St Francis would have rejoiced at the idea of a pilgrimage to truth at Assisi

A barefooted pilgrim walks on his hands and knees to the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For Catholics, certain place names have a particular resonance: think Avila, Lisieux or Lourdes and we immediately associate them with the saint who gave them prominence. The name Assisi conjures up my patron saint, Francis of Assisi (sorry about the spelling of my name; I’m still a woman, despite a few queries in blog posts) whose feast day was October 4.

In the old days, ie before the 1960s, St Francis and his birthplace meant the man of the stigmata who fell in love with “Lady Poverty”, founded the Franciscan Order, wrote the Canticle of the Sun and invented the first Christmas crib and so on. Then came the hippies, Greenpeace and the ecology movement and he was transformed into the “patron” of the beards and sandals brigade. Then came the historic meeting at Assisi, called by the late John Paul II in 1986 after which, in traditionalist circles, the place became a byword of apostasy. John Paul II was accused of giving the impression that the Catholic faith is only one among many, suggesting all have equal value. Even now, you only have to whisper the word “Assisi” in some quarters for a collective gasp of horror to follow.

Now we are in the new millennium, in the era of the new evangelisation called by the present Pope, and I am hoping that the name “Assisi” will be given new life as the place where Benedict XVI led Catholics, representatives of other religions – and also non-believers – into a deeper search for world peace. Pope Benedict, in an intriguing letter to a Lutheran minister, has made clear his own view of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, due to take place in Assisi on October 27, writing:

“I will… do everything in order that a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event will be impossible and so that what will remain is that I will always believe and confess that which I called to the attention of the Church with Dominus Iesus [the declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000 that the Catholic Church is the sole and true Church founded by Christ].”

Today the Vatican Information Service relays information from the Holy See’s Press Office concerning this “Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world: ‘Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace’.” It states: “By calling this day in Assisi, Benedict XVI wishes to mark the 25th anniversary of the historic meeting organised there by John Paul II in 1986.” According to Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Pope wants the idea of a “pilgrimage” to be emphasised, as it implies “asceticism, purification, convergence towards a more exalted place and taking on a community responsibility”.

For me, the most interesting part of this news is that for the first time non-believers have been invited to join more than 175 religious leaders from 50 nations around the world at Assisi. According to Mgr Melchor de Tocay y Alameda, under-secretary for the Pontifical Council for Culture, this is because of the Holy Father’s conviction that “men and women, both believers and non-believers, are always searching for God, for the Absolute and that they are therefore all pilgrims travelling towards the fullness of truth”.

How St Francis would have rejoiced at this: his own life, in which asceticism and purification predominated from the moment he threw down his clothes at the feet of his father, was one long pilgrimage of joyful suffering in search of a closer union with Christ – who is Truth and Love incarnate.