Weekend in Assisi

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My last weekend in Italy before returning home (15-17 February), a group of us went to Assisi. I had been to Assisi last summer, but only for a few hours with a tour group. The prospect of actually spending two nights there was truly a blessing. I wanted to see the place after the tourists went home, and experience the beauty and wonder in the air. Indeed, opening my window at the Casa “Papa Giovanni” where we stayed, I had a great view of the valley, with the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli rising from the fog.

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Walking down the Via San Paolo from the Casa Papa Giovanni toward the Piazza del Comune. From left: Fr. Frank Latzsko (Chicago), Msgr. Ray Dreiling (Fresno), Fr. Mike McDonald (Grand Island), Fr. Bill Sokolowski (Hartford). Great group of guys!

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A view of the Piazza del Comune. The dome to the left is the Cattedrale di San Rufino. More pics of that church later.

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Off to the side of the piazza is the ancient Roman temple of Minerva. Repurposed, it is now the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

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The entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco. No pics allowed inside. Sorry.

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The Basilica di San Francesco as seen from the lower courtyard. The big archway in the center opens into the lower church, one level above the crypt where St. Francis is buried.

As we were leaving the Basilica di San Francesco, we arranged to celebrate mass at the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria in the lower basilica the following day, Saturday, for the vigil of the First Sunday of Lent. Earlier, we came upon a group celebrating mass at the same chapel — in Japanese. We had hoped to celebrate mass in the crypt below, but the Franciscan Conventuals were in town for their General Chapter, which was concluding that weekend. So their schedule determined which chapels where available and when. That settled, we spread out in various directions. Fr. Bill Sokolowski and I stumbled upon the little chapel of Santo Stefano. “This beautiful 12th century Romanesque church is surrounded by fig, walnut and cypress trees which were considered to be outside the town walls in olden days. According to legend, the bells of this church started ringing miraculously the day St. Francis died, on 3rd October 1226.” (www.venere.com)

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Some from a second group that was staying at the guest house wanted to visit the basilica in the valley, so I joined them at the church that St. Francis rebuilt. Actually, the church that St. Francis rebuilt is the Porziuncola, a chapel obtained from the Benedictines and restored by Francis himself. He had that dream/vision where God told him to “repair my house which is falling into ruin.” He mistook the command to mean this particular dilapidated structure. Only later did he realize it meant “the Church,” the corporate body of the baptized. Close to the chapel is the Cappella del Transito, a humble cell where Francis died. The Porziuncola and the Chapel of the Transitus are such sacred sites to many pilgrims that Pope Pius V in 1569 ordered a basilica to be built around them. Again I saw signs that said no pictures, no cell phones, no pets, etc. I soon decided to interpret it to mean no flash. So I took pictures … with you all in mind, of course.

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Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli as we entered the piazza.

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The Porzioncola stands beneath the Basilica’s dome. An earthquake in 1832 brought down the roof over the center aisle, sparing the dome, the Porzioncola under it, and the side aisles. It was rebuilt and finished in 1840.

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This picture gives a better view. Notice the size of the Porziuncola relative to the Basilica built around it.

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A few steps away from the Porziuncola is the Cappella del Transito, the cell where St. Francis died. This is a fresco depicting his death on the wall to the left of the chapel.

The following morning, Msgr. Ray Dreiling and I decided to explore the city. We first made our way back to the Piazza del Comune and the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. I loved a painting inside the church that depicted the death of St. Joseph, with Jesus and Mary by his deathbed, who were such a comfort to him.

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Then we walked down a side street that took us to the Chiesa Nuova, built on the site of St. Francis’ childhood home. In the courtyard outside the church was a sculpture of St. Francis’ parents Pica & Pietro di Bernardone. His mother holds a long chain in her hands, symbolic of her son’s imprisonment in her own home when the young Francis was disciplined by his father for what he considered erratic behavior. You should read up on Francis’ story or watch the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” Very moving.

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The Chiesa Nuova, which at the time it was built in 1615, was the newest church in Assisi. That’s the danger of naming anything “new” officially. It stops being new after a while, but by then the name’s stuck.

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Pica & Pietro di Bernardone.

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The closet that became Francis’ prison in his father’s house.

A short walk down the Via Santa Chiara, we came upon the Basilica di Santa Chiara, where the uncorrupted body of St. Clare lies in the crypt, as well as some of her clothing, a glass box of her hair, Francis’ religious habit, some of his vestments, and the cross of San Damiano, before which Francis had that dream/vision to repair the church.

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Down the slope of the hill by the Basilica di Santa Chiara was the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore, what used to be the bishop’s cathedral church before 1036. The bishop’s cathedral is now at San Rufino, our next stop.

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The Basilica di San Rufino comes into view as we climb up the Via San Rufino.

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Main Altar at San Rufino.

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Like furniture in most churches I’ve seen, these are the chairs for the assembly at San Rufino. At St. Peter’s in Rome, they don’t have pews. They put out plastic chairs when the pope celebrates mass. No wonder they have more saints in all of Italy per square feet.

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If I have to walk these streets everyday, I’m sure the pasta won’t be causing any problems.

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Back to the Piazza del Comune. The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is on the right, through the columns. The tower on the left belongs to the Carabinieri, the police station next door. We took a break after that tour, and headed down to the Basilica di San Francesco for mass at 4pm. Then back to the guest house for a wonderful dinner.

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At the doors of the guest house. We had lots of laughs at the dinner table quoting some of our favorite flicks. Young Frankenstein was definitely a favorite.

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Sunday morning, with Msgr. Dreiling exploring other routes to the Basilica di San Francesco, and the shops along the way.

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You guessed right! We went another route.

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There were lots of these little shrines everywhere. Faith is such a part of the fabric of the people’s lives.

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The sculpture of the defeated and dejected Francis returning home to Assisi from 2 years of imprisonment in Perugia.

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Sunday morning before the crowds arrive.

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Changing trains on the way back to Rome … and me back home to Waynesboro the next day.

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013