A pilgrimage not a vacation. That is what Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University through the Director of Campus ministry Tammy Vidrine offers annually to select FranU students. When I heard about FranU’s pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis, I did not hesitate to submit the requested information and anticipated the interview process. When I was chosen for this pilgrimage, you can imagine my excitement. Opportunities like this may come along once or possibly twice within a lifetime. The pilgrimage provided a journey while walking in the footsteps of St. Francis to break open what God is calling us to do. It was a time to learn and reflect on the first saint to receive the stigmata, how he conducted himself, and his impact on the Catholic Church and the world. It also provided an opportunity to develop lifelong friends (a little family) with the other pilgrims and share in their struggles to discern God’s voice as well as to support and journey with them. We immersed ourselves in the beauty, history, culture, and story of St. Francis.
It started here in the States with meeting the other pilgrims, enjoying a couple socials to include collectively learning about travel restrictions, Italian culture, gelato tasting and dining at a local fancy restaurant in an attempt to adapt our palate to Italian cuisine. In the process I learned some of the other pilgrims had not yet traveled out of the States and some had very little experience traveling on a plane. With the nine-hour flight to Italy that was certainly about to change. It was entertaining to learn that some of the younger pilgrim’s families were comforted by the fact that, through me, there was a retired Marine traveling among the group. I could feel the excitement amongst the other pilgrims as well as within myself. We were all curious to what God wanted to do in our hearts on this journey.
After our flights and bus ride, we arrived at our residence for the next couple of days, a resort like place called Villa de Pieve in Umbria, Italy. It is a 14th Century Villa with a legitimate castle across the street. The castle is the first thing I saw when we arrived. It is in a bit of disarray but stunning none-the-less. The castle is significant because in 1891 it is where Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical letter Rerum Novarum which was the first social encyclical of modern times and the beginning of Catholic Social teaching. It was exhilarating to sleep, eat, and pray so close to a real castle that played a part in Catholic history. Our host and guide, an expert on St. Francis’s life, also an international world-renowned artist, made us feel like family immediately. Rossella Vasta, quickly became our Italian mother. Throughout our time in Umbria, Rossella did not disappoint with her knowledge of St. Francis, personal connections, and amazing hospitality. A fellow pilgrim from a different year, and I would agree, described Rossella as sincerely unique and really, just a holy rockstar. She receives the group of pilgrims each year from Franciscan, and she is a giving, joyful, and intelligent soul. Another pilgrim, again from a different year, succinctly accredited Rossella by saying she did an exceptional task of painting a clear picture of Francis as the radical, loving, and selfless man he truly was. Without our gracious hosts and fearless leader, Mrs. Tammy Vidrine, we would not have been able to capture St. Francis’s life so clearly.
On this pilgrimage we visited places where St. Francis worshiped, retreated, tended to lepers, rebuilt a church and died. The pilgrimage taught me the true definition of a basilica and from what I saw its grandeur is indescribable. Prior to this pilgrimage I’m not sure If I could have properly defined a basilica. However, it is a canonical title of honor designated by the Pope to a church building. The church is usually distinguished for its association with a major saint and possess a papal throne, an altar, and a huge Holy Door. The Pope must give his authorization for anyone to say Mass at a basilica. The basilicas we visited on this pilgrimage were enormous and exquisite. From the beautiful frescos on the walls and ceiling to the designs on the marble floors, they were amazing.
While walking in the footsteps of St. Francis we encountered many basilicas. The first was the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels located at the foot of the hill of Assisi, Italy. What is most important about this basilica is it encloses the 9th century Porziuncola. The Porziuncola is a little church and the most sacred place for the Franciscans Order. It is the location where Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world to live in poverty. It is also the place where St. Clare cut her hair to prevent being forced into wedlock by her father. It was here St. Francis started the Franciscan movement. Tradition says that one night in 1216, St. Francis, as he was praying in the little church of Portiuncula, saw above the altar Christ and the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels. When Jesus asked him want he desired for the salvation of souls, St. Francis asked for God to grant a plenary indulgence for all those who enter the chapel. The indulgence was later extended to anyone who visits the Porziuncola chapel on 2nd of August known as “The Day of Pardon”. It was no coincident the other pilgrims and I entered the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, and the little church called the Porziuncola on 2nd August, attended Mass and received the Eucharist. I was in amazement at the significance of that special day. I am still in awe at the thought that my soul has been thoroughly cleansed at the day of pardon. I could not believe I was there much less about to receive by the virtue of Christ and St. Francis pardon for all my sins. Now, I have been to the sacrament of reconciliation and received absolution for the sins I confessed many times. This was different because I did not have to remember ALL my sins that I had not yet confessed in order to receive forgiveness. I have always been concerned there were a few sins that I put forth effort in forgetting and thus have not remembered in order to confess and receive full forgiveness. This pilgrimage and the Day of Pardon erased that serious concern and allowed me to feel genuinely forgiven for sins I had tried to forget and could not recall. A good way to describe it is my soul feels more free and less burdened by not remembering unconfessed sins. By that example alone, I feel this pilgrimage has certainly brought me closer to our Lord and Savior.
Other important basilicas this pilgrimage took us to is the Basilica of St. Francis and the Basilica of St. Clare. While both basilicas house the remains of their saint the Basilica of St. Clare houses the San Damiano cross. One of the most special moments was getting to pray in front of the San Damiano cross. This was THE CROSS St. Francis was praying in front of in the diminished San Damiano church when he received the message from God to rebuild His church. It is difficult for me to wrap my head around, but we prayed the prayer St. Francis prayed when he received the message from God to rebuild his Church in front of the very cross St. Francis prayed. In disbelief, but I know because I was there, we knelt in front of the exact same cross as St. Francis. Just Wow… In the story of St. Francis, I recall the San Damiano church that St. Francis at times hid in while trying to avoid his father. I was excited when I heard we were actually going to visit the San Damiano church. I did not realize at the time, but I learned the San Damiano church is where St. Clare spent most of her life and where she died. Because St. Clare is the first woman to write a Rule of Life for a monastic woman’s community it made the experience all the richer. The most moving area in all of San Damiano was witnessing the place where St. Clare died. Knowing a saint had taken her last breath directly in front of where I was standing was astounding. One of the friars in the church gave all of us great insight into the life of St. Francis and what led him to rebuild the church. We were also reminded by the friar that St. Clare and St. Francis through the Holy Spirit were able to spread the word of God throughout Italy without the aid of the internet.
Another place we encountered while walking in the footsteps of St. Francis is Le Cella. Le Cella is a 13th century convent located outside Cortona in the region of Tuscany. The small hermitage, like most places St. Francis created was beautiful. As we walked the winding road leading from the mountain and approached the convent, I witnessed the friars cultivating the land. St. Francis used Le Cella to escape for silence and to separate himself from everyday life. We were able to see the cell where St. Francis lived for four months while he dictated his Testament. On this pilgrimage we followed St. Francis footsteps to a place called La Verna. La Verna is nestled in a mountain top and is a place of peace and comfort. It is here St. Francis received the gift of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. He sought answers toward the end of his life trying to determine if he had fulfilled God’s will. We attended Mass in La Verna and enjoyed the angelic voices of the friars. It was mesmerizing to participate in the procession of the stigmata and to see the location St. Francis received the gift. In the chapel of the stigmata there was a relic of St. Francis’s robe. Seeing his robe made things real and forced me not to see the saint as some untouchable, fictitious saintly person but as a real and true living man who achieved his call to sanctity through obedience to God, sacrifice and service to others.
Walking St. Francis’s footsteps brought us to the little town of Gubbio, Italy. Many FranU students are not aware of the story of St. Francis and the wolf. They equally are not aware of our Mascot Wally’s roots. Prior to this pilgrimage I admittedly did not know the story of St. Francis and the wolf. However, on this day Wally was with us in spirit as we encountered the story of St. Francis and the wolf. The story goes, a ferocious wolf prowled Gubbio’s perimeter, attacked livestock, harassed, threatened, and intimidated the town’s residents. This was until St. Francis spoke with the wolf and arranged an agreement. St. Francis had great affection for animals and nature. One of his many gifts was to commune with animals. In his discussion with the wolf, it was agreed the wolf would no longer harass the town and in exchange it would be forgiven, cared for and food would be provided daily. The accord worked and St. Francis succeeded in restoring harmony amongst the town. After listening to a Franciscan friar, brother Enrico helped bring light to this story. He explained much like St. Francis’s prayer in front of the San Damiano crucifix the wolf could represent sin and so we must pray to God to enlighten the darkness of our heart. He emphasized in order to acquire peace and harmony justice must prevail.
Our next destination on the pilgrimage took us to the heart of the Catholic Church. In Rome we witnessed the beauty and spender of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Mary Major Basilica. It was amazing to be in Rome where the witness of St. Peter and St. Paul’s martyrdom provoked unbelievers to believe and increased the faithful among Christians. Through Tammy’s resourcefulness our accommodations in Rome could not have been better. She placed us in a convent named Casa Santo Spirito which is one single streets distance from the outer columns of the Vatican Square. We had the entire 4th floor and from two of my fellow pilgrim’s rooms looking out the window you could easily hear conversations and view directly into the Vatican Square. Our first endeavor as pilgrims in Rome was a special tour called the Scavi tour. It took us down under St. Peter’s Basilica. The tour allowed us to see how ancient Romans lived and died. It ultimately led us to St. Peter’s tomb. How astounding it was to place my own eyes upon our first Pope and the keeper of the keys to heaven’s resting place. In honor, I took a minute, said a prayer and thanked our Lord for the gift of our faith. St. Peter’s Basilica was enormous and extremely beautiful. While there, I was taken back to have the opportunity to enjoy the sacrament of reconciliation in such a spiritual place. We were fortunate enough to experience a Mass in the basilica and I was super excited to partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist at St. Peter’s alter. Another moment I will never forget during this pilgrimage is attending the general audience with Pope Francis. It was captivating to see our Pope in person and witness his message for the day. All attendees were given a papal blessing which extended to our families at home. It is spiritually nurturing to know my fellow pilgrims and I received a blessing from The Pope.
I am so very grateful, humbled and overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to have been selected for this pilgrimage. Walking in the footsteps of St. Francis has been a huge blessing. It provided an incredible opportunity to grow in my faith while accompanied by my pilgrimage family. The beautiful places, packed with history and spirituality embodied the purpose of a pilgrimage. Each day I encountered God in some form or another. However, as incredible as the basilicas and relics have been, and as wonderful as it all was, it was the interior spiritual movement that paralleled or surpassed all other experiences. The one place I could rely more consistently on an encountered with God was through communal nightly reflections and scriptural prayer at the end of each day. One of the amazing parts of this pilgrimage and one of my favorite parts of the day was when we would go to the chapel to pray. The other pilgrims and I connected through shared joys, vulnerabilities, sufferings and through scripture. We began our journey as strangers with one thing in common, our Franciscan University, but ended the journey as a newfound family and lifelong friends. I have grown to love all of them like family. They are now my little mini family, my Franciscan brothers and sister. We have all taken on each other's prayers and intentions as our own which has been truly powerful. Building relationships with my fellow pilgrims and resting in one another’s company has been so special. We could all feel the power of community when we came together at night to pray and reflect. I pray for all my fellow pilgrims as we take the spirit of this pilgrimage and St. Francis with us in our hearts forever. We know we are there for one another and none of us in our journey of faith are alone. I will be forever grateful for the memories I've made, the friendship I've gained, and the experiences. The community we have formed on this pilgrimage will be inscribed in our hearts. The entire pilgrimage was an appointment with God, we didn't know we had. From gelato to fine wine, I have been and will continue to share the fruits of our pilgrimage with my fellow Franciscans and the Church as a whole. Overall, this pilgrimage was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so grateful to Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, Campus Ministry and Tammy Vidrine for allowing me to be a part of it.
-Written by Theology Student Duke Duplessis