Image: Chiesa Nuova, Assisi | Riccardo Cuppini.
This small church in the form of a Greek cross (nave and transept are of equal length) was completed in 1619, financed by King Philip III of Spain. Standing very close to the Piazza Comune, the center of the medieval city, is the church where Pietro Bernardone’s cloth shop once stood. The family lived on the upper floors.
For a short time in 1206, Pietro imprisoned Francis there, but Lady Pica freed him while Pietro was away on business. The small piazza in front of the church includes a beautiful statue of Francis’ parents. A painting in the sanctuary recalls Francis’ dream of glory as a knight, a yearning that developed into a very different way of serving God.
Image: San Damiano | Ron Riegler.
In the fall of 1205, Francis was praying before a crucifix in this dilapidated chapel outside Assisi. Originally named for Sts. Cosmas and Damian, the chapel desperately needed repair. When the Lord told Francis, “Repair my church,” Francis set to work immediately—and later rebuilt two other roadside chapels.
Here, Saint Clare began her new form of monastic life late in 1212 and lived for 41 years. She once held up the Eucharist before soldiers who had been pillaging the countryside; they spared San Damiano. A few days before she died, Clare finally won papal approval for the monastery’s “privilege of poverty”—its right to live on donations and the work of the nuns’ hands rather than on income from dowries and rental properties.
During his convalescence there in 1225, Saint Francis composed the first nine verses of the “Canticle of the Creatures.” His funeral cortege stopped at San Damiano to allow the nuns to venerate his body before his burial in Assisi. Assisi’s OFM province has its novitiate there. The chapel and other areas are open to the public.
Image: Eremo delle Carceri | Gianluigi Bettin.
Leaving Assisi and climbing for about an hour up Mount Subasio, pilgrims arrive at a series of caves that Saint Francis and his earliest companions used for prayer. Simple roads and taxis make this spot available to everyone who cannot or prefers not to walk there.
The comune of Assisi, which owned this land and its small chapel, gave their use to the friars in the 13th century. A small hermitage was added two centuries later. Saint Bernardine of Siena once lived there. Pope Francis visited this shrine during his one-day visit to Assisi on October 4, 2013.
The Carceri is one of the Italian places where, in a typical year, Saint Francis spent approximately half of his time in prayer and penance. Francis would eventually write a special Rule for friars living in hermitages such as the ones near Cortona, Borgo San Sepolcro, Poggio Bustone, Greccio, Fonte Colombo, Speco di Narni, Cetona, and La Verna.
Solitude, prayer, and penance in the Carceri’s caves prepared Francis and his companions for a very active life of preaching.
Image: Ceiling of Saint John Lateran | Lawrence OP.
Saint John Lateran
In the spring of 1206, Francis of Assisi made his first pilgrimage to Rome. Popes then lived at the Lateran Palace next to this fourth-century basilica, later rebuilt and enlarged several times. Popes started living at Saint Peter’s only in the 15th century. As the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, Saint John Lateran is considered the “head and mother” of Catholic churches throughout the world. Its dedication is celebrated on November 9.
Francis did not meet Pope Innocent III during his 1206 visit, but three years later he returned with 11 friars to seek papal approval for a new way of gospel living. Pope Innocent reportedly had a dream in which his cathedral was in danger of collapsing, but a scruffy man (later identified as Francis) emerged to prop it up.
One of Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis portrays that dream. In 1926, Mussolini had a series of statues erected at the edge of the cathedral’s piazza. Viewed from the proper angle, Saint Francis is still holding up the building. Friars Minor have served as multilingual confessors there since 1569.
Image: Basilica of Saint Francis | Slices of Light.
Basilica of Saint Francis
On the Franciscan calendar, the dedication of the Basilica of Saint Francis is celebrated on May 24. This church was begun at the direction of Pope Gregory IX, a longtime friend of Francis; Gregory laid this basilica’s cornerstone the day after he canonized Francis in 1228. What was once known as “the Hill of Hell” (where criminals were executed) soon became known as “the Hill of Paradise.”
Francis had been originally buried in Assisi’s Saint George Church; he was reburied here on May 25, 1230. The basilica (a Gothic church atop a Romanesque church over a crypt) was solemnly consecrated in 1253. Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, and other prominent artists decorated its walls and ceilings.
Saint John Paul II’s historic 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace concluded in the piazza outside the lower basilica. So did his follow-up January 2002 gathering and Pope Benedict XVI’s 25th-anniversary event. Pope Francis celebrated Mass in that piazza seven months into his pontificate.
Image: Santa Maria Maddalena | Glenn Myers.
Santa Maria Maddalena
No one was more marginalized in medieval society than women and men who suffered from leprosy. They had to live outside cities and use a wooden clapper to indicate their presence among healthier people. What Dante inscribed over the gates of hell (“Abandon hope, all you who enter here”) was actually found on the gates to several medieval leper colonies.
In Francis’ day, Assisi had six such colonies. On the plain below the medieval city, the chapels of Santa Maria Maddalena and San Rufino D’Arce are all that remain of those places. Francis and his brothers cared for lepers—as did Clare and her sisters at San Damiano between 1212 and 1215.
“When I was in sin,” wrote Francis in his Testament, “it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy [Sir 35:4] among them. And when I left them, what seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul.” La Maddalena serves nearby residents; San Rufino D’Arce is the chapel for a community of Franciscan sisters.