Earlier this year, my husband received an invitation to be a groomsman in a dear friend’s wedding. When I read the “Save the Date,” panic set in. The wedding was to take place in Assisi, Italy.
Standing between us and a firm yes were obstacles that felt insurmountable: securing a week of child care for our two toddler boys; getting time off of work; finding plane tickets that wouldn’t break the bank; and crossing the Atlantic at 25 weeks pregnant.
What was supposed to feel like a getaway initially felt like a pilgrimage.
But just as with any pilgrimage, things have a way of working out. Our obstacles were resolved, and my husband and I made it safely to Assisi with a day to spare before the nuptials.
As our taxi ascended the Umbrian countryside toward our hotel, I turned to my husband and said, “No wonder St. Francis wrote the ‘Canticle of the Sun.’ Look at these trees and hillsides.” I instantly understood why Assisi is considered a place of peace.
But it was the next day, when we meandered the city’s streets, that I realized it is also a place of reconciliation.
Specifically, it is a place where current tensions and divisions within our Church seem to fall apart. As I took in the treasures of our Catholic faith secured in Assisi’s limestone walls and streets, I was certain of St. Paul’s assurance to the Colossians that in Christ “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
One false dichotomy Assisi resolves is the idea that integral ecology and gender differences are separable realities.
In his biography of Francis, G.K. Chesterton writes, “What seems inconsistency to you did not seem inconsistency to him.”
Chesterton goes on to write that Francis was no lover of nature. That might seem strange, since he was portrayed by even the great Giotto as preaching to birds.
Rather, Francis was in love with creation — the natural world being its most obvious manifestation. All living things give praise to the Lord by their movement, growth, and existence within a larger ecosystem. It’s the harmony of different created things that reveals God’s unity.
But Francis also recognized that creation is sexed. “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind” and “Sister Water” were not just poetic devices. He recognized in the elements complementary masculine or feminine characteristics, both necessary on their own but which only fully make sense together.
His relationship with St. Clare illuminates this mystery. They weren’t merely spiritual friends; they were a male and a female, a difference which mattered for the course of history.
In her basilica, just a few kilometers uphill from his, visitors can look at many of their original garments and tunics. Behind a glass are a pair of simple shoes Clare made for Francis. The shoes had small openings where his stigmata would have been. Her feminine attention to detail is so moving to see up close.
Likewise, Francis was the one to encourage Clare to escape through a hole in the wall of her family’s home to enter the conventual life. His strength gave her a new life in Christ.
To accept an integral ecology is to receive created things as they are, including ourselves and our sex, and to praise God for making us so.
The other tension Assisi resolves has to do with a strange debate going on within the Catholic world: first, whether or not the Church’s mission includes converting people to Christ; and second, whether it is singularly the actions of those who are close to the poor that have the power to convert, or whether men and women can be transformed through the life of the mind or adoration of Christ.
In full disclosure, I don’t understand the first part of that debate, since no version of the Bible I’ve seen has ever redacted the Great Commission.
But the second tension is easily resolved on the streets of Assisi.
It has been a constant fact in Catholic history that reading or studying the lives of the saints makes more saints. St. Ignatius of Loyola converted to Christ in a hospital bed while reading about holy men and women. St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Edith Stein were transformed after reading the life of St. Teresa of Ávila.
Chesterton writes that Francis had for a long time adored Christ, but it was his imitation of Christ in “an ordered scheme of life” that was novel.
The growth of the Franciscan orders during and after Francis’s life up to today speaks to how a love of poverty and a love of the poor has a transformative, magnetic power.
It is no secret that his littleness and closeness to Assisi’s rejected men and women helped others to open their hearts to the person of Jesus Christ. Giotto’s paintings in his basilica testify to this reality.
But his example is complemented by a different path to holiness, which can be discovered in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, just a short walk uphill from the tomb of Francis.
There lies the body of Blessed Carlo Acutis, the first “Millennial” to be beatified. In his short life, he had a deep devotion to the Eucharist, received in the Mass and adored in the tabernacle. He used the internet in its earliest iteration to catalog Eucharistic miracles, showing the world instances in which the bread and wine were transformed into actual flesh and blood.
As a contemporary of his, I was struck by his jeans and hooded sweatshirt, but more so by this statement posted next to his body:
“Blessed Carlo, known and loved as he is, according to the designs of Providence, is a witness to a Gospel lived profoundly, but with absolute normality, in life and in death, so that everyone, and especially the young, may learn with him to experience Jesus as the meaning and joy of life.”
I was asking for his intercession for my own sons when a stream of teens and young adults poured into the church, marveling at him. It seemed to me that he was busy at work, drawing them to the Lord in the Eucharist.
On one afternoon stroll in Assisi, I learned that the city has a power over pilgrims, one to generate peace and reconcile all worry and division in Christ. If there is a more timely balm for our Church right now, I can’t think of it. Sts. Francis, Clare, and Blessed Carlo, pray for us.