Bishop JOHN JUKES, himself a Franciscan, sees Assisi and its saint as a beacon for the world
IN 1948 I PAID my first visit to Assisi. I had been sent by the English Province of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual to study in Rome. I arrived in Rome in the September. Italy was still horribly marked with the signs of war: bullet-marked
buildings, temporary bridges over rivers, people still travelling on the railways in goods wagons. Rome was hot, noisy and sticky.
I spoke no Italian and there were no English speakers at that time in the college. Mercifully, the Superior said: "Go to Assisi for three weeks while we sort out your studies here." This message was relayed to me in Latin so all I understood was "go to Assisi". An Italian friar went with us and so we came to the basilica of St Francis in Assisi and I was at once at home.
We stayed in the friary attached to the Basilica. it is called the Sacro Convento: the Holy Convent. Not a place for nuns, in this case, but a place for the community of the followers of St Francis. Here they gethered after his death in 1226 to join in the building of the churches which eventually rose over his tomb in the rocky ground. I was at once at peace.
The great views over the valley of Umbria and the song of the birds at eventide told me that here St Francis
had been born, brought up, received his call to follow Jesus in poverty and humility.
It was profoundly peaceful. I was at peace internally after the strangeness and bustle of Rome.
St Francis left the security of his home and his father's business to follow Christ in poverty and powerlessness. In fact such was the force of the example of the poor man of Assisi that he was often a major factor in helping people and whole cities to reconciliation and peace.
From Francis's initiative in approaching the Sultan in Egypt came the long association of the Franciscans with the Holy Land. From this came the possibility of Christians visiting and worshipping in the holy places where Christ had lived.
This access to the Holy Land achieved by Francis is yet another sign of the peace which he was able to bring to people torn apart by war and ideology.
Assisi, city of Francis, has in modern times become a symbol of peace and reconciliation. When Pope John Paul II was asked to initiate a World Day of Prayer for Peace, he chose Assisi as the most suitable place for leaders of the many religions across the world to gather. There was a gathering of religious leaders in Assisi on 27 October 1986. The pictures of this extraordinary event show, as it were, the love and peace of St Francis made evident for the whole world.
The gathering started at the Porziuncula (the little portion), the little church so beloved of st Francis, in the plain below the town of Assisi. The religious leaders then moved up into the town and so to the Basilica of St Francis for common prayer for peace.
IT IS HARD to understand the extent of the horror felt by the people of Assisi and the friars at the Basilica of St Francis after the first earthquake shock hit the town. They had all become accustomed to Assisi being not only a place, by human choice, of peace but also a city which was actually tranquil and apparently undisturbed by the passage of the centuries. It is true that central Italy does experience earthquakes but Assisi seemed immune and cloaked by the peace of St Francis.
The first shock did damage to the Basilica of St Francis, especially in the upper basilica. It was while inspecting the damage in that great Gothic church that the second shock brought down many tons of rubble from the lofty and magnificently decorated ceiling. Under the rubble two members of the community of St Francis lay dead. They had found peace but in a way which brought home to all the uncertainty and possibility of violence in our life on earth.
As the people of Assisi and the Friars of the Sacro Convento come to terms with the earthquake, they will reflect that life on earth is lived under the power of the Almighty. In the face of such power we are given a great impetus to examine our own contribution to the promotion of peace in this life. The motives which lead to war, that is the desire to acquire power over others, the search for more and more material goods and so on, are shown in their foolishness before the power of God.
It is Francis, in his search to divest himself of everything so as to be aligned more closely with Jesus, who shows how we should regard our lives on earth. It is in this way that we must follow the search for peace.
Assisi will repair its wounds. The two basilicas of St Francis, which rise, one on top of the other over that quiet place in the heart of the rock where Francis waits for his resurrection, will be restored.
Yet in all this activity what will remain is the peace which is St Francis's gift to his city and to the world.