5/25/10

Italy: Day 9, Basilica and Sunset

I originally wrote a blog post about our morning discussion and article assignment, but I’ll have to hold out on posting that, as our professor is trying to keep it secret until the story is completed for our class site: www.ijsa.wordpress.com. Right now, I can include my local article (already posted), which is an account of the Peace Conference of 1986 held here in Assisi.



THIS TIME, IT’S NOT SAINT FRANCIS CALLING FOR PEACE


As I look out over the sloping hillside to see fog rise from the valley over the walls of an already-waking town, I can think of no better representation of peace than the harmony of nature and civilization that is Assisi, Italy.


Perhaps this is a vision that Pope John Paul II shared as he chose the location of his interfaith peace conference almost twenty-five years ago. On October 27, 1986, a day not unlike today with threatening skies and non-committal droplets of rain, thousands gathered in courtyards, basilicas, on walls and along pathways to pray for peace. Assisi seemed, on that day, a place far less tranquil than the idea the event was promoting.


That morning, a humble Assisi became perhaps the largest house of prayer the world had ever seen. The muted cobble landscape quickly erupted in flames of color from the garb of varying religions. The streets were overcome with thirty-two denominations of Christianity, including representatives from the World Council of Churches, The Lutheran World Federation, and the Anglican Communion. Amongst them were Zoroastrians, Japanese Shinto’s, North American Animists, Buddhists and Sikhs. Others arrived in droves. Religious “celebrities” like Robert Runcle, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama crossed paths with bishops and rabbis.


The early hours of that Monday were filled with prayer in specified locations for the differing sects. Crowds of visitors and media workers went from group to group, observing or participating in rituals of worship. Television crews highlighted religious oddities. Brick walls were dotted with meditating visitors. The Church of the Minerva housed a 48-hour prayer session attended by youths and elderly alike. Assisi was alive with belief in the supernatural.


As morning became afternoon, the town transitioned into what can be likened to my Protestant understanding of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It was a mass entrance of joy and expectation into a holy place. I can only imagine the joy the sight would have been to Saint Francis – religious groups congregated in the lower square of the Basilica of Saint Francis to raise supplication and song in differing tongues to the Divine. Francis, who acted out of humility and love for others, would have been blessed by this testimony of peace in his hometown. He would have run to each, throwing his arms around them and fasting for the salvation of their souls. He would have preached from a rock with all the humility of a poor beggar. He would have handed out olive branches and found places for each person to sleep. In this town so centered around brotherhood and sisterhood of the Franciscans and Poor Clares, the practice of unity was fully understood in this gathering of various tongues, attire, and practices of worship.


But not all agreed in its mission.


The Vatican expressed early distain for the event, saying that it presumed validity for all religions equally – a belief not upheld by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later assume the Pope’s position, refused to attend the Peace Conference on the same grounds. Catholic extremists passed out pamphlets claiming the heresy of Pope John Paul II. Some religious leaders were even bothered by the presence of military and security personnel at a conference promoting peace.


The proper response to this can only be seen through its instigator’s intent.


Pope John Paul II saw a need for peace. On his deathbed, he proclaimed, “So long as I have breath within me, I will never cease to cry out for peace.” He dedicated the year of 1986 to this idea, advocating for nations to put down their weapons. A few complied. In order to further his purpose, he sought this conference of open dialogue. It was said to be a time not for religions to pray together, but to come together to pray.


Why here? Assisi embodies the mission of Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy. It is a town characterized by peace, not only in its landscape, but also in its places of worship, community of people, and history. Here, Pope John Paul II saw an idea come to life. Assisi is a model that would be followed for years to come. The Pope would have a repeat peace conference of 2002, which would inspire Pope Benedict XVI’s peace conference of 2007. Assisi was the perfect starting point of interfaith dialogue that would promote a biblical kingdom of peace.


As a Protestant gazing out onto the beautiful hills and valleys of one of Italy’s most reverential places, I try to soak up all that this largely Catholic place can teach me. It is not just Catholic history; it is my own. In its places of worship, I experience a newfound desire for structured worship. In its quiet shaded places, I can see the need for silence and contemplation. In its awe-inspiring architecture and well-constructed walls, I can have greater respect for the Almighty. In its dark tombs, I better appreciate the lives of saints who did their best to embody all of these things.


Though Pope John Paul II’s year of peace may not have accomplished much by earthly standards, its example through the Peace Conference at Assisi points to the importance of Saint Francis’ mission. When the conference came to a close and religious leaders began making their departures on that overcast day in 1986, Franciscans lined the streets to collect trash, hand out umbrellas and give directions. This may have been the most meaningful tribute to peace the day had witnessed. And perhaps that is the call Saint Francis had in mind all along: to be good stewards, to act humbly, and to serve dutifully.


Today was a beautiful day in Assisi. It was about 80 degrees and sunny in the afternoon, with a soft breeze coming up the mountain. Like I said, we spent some time doing work this morning (I’ll talk about that tomorrow) then we headed down to our restaurant for pranzo. Lunch was a meat lasagna and spaghetti with pizza as the second course. Needless to say, I usually save the second course for dinner.


After pranzo, which ran late because the restaurant was crowded, we walked around in the sun for a while. We met up at 2:50 and headed down to St. Francis’ Basilica, a stunning church that sits at the far left of the hill. Our professor has a friend from the States who works at the Basilica and was willing to give us a tour in English.


The church doesn’t allow pictures to be taken inside, so I’ll have to display one from the outside only.



Front Lawn (The “T” was part of Francis’ signature):



Our tour took us through the lower church, the original building, which was built from 1228-1230, shortly after Saint Francis’ canonization. The lower church is smaller and rather tomb-like, decorated in the 13th and 14th centuries by renowned artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Lorenzetti. Our tour guide showed us one wall that epitomizes the evolution of art history – a beautiful depiction of how depth perception changed and how painting became more life-like.


We then went down into the crypt, which was reminiscent of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. There lies Francis body (in a tomb), along with 4 of his early followers and a woman who took care of him on his deathbed. Essentially, the church has become somewhat of a graveyard itself, housing numerous friars and church leaders influential enough to be given immortality through placement in the Basilica.


As a contrast, we climbed the steps to the upper church, which looks more like a heavenly afterlife. It was the architects’ intent to create a feeling of rising from death to life when traveling from the lower crypt to the upper church. This church’s ceiling rises over seven stories from the ground, and has the same gothic arches that we saw in the Biblioteca. Along the walls are frescoes illustrating the life of the saint, many of which I recognized from reading our professor’s book.


I really enjoyed the experience, as it felt something like watching the movie version of a book just completed. I had read A Mended and Broken Heart, so I knew stories from the life of Saint Francis, but I appreciated being able to see the cloak he wore, read his handwriting, and see artwork that reflects his importance in the Catholic tradition.


In one of the bedrooms at CEFID (we each have our own room), three of the girls put their beds together to make a hang out room. For the next few hours we sat there, talking, writing and eating Nutella.


Most of us needed a break from our studies around 7:30 pm, so we took our leftover pizza up to the terrace and watched the sun set.


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