With a mix of awe and excitement, pilgrims from many parts of Europe conquered the exhaustion of a long road trip and prepared to celebrate the World Day of the Poor with Pope Francis.
Lukasz Baczkowski from Poland was a bit incredulous but proud that other members of his community supported by the Barka Foundation for Mutual Help elected him as one of their 10 representatives to the pope's meeting with the poor in Assisi Nov. 12.
They drove 24 hours in a Volkswagen bus to get to the hilltop town in central Italy.
Baczkowski said St. Francis of Assisi is an "inspiration" for him. With his renunciation of his family's wealth and his total devotion to serving God and God's poor, the Assisi saint proved that "everyone can change."
"No one was a saint from the beginning," Baczkowski told Catholic News Service Nov. 11 at a pilgrim hostel in Assisi. That is a message he clings to as he continues his journey of sobriety and of living in a community rather than on the streets.
The faith aspect of the Barka community and of the pilgrimage is a key part of what Baczkowski sees as his redemption.
"The most important thing is the soul of a man," he said. Faith and a helping hand from other Catholics are what helped him move from sleeping on the street, drinking, stealing -- and especially from having contemplated suicide, he said.
Alix Montagne, co-founder and president of Fratello, a France-based group that organizes events for World Day of the Poor, was at the hostel with Baczkowski, waiting for a delayed bus of pilgrims from Paris the evening before the pope arrived. Fratello coordinated the pilgrimage of 200 poor or socially disadvantaged pilgrims to Assisi from France, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia and Spain.
Many charities of many kinds assist the poor, she said. Fratello does that, but also helps the poor -- and the volunteers -- draw closer to Christ.
Like St. Francis, who wrote of his aversion to the poor and "holding his nose" when near them, Montagne said, "I was not used to meeting poor people."
But at a 2016 Fratello pilgrimage to Rome with the poor, she said she discovered that when she was with them, "I wasn't composing a character. I was myself in front of somebody who could say to me something about Jesus Christ."
The 2021 pilgrimage is the result of a long-standing dream and some persistence in pestering Pope Francis, she said. After all, he said he chose Francis as his papal name because of his love for the poor.
Assisi is special, she said. "Maybe for the pilgrims coming here they will discover how much they are loved by Christ."
René Meldem, a Swiss member of the board of Fratello, said spending time with the poor rather than simply giving them money or food brings "moments of intense joy."
Sharing a cup of tea or a meal or just sharing a laugh or a tear is a revelation both of the other's humanity and of God's working in his or her life, Meldem said.
Making the pilgrimage to Assisi or simply walking with the poor where they live, he said, are ways of making a real connection.
"It's good and it's easy to give money, but it sort of creates a barrier" between one who gives and one who receives, he said. Sharing an experience like a pilgrimage makes both participants givers and receivers.
"I love St. Francis. I love his experience of getting rid of all he had to discover Christ, to discover love and to discover being Christ with people around him," Meldem said.
Andrew Keogh, an Irishman who was helped to get sober and off the streets by the Barka foundation, now works for Barka in England and accompanied Baczkowski and the nine other Polish pilgrims to Assisi.
It's easy "to forget about those who fall through the cracks and, for some reason, find life difficult," he said. But Pope Francis keeps reminding Catholics and other people of good will that the poor are their brothers and sisters, beloved by God and deserving of help.
"Pilgrimage is all about an encounter with Christ and coming closer to our Lord and experiencing his mercy, his joy and love, and we hope that for our pilgrims," Keogh said. "And it's a bonus to meet Pope Francis."