Ancient stones, steep stairs, and sparkling fresh air greeted me upon arrival in Assisi, Italy, a month ago. Lush olive groves, leaves iridescent in the sun, offset the city stones. “What sort of place is this, that shaped St. Francis 800 years ago?” I asked myself. Eager to deepen my understanding of the saint, I had returned to Assisi to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis.
Profligate playboy, drama king, dejected knight, young Francis lived life large. He grew up in turbulent times, with civic unrest in Assisi and war with nearby Perugia surrounding him. Returning from a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia, sick and weak, Francis drifted. When he sold his cloth merchant father’s wares to repair a church, his father chained him in punishment. Francis stripped in public, denouncing his father. Unlikely material for a saint.
Yet God shaped Francis over time, and Francis yielded. A simple saint, Francis wanted one thing. Nothing but God, he proclaimed, shedding all else. He chose a life of simplicity, serving the poor, and calling the church to reform.
I watch with interest as Pope Francis embarks on his first trip to Assisi tomorrow, a pilgrimage with eight cardinals, to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis. Pope Francis will walk in the footsteps of the saint as he visits various Franciscan sites. I picture the places he will visit and wonder what impact they will have on him. At the same time, Pope Francis teaches me what it means to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis as I re-enter my life in a twenty-first-century, North American world.
Eschewing the pomp of the papacy, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, has chosen simplicity. He lives in the modest Vatican guest house, for example, instead of in the papal suite in the Apostolic Palace where his predecessors lived. Furthermore, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, has made it his priority to serve the poor and preach peace. Everywhere he goes, he seeks out marginalized people for his services and conversations. He advocates the use of empty convents as refugee shelters rather than income-generating hotels. He took a stand for peace in Syria and around the world, exclaiming, “Never again war! We want to be men and women of peace.”
Finally, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, is reforming the church. He has dedicated the first three days of October to meeting with the eight cardinals who will work with him on reforming the Vatican administration, restructuring the church to serve the world rather than itself. It is no coincidence that this is the group that will travel to Assisi tomorrow, drawing inspiration from one of the greatest reformers of the church, who, like them, lived in a time of materialism, violence, and a self-serving church.
Tomorrow, Pope Francis walks in St. Francis’ footsteps in Assisi. The next day, he will continue to show us what it looks like to walk in St. Francis’ footsteps in our world today. May our imaginations be ignited with the possibilities he inspires.