even after such a short visit, I feel that made the acquaintance of Francis, the patron saint of Assisi from the 13th century. So much so that every once in a while, I still think his name as I would that of a beloved friend: “Francis,” “dear Francis.”
Our first stop was just outside of Assisi, at the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where we got out of our motor coach to visit the basilica of the same name. The area is called the Porziuncola, or little portion. St. Francis and his monks used to worship in a tiny chapel called Saint Mary of the Angels (which is what Santa Maria degli Angeli means in English). And St. Francis and his friends had lived close by in primitive little huts.
We stood together outside in the cold for a few minutes while our leader made arrangements about something or other with someone inside the basilica. A few of the group drifted off to get something hot to drink.
Around the little traffic circle where we waited there were some interesting sights to see. A 60ish Italian woman on a bicycle wearing a kerchief, a trench coat, and sensible shoes waited for the light to change. A manager scene was set up in the middle of the traffic island.
Since it was the day before Christmas, and since it was St. Francis who first conceived the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus by reproducing the manger, naturally we saw several mangers in the area that day.
In an earthquake in Assisi in 1997, interior walls in the basilica where we were waiting to get in and in the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St. Francis) crumbled. By the time of our trip, restoration had been almost completed on both basilicas.
But the reconstruction was not quite done. In the area in front of St. Mary of the Angels, fences of orange netting surrounded piles of pieces that had not yet been restored to the fallen walls. And, as I found out later, even though there was no evidence visible to the tourist, thousands of people left homeless by the earthquake would be just getting by in temporary housing for many years to come.
We couldn’t take photos inside the basilicas, but I can tell you that once we got inside St. Mary of the Angels, we found a surprise. Dwarfed in the middle of the floor of the huge basilica stands the tiny little chapel (now richly decorated) where St. Francis worshipped with his monks. A few yards away is the even smaller Chapel of the Transition, built later around the hut where St. Francis died. When he knew he was about to die, he stripped himself naked and laid on the bare ground covered with a borrowed cloth, wanting to keep faith with his beloved Lady Poverty until the end.
What would St. Francis think of all the splendors of marble and art erected in honor of his memory? I wondered. I know I am not at all original in noticing these contrasts, but they stayed on my mind as we got back into the tour bus and rode up the long hill to Assisi.
It is an understatement to say that in the middle ages cities prized their saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia (in the online 1907 edition) records that during Francis’ last days, the city fathers of Assisi dispatched strong guards with him wherever he went, to prevent his body being stolen by Perugia, a rival city, “which would thus enter into possession of his coveted bones.” Francis told his followers that he wanted to be buried in the Colle d’Inferno, a hill outside the city where criminals were executed. Did they listen? The answer came with the sight of the double basilica as it came into view at a turn in the road. Obviously not.
In 1236, ten years after Francis’s death, one basilica was built and then later another basilica was built on top of it, and together they make up the impressive building we saw that day. The double basilica was built to accommodate the huge throngs that came to honor Francis, whose bones are now in a crypt beneath the lower basilica.
We rushed up from the parking lot into the lower basilica. Before we went to the upper basilica, some of us did a detour when we saw a sign leading to the crypt.
St. Francis’s bones are in a simple wooden coffin above an altar on which many long white tapers are burning. I dropped a donation into a slot, and then I stood in line with others to lay candles for each of my relatives and some friends in a basket at the altar. A monk at the desk to the left rises every so often looking bored, and he blows out the current set of candles, replacing them with others from the basket.
It was a relief to pause and kneel there peacefully for a while close to the physical remains of the holy man of Assisi and to pray. That’s when I was surprised to feel I was present with him; in some indescribable gentle way, he became my fast friend at that instant. From what happened in my heart there that day and the similar feeling of meeting that occurred when I got close to the bones of St. Peter on another day on the same tour, I came to understand more deeply why the Catholic Church has so much veneration for relics of dead saints. Twice in my experience, being close to the physical remains of the saint brought me close in spirit to the saint himself.
At the museum at the crypt next door to the chapel is another striking relic, one of the actual patched robes that St. Francis wore. Two donation boxes stand at the door of the museum, one for the restoration of the art works, one for the housing of those left homeless by the quake. I left more money in the second one.
Our group regathered in a nearby cafe for a quick snack and a brief introduction to our local guide. Everyone was surprised when I ordered gelato, but that was my first and it turned out to be my only chance to try the authentic Italian iced treat. Public opinion was right this time, the cold pistachio gelato did not sit well with the cold of Christmas Eve.
Once we left the basilica, we saw hardly any other tourists. We trooped behind the local guide through picturesque cobbled narrow streets to the main square, where we peeked into the Temple of Minerva from the time of Augustus, now covered with a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). We walked past a prespe, a life sized manger scene in the town square.
As we walked around, local passers-by and our guide greeted each other with the Italian Christmas greeting, “Buon Natale. Buone Feste. Tanti Auguri.” which, loosely translated means, “Happy Christmas, Good Feasts, Good Wishes for the New Year.”
After we parted with our local guide, our pilgrimage leader told us we could go shopping and to meet her back at the bus in an hour.
My son found a little shop that sold address books and sketchbooks made from hand-made paper and called me in because he knew I’d like it. After a while he went out to look at something else. When he came in again to find me (he told me this later), I must have been in the back of the shop, and he didn’t see me, so he left again, and then we lost track of each other.
After I emerged with some gifts, I strolled with my camera in hand, stopped at a few more shops, where I was always the only customer, always heading back down the hill towards where the bus was parked. At the chamber of commerce I met a nun whose order runs a guesthouse, whose business was only just then picking up again after the quake. We both got a free poster there, my favorite souvenir. The poster shows the basilica and the ancient forts above the city against a blue and starry sky. Natale in Assisi, 1999, it says: Christmas in Assisi, 1999.
My progress was slow, because my feet hurt, because my path was down very steep streets, and because there was always another photo to take.
I wasn’t sure of the time because I didn’t have a watch, but I thought I was doing all right. I also thought I’d run into my son any time soon.
When I did catch up with my son again, I was standing at a fork in the road at the bottom of one steep street. I was wavering about which of two possible even steeper streets in front of me would be the right way down to the parking lot.
My son was frantic. It was 10 minutes past the hour. At 5 minutes past, the pilgrimage leader had announced to everyone in the bus that she would give me 5 more minutes and then leave without me.
It goes without saying that the ride back to Rome was tense. The leader was pouting because she had had her heart set on squeezing in one more stop, at a chocolate factory, and my tardiness had foiled her plans. Everyone was mad at me. I guess they wanted to stop at the chocolate factory too. I was sorry that my dawdling had made my son upset, but I was angry too, at the tour leader and at the mad rush she was putting us through that day.
Just for the drama of it, I sometimes try to imagine what it would have been like to have been stranded as a stranger in Assisi on a cold Christmas eve with very little Italian and no way to get back to Rome.
But of course, that didn’t happen.
The sunset over the Umbrian hills was gorgeous.
Back at Rome, we rushed some more. We rushed to dress before dinner, rushed through the dinner, greatly offending the waiters who watched us with disdain while we gulped the food the chef had specially prepared for Christmas Eve, and rushed out the door. Then we rushed to St. Peter’s Square. And then we waited.
Our leader had assured us we had tickets to be inside the basilica for the Mass, but the day before the organizers had told her that the seating was first come first served. After more than an hour in line with thousands of others, we finally got directed into seats outside, after all. At least there was no more rushing. We stayed right there in the same seats in the chill night air until the mass was over at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning.
We could see the ceremonies that were going on inside on giant TV screens near the Holy Door. We actually saw much more than we could have seen if we had been inside. At one point, the Pope walked past the open door, and then stopped and waved to us all outside. The 40 degree temperatures and discomforts didn’t matter. We all cheered.
I didn’t even mind very much that I came down the flu and spent several days during the next week in bed in my hotel room. I could hear the bells of St. Peter’s a few blocks away as I drifted in and out of sleep.