Journeying Back to Assisi with Francis and Carlo

Recently in Catholic news, the pilgrimage destination of “Assisi” has been coming up a lot lately. Though living in Toronto, Canada, a part of my heart has been left in Assisi it seems. The two-hours I spent on March 14, 2019 in that town in the Umbrian region was two-hours that has continued to impact my faith, especially this month as the name of this town keeps on popping up on my Facebook feed.

While I spoke about my moment in Assisi in Part 2 of 4 of The Catholic Pilgrim in Europe series, I wish to retell the visit to the Basilica specifically in more depth and hopefully bring you with me to this Medieval Town as you read.

As the coach bus approached Assisi, “The Town of St. Francis,” the road sign said in Italian, I was sitting on the bus, looking out the large window and just admiring the beautiful scenery that I just haven’t found anywhere like it in the Greater Toronto Area. I brought some note cards with my “shield” on it for writing prayer intentions throughout the trip and put in the petition box at specific shrines. I wrote the “Peace Prayer” attributed to St. Francis of Assisi on it. Though it is said that the prayer was not written by him, every time I hear the “Make me a channel of your peace” hymn by Sebastian Temple, I can’t help but think of the saint.

I remember clearly, March 14, 2019 was beautiful but cool day. I dressed fairly casually than how I often dress for church, but it was a brand new Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt that I brought specifically for such nice sunny days in Europe. The tour guide, Claudia took everyone on a brief tour of the city for about half an hour. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the history because I spent so much time looking at the frescoes and little shrines installed on homes throughout the town. The rustic feel to it was just so amazing. Assisi really kept much of its exteriors from the medieval period.

Our tour guide was very understanding of the needs of the group, and gave the group much free time throughout the trip. Even though we only had less than 2-hours in Assisi before heading to Rome, we had approximately 1.5 hours of free time. I wasted no time in visiting the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. My school group split up into smaller groups and my group took the Upper Basilica first. “No Photos Allowed,” I was reminded via signage and word of mouth of the tour guide and teachers and I complied. It was thanks to that policy though that I really immersed myself into the somewhat faded frescoes of the upper Basilica. It was only later on that I realized that the upper Basilica was gravely affected by an earthquake in the late 1990s, near the new millenium of 2000. However, I was just in awe of Giotto’s works of depicting the life of St. Francis. I went on the right side of the Upper Basilica and really took my time looking and meditating on the frescoes.

We reached the sanctuary portion and I looked at the magnificently carved choir lofts. I can imagine the generations of Franciscans who sat their celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours. The leader of an American group who travelled the same bus as us asked me the significance of the choir stalls and the way they were positioned. I explained within my knowledge is that many monastic chapels had them for use of the Liturgy of the Hours, where the Psalms and Canticles would be divided into two sections and would recite in a “call and response” form. (Those who recite the Liturgy of the Hours will know what I am talking about in precision.)

After that, our group headed down to the Lower Basilica and it was once again covered in frescoes. Unfortunately, due to the time we had in Assisi and lunch had to be allotted in that time, I did not go through the Lower Basilica in much detail. I remember though how majestic it was, similar to illuminated mosaics in the Eastern Church. Simply stunning! However, I wanted to spend the most time in the Basilica at its heart, at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. When we went to the gate to go down, it was closed for about 15-minutes. Thankfully a sign indicated so, so we just went to another part of the Basilica – the relic room. There I saw with my own eyes some objects that St. Francis used during his lifetime. The one thing that stuck with me the most was his habit, or rather, his tunic that was, if I’m not mistaken even patched up. Looking at these rugged old objects which have become relics really reminded me of the poor and humble of spirit that Francis wanted to leave his followers. That took up about 15-minutes and we were finally allowed in the tomb.

I am grateful I went on a tour of Europe in March because the “attractions” were not so busy, even St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican which I went to the next day after visiting Assisi. But this Basilica won’t be classified as an “attraction” on my list. As approached the tomb, on the right side of it, I fell on my knees and stood as close as I could to the tomb, near the altar and there I just prayed in silence, and finally prayed the “Collect” of the memorial of St. Francis, October 4:

O God, by whose gift Saint Francis
was conformed to Christ in poverty and humility,
grant that, by walking in Francis’ footsteps,
we may follow your Son,
and, through joyful charity,
come to be united with you.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Roman Missal, Collect for the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi

It was a moment I would never forget because the man laid in the tomb there was named Francis of Assisi, who was such an effective preacher and touched the hearts and converted so many people. I left the tomb just feeling some shivers within me. Though a bit sad that I had to leave, I know (as long as the pandemic ends soon), I would return to that very place.

However, in recent weeks, the town of Assisi has gained much of a spotlight, not only because October contains the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4, but because specifically this year, there were two important events.

On Saturday October 3, 2020, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the very spot which I knelt more than a year earlier, at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s Papal namesake. Yet, this was more than an occasion of “name day,” but more importantly, to sign the encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I will let the first words of the encyclical speak for themselves:

“FRATELLI TUTTI”.[1] With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel. Of the counsels Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother “as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him”.[2] In his simple and direct way, Saint Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.

Fratelli Tutti 1

Was this encyclical expected? I honestly don’t know… I only learned of its release from new sources approximately a month before its release. However, we can really sense where Pope Francis is going with his pontificate: A Church that aligns itself with the values of St. Francis, a Church of fraternity, of unity, of peace, of hospitality, of justice and of mercy. It only makes sense for Pope Francis to sign his most encyclical at the tomb of man that travelled around, speaking of these values.

Exactly a week later, at the same Basilica, but two floors above the tomb of St. Francis, where Pope Francis signed his encyclical was another great day of celebration as the Cardinal Agostino Vallini read the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis declaring the Venerable Servant of God, Carlo Acutis “Blessed.” It was a beautiful celebration.

Do you know who Carlo Acutis is? I have heard of his name for quite some time now, but did not read much about him until recent weeks leading up to his beatification on October 10. But if you just want a brief biography of him, I suggest this article from CNA. Just some points I want to speak about him and his spiritual connection to me recently: he was just an ordinary teenager living the faith. The beatification portrait that was unveiled was just a picture of him in casual clothes. He loved PlayStation, loved computers, yet his love for Jesus in the Eucharist was much greater. He catalogue Eucharistic Miracles on a website, helping others to learn and love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He attended Daily Mass, received confession frequently and grounded himself in prayer, particularly Eucharistic Adoration and the recitation of the Rosary.

He put his love of Jesus into action as well. The allowance he earned, he used it to buy sleeping bags and essentials for the poor. He was liked by his peers, but he wanted to include the “marginalized” in his circle of friends, even inviting them to his house. When he learned of his diagnosis with leukemia, his love for Jesus grew even stronger as he offered his sufferings for the Church and the Holy Father.

Recent days, I have shed some tears from time to time when reading about his life because sometimes, it seems the way that I live my faith is just too “shallow.” I blog, I write, I participate in youth group… but sometimes I am too “rigid” in my faith and I need to ask myself, am I scaring people away, or discouraging them from the faith because of instances when I fail to make faith “approachable” to my brothers and sisters?

The thing with both Carlo and Francis is that they made their faith so relatable to their brothers and sisters. They made use of their present means of communication to proclaim the Gospel, all in a spirit of humility. For Francis, it was his preaching and travelling, for Carlo it was the internet and his local community. They both had short lives in today’s terms: Francis at 44, and Carlo at 15. Yet, my concern is, how can they accomplish so much in such a short amount of time? Everyone, no matter how old they are, or where they live in the world has 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. How do we make use of our time here on earth? Do we use it with family and friends, with the wider community to live the Gospel? Or do we use our time to game all day, and isolate ourselves within the world?

Pope Francis speaks of this, citing the example of Carlo in his encyclical Christus Vivit, written specifically for young people:

I remind you of the good news we received as a gift on the morning of the resurrection: that in all the dark or painful situations that we mentioned, there is a way out. For example, it is true that the digital world can expose you to the risk of self-absorption, isolation and empty pleasure. But don’t forget that there are young people even there who show creativity and even genius. That was the case with the Venerable Carlo Acutis.

Carlo was well aware that the whole apparatus of communications, advertising and social networking can be used to lull us, to make us addicted to consumerism and buying the latest thing on the market, obsessed with our free time, caught up in negativity. Yet he knew how to use the new communications technology to transmit the Gospel, to communicate values and beauty.

Carlo didn’t fall into the trap. He saw that many young people, wanting to be different, really end up being like everyone else, running after whatever the powerful set before them with the mechanisms of consumerism and distraction. In this way they do not bring forth the gifts the Lord has given them; they do not offer the world those unique personal talents that God has given to each of them. As a result, Carlo said, “everyone is born as an original, but many people end up dying as photocopies”. Don’t let that happen to you!

Christus Vivit 104-105

It seems to me that Carlo exemplifies the way of Francis in these modern times. It is good to enjoy yourself with a game on PlayStation from time to time. When we use these recreational pleasures in moderation, it is good. That’s the key – enjoying our pleasures in moderation to leave room for spiritual, academic and family life while maintaining the essence of who we are, the “you” inside of you, the unique part of you, and I want to learn that from Carlo.

One last thing – I notice that the tombs of Francis and Carlo have something in common: they are not monuments of glorification of themselves, but allow their mortal remains, now venerated as relics, to be directed towards God who will resurrect these bodies on the last day. Francis’ tomb is so simple: a name plate with his name “SAN FRANCESCO” with his dates, and Carlo’s tomb, though it can be viewed from October 1-17, 2020 with class, and later sealed up again, in both cases have the sunburst symbol with IHS – what I say to be the “Jesuit Logo,” but speaks once again of the magnification of the Lord, and not human exaltation.

I may want to go back to Assisi just to bring back those memories of March 14, 2019 and discover more of Assisi, but thinking about it, in a sense, I did go back spiritually throughout the past days with the Universal Church as we celebrated the signing of Fratelli Tutti by our Holy Father Pope Francis, once again pointing to St. Francis of Assisi for guidance, and also the beatification of Bl. Carlo Acutis in that same Basilica a week later. The next time I am able to physically go back to Assisi, I want to make this journey with St. Francis and Bl. Carlo – not only to visit a centre of evangelization, but I want to encourage everyone, especially my young colleagues and friends reading this to walk with them too – myself included. Why don’t we look to Francis and Carlo as inspiration for our faith life? We’ve had saints who were effective preachers, but we now have saints who were effective programmers and gamers – will YOU be part of that litany?

Indeed, Assisi should serve as a reminder that holiness is not reserved for the elite, but for ordinary people of all ages. It is a call instilled in everyone of us from the day of our baptism, and it is in fact, our primary vocation. Let us ask St. Francis of Assisi and Bl. Carlo Acutis to intercede for us as we continue to answer the vocation to holiness.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
Bl. Carlo Acutis, pray for us.

Completed for October 12, 2020 – the first time the Church of Assisi celebrates the memorial of Blessed Carlo Acutis, cyber-apostle of the Eucharist.


About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
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