by Katie Rich
When Thursday night comes to John Cabot University in Rome each week, it brings with it an excitement similar to one which children experience just before Christmas. Students bustle through the darkening streets of Trastevere, running into friends with arms full of duffel bags and train tickets, shouting a hasty exchange of weekend destinations. Everyone is going somewhere, and even those who stay in Rome are still in Rome. The city is caked in so many layers of history that students studying abroad can only hope to have tackled part of it by the time they are forced to leave at the end of the semester.
I have been blessed to have travelled nearly all of my weekends in Rome, with day trips to nearby smaller towns and full weekend trips to further places with more sights to see. Four weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Assisi with three great friends, and had possibly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. This past weekend, my parents kicked the American dust from their shoes and flew over to meet me, and we returned to the town that has quickly become one of my favorite places on earth.
Assisi is famous first and foremost for its beloved son, St. Francis. Unlike perhaps any other place in the world, the entire town is centered on the life and death of this great man, along with that of his good friend and follower, St. Clare. Ancient Roman city walls encircle winding medieval streets that meander their way up the side of a mountain. Tourists are kept busy running from beautiful church to beautiful church, as each has its own history and offers its own addition to the lives of these two saints.
What makes this city so powerful, however, is not the architecture or the beautiful Umbrian countryside it is nestled in, but instead the man behind it all. The very air seems perfumed with the Franciscan motto of “peace and goodness”, and pilgrims from around the world can’t help but breathe it in as they walk the streets and venerate the shrines. Pope Francis, too, was one of these pilgrims, as he visited Assisi for the first time on October 4, in honor of his namesake’s feast day. The town was drenched in banners and flags in anticipation of grandly welcoming the pope and hearing what he had to say about the man who renounced his family’s wealth and the comforts of the world to live a life in devotion to the poor and in imitation of Christ.
Pope Francis made several speeches throughout the day, oftentimes setting aside his prepared text and speaking from the heart. In his homily, the pope said St. Francis teaches us “that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.” It is through our relationship with Christ, our acceptance of His perfect love for us and our perpetually inadequate love for Him, that we experience the peace and goodness that Francis preached and that reigns free in the streets of Assisi. Earlier in the day, as he stood in the room where St. Francis famously stripped off his clothes in front of his father and the bishop in a dramatic showing of his renunciation of wealth, Pope Francis encouraged all Christians to reject worldliness, to “pray for the grace that the Lord will give all of us the courage to strip off the spirit of the world, the cancer of society.”
It is by no means easy to heed the pope’s words, to confront the materialistic nature that lurks in each of our hearts. However, Pope Francis makes a grand point when he asked rhetorically, “What does Saint Francis’s witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words – that is easy enough – but by his life?” We can apply the same logic to ourselves. It is easy enough to say that we embrace Christ and follow Him. But what do our actions say? Certainly the pope is not asking each of us to strip naked in the quad and renounce our family’s wealth. But, we must ask ourselves if we are strong enough to resist the temptations of our materialistic world and embrace life with Franciscan hearts. For that, the pope tells us, is how we can achieve a life of “peace and goodness.”