I had the chance to visit the town of Assisi, Italy last month and I continue to be inspired by what I experienced. Five million people visit this small town in the Umbria region of central Italy, which is all the more remarkable because of its relatively remote location. We (my wife and I) rented a car in Rome and drove through some beautiful back roads on our two and half hour drive to this small village. It turns out that the countryside around Assisi is as spiritually uplifting as the town itself. (The photo above were taken during our visit)
As beautiful as Assisi is, that’s not what draws millions of people there every year. What draws them is the life and work of a man who was born and died in this city some 800 years ago. Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, better known to us as Saint Francis was born in Assisi in 1181 and died there on October 3, 1226. He was born to a wealthy silk merchant family with the expectation that he would grow up and join his father in the family business. That was Francis’ plan, too, until he had a spiritual awakening that changed his life and led him to live a life of radical Christian simplicity.
After his awakening, Francis took a vow of poverty and traveled around his native Umbria teaching and modeling love for the poor, the outcast, and for all of creation. His love of nature and of animals is still being celebrated today, as seen in the number of churches that held pet blessings this past week in Francis’ honor as they remembered the anniversary of his death. Another way in which the memory of Francis is being kept alive is Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina’s choice of a papal name when he was elected Pope four years ago. He chose to be named Pope Francis in recognition of the influence Saint Francis has had on his life and ministry.
Entire books have been written about the life of Francis and so there is no way I can do justice to the depth and power of his life and teachings here. There is a popular prayer, however, known as the Prayer of St. Francis, that while it may or not have actually been written by Francis, captures the essence of how he lived and what he taught.
Before I close with the words of the Prayer of St. Francis, I want to share one of the most inspiring memories of my visit to Assisi. While I was moved by seeing the home where Francis grew up, as well as the city’s beautiful churches and chapels, I was most moved by being able to share the experience of Assisi with the thousands of others visitors who were also there. The great number of languages that we heard spoken that day, was astounding, and knowing that we were just a one day sample of the five million people who come every year was inspiring. While we were there we interacted with people from every part of the world, visiting for the same reason we were, to honor and remember this simple man who helped make the world a more peaceful and loving place.
At a time in our world where it can seem that the dark power of violence and hatred are all too strong, I find it inspiring that every year millions of people are drawn to a remote Italian village by an even stronger power—the power of love. How else can one explain the draw of a humble man who lived almost 800 years ago, a man who simply walked the countryside embodying Christian teachings about love?
I believe without a doubt that the power of love is in the end stronger than the power of violence and hatred. And as we read this prayer, may each of us have the courage to act on the specific ways we are called to be instruments of peace and love in our world today.
The Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.