Reflections by: Dillon Lim, Gzenn Low, Jonah Kwek

Carceri Hermitage

Glorious skies of Assisi

For our last full day in Assisi, we awoke to dark, heavy clouds that threatened rain. Our first stop was high in the mountains: the Carceri Hermitage. Built in 1205, Carceri Hermitage translates to the hermitage of prison cells, and is a forest gorge four kilometres above Assisi. St. Francis dedicated himself to a life of preaching and missions, but throughout his life he would withdraw to the Carceri to pray and contemplate. In the mountainside complex, we were able to see the caves occupied by Francis and other friars, a few outdoor altars where mass was celebrated by them, and the oak tree where Francis preached his sermon to the birds.

Thankful to God, it didn’t rain. Instead, the dark heavy clouds provided the perfect contemplative atmosphere for our morning in the Carceri. It was surreal to be in the very tiny (even claustrophobic!) caves that the Friars prayed in. As we were wincing from the mountain chill in our puffy winter coats, I could only imagine the cold Francis endured during his meditations, as he was known for wearing nothing but a brown robe with a rope around his waist. Being among the clouds, I felt a sense of serenity and closeness to God that could only be a sliver of the peace Francis felt when he was here. With no sound around us but the howling of the wind and the rustling of the leaves, I could tell why Francis chose this place to retreat back to God. This is truly a peace that is hard to find back in the bustling city of Singapore.

Cathedral of St. Rufino

After journeying down the mountains, we arrived at the Cathedral of St. Rufino. Contrary to popular belief, St. Francis is not the patron saint of Assisi! St. Francis is the patron saint of the whole country of Italy, while St. Rufino is the patron saint of Assisi, and hence its cathedral is dedicated to him. According to legend, Rufino of Assisi was the first bishop of Assisi and a martyr. Rufino was said to be responsible for converting Assisi to Christianity. However, the Roman proconsul Aspasius disapproved and thus had him executed. Although his body was thrown in the Chiascio River near Costano, it was recovered and lies in the Cathedral today. This church is also significant to the Franciscans as it houses the baptismal font that baptised Francis, Clare and many of their followers. Although they were baptised in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was the original cathedral of Assisi, the baptismal font was moved to the Cathedral of St. Rufino once it was established as the new cathedral.

What struck me most from my time in this church lay was in an art exhibition dedicated to the previous pope St. John Paul II in a small hallway in a corner of the cathedral. One particular artwork, titled Eucharist, really spoke to me. It was an oil painting depicting John Paul II lifting up the Eucharist, presumably during mass. Blinding light pours out of the host, spilling over the late pope and also a crucifix. I particularly liked this painting as it was a great depiction of God’s love for us through the Eucharist. Jesus died for us, and the Eucharist we celebrate every Sunday at mass is a celebration of our thanksgiving for His unconditional love. Similar to both Francis’ and Clare’s love for the Eucharist, I too felt an immense admiration for the Eucharist after looking at this work of art. 

Painting depicting St John Paul II lifting up the Eucharist

Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Next, we made a quick stop at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which translates to the church of Our Lady above Minerva. Built in 1370, this church was previously a Roman temple to the goddess of wisdom, Minerva. While maintaining its ancient Roman facade, the insides of this church has been transformed to look like any other Catholic Church. Although we did not spend a lot of time in this church dedicated to Mother Mary, I found it fascinating how a charming Catholic Church could be hidden inside an ancient Roman temple. 

Chiesa Nuova

St Francis’ house – Chiesa Nuova

We then visited St Francis’ house (now a church known as Chiesa Nuova), which translates to The New Church. Built in 1615, this church is known as The New Church (although it isn’t that new!) because it is the newest church that was built in the city of Assisi. During a visit to Assisi in 1613, Antonio de Trejo, the Spanish Vicar General of the Franciscans, was saddened when he saw the original home of St. Francis becoming dilapidated. With the help of the Spanish Embassy in Rome and through a donation by King Philip III of Spain, he was able to buy the house and turn its site into the church we saw today. At the left corner of the church, St Francis’ prison cell can be found. This space is created in memory of when St Francis’ father Pietro imprisoned him for leaving his family to pursue God. We were spurred to say a short prayer of forgiveness, to allow God to soften our hearts and guide us to freely forgive, especially in the context of our parents. I whispered a prayer for my family instead, as I reminisced the joys of being in their presence and hoped that they are enjoying Christmas back home. I was also touched by the letter (written in St Francis’ spirit, left of the door of the house) that Fr Derrick translated for us. It goes: 

“Brother, Sister, I have been waiting for you.

You’re welcome to the house I was born,

and where I have lived the first 24 years of my life:

the parties with my friend and dreams of glory,

my encounter with the Lord 

and my journey of conversion towards Him, 

and the prison that I experienced in Perugia

and then later, here at my own house

the conflict with my father, and finally, my exit from here. 

God called me to repair his house in me 

and then the house of His son.

And it is better to obey the Lord,

then to obey my father Pietro.

Brother, Sister, 

make this pilgrimage of my earthly house,

but walk towards the house of God within you,

towards His house, paradise.

Arise and walk.

I accompany you with the witness of my life, 

And to sustain your passage with prayer.

Walk. I wait for you. God bless you, 

Francis of Assisi, Your Brother”

Just as how you have been journeying with us on this pilgrimage through these personal reflections, I hope this letter may guide you to reflect on the lives of the Saints (especially St Francis!) and stir your soul to continue seeking the Lord, wherever you may be. 

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore  

For our last visit before lunch, we visited the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. A pagan temple turned into a Catholic place of worship, this church was originally the cathedral of Assisi. However, in 1036, Bishop Ugone transferred the title of cathedral to the church of San Rufino which we visited earlier. As previously mentioned, this church is the original site of the baptismal font where St Francis and St Clare were baptised, but the baptismal font can be found in the church of San Rufino. 

The church has been dedicated to the recently Blessed Carlo Acutis. He had requested to be buried in Assisi because of his love for St Francis, and his body was exhumed and moved to this church permanently for the public to visit. After passing away in 2006, his cause of canonisation began in 2013. He was designated “Venerable” in 2018 and “Blessed” on 10th October 2020. Perhaps it was his young age, or his love for the Eucharist, that intrigued me to read up about Blessed Carlo’s life. Despite his parents not being devout Catholics, Carlo’s love for the faith did not falter. He loved to pray the Rosary, attend Mass as often as he could, made Holy Hours before/after Mass, went for confession weekly and brought many friends and families back to the Faith. He is known for promoting Eucharist miracles through his website. Learning about Blessed Carlo’s devotion to God, changed my perspective on the impact we can make as individuals – about our own faith and bringing people back to God. His profound love for the Eucharist truly inspires me.

As he very wisely puts it, “The more often we receive the Eucharist, the more we will become like Jesus, so that on this earth we will have a foretaste of heaven.”. 

Link to his website: http://www.miracolieucaristici.org/en/Liste/list.html

Rocca Maggiore

After our free and easy lunch, a group of us decided to follow our tour guide Fr Derrick to the highest point in Assisi: the fortress known as Rocca Maggiore. From this point, we were able to see both St Francis Basilica and St Clare Basilica. Having lived through many wars and battles, the fortress currently serves the city as a museum. In 1198, when the people of Assisi revolted against the Emperor and plundered the fortress, St. Francis was sixteen years old. It is said that when Francis was training to be a knight, he was part of an effort that used materials from the ruins of the fortress to fortify city walls. It is here that he probably picked up the stonemasonry skills required to rebuild churches in the years to come. While we could not go into the fortress as it is currently undergoing restoration works, we were able to appreciate its birds eye view of the city of Assisi.

As I stared at the beautiful scenery and valleys spread out ahead of me, all thoughts disappeared, and I simply marvelled at the beauty of God’s creation. This is a feeling that I have forgotten for a long time, and as I stood there, admiring the details of the nature spread out ahead of me, I truly felt at peace. It echoed something mentioned during our visit to Bagnoregio, where St. Bonaventure said that all creation points to God, and are vestiges, footprints that point towards the goodness of God. By recognising this goodness, we are able to ‘journey’ and grow closer to God, in recognising His presence around us. I truly enjoyed this experience.

Christmas Vigil Mass at Basilica of St Francis

Having had our free time, we gathered back for Christmas Vigil Mass at the Basilica of St Francis. It was a tiny chapel tucked within the grand Basilica. What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus than with the highest form of Prayer – the Mass. A main theme from Franciscan spirituality we have been exploring on this pilgrimage is the search for ourselves and our identity. “Who am I, and who are you, Lord?” This is a simple question that demands a not so simple answer. It is life’s greatest mission to understand who we are, and why we were put on this earth. This Christmas, with the coming of our Lord Jesus, we have hope that we are able to find our identity in Him. We are all beloved children of God, and once we are true to ourselves, we can slowly understand who God is. And in understanding Him, will we then be able to enter an intimate relationship with Him, just as he desires for us. In the spirit of Christmas, we ended mass with warm hugs and merry wishes from each other. As much as we miss home and are far away, it was comforting to know Christmas was spent with our new pilgrim family. 

We wish all of you at home a very merry Christmas! 🎄