Grey afternoon skies hung low over the countryside surrounding Padua, about a 40-minute drive west of Venice. I had just driven ten kilometers southwest of town to arrive at my destination, the Abbazia Di Praglia, a Benedictine community of monks. Nestled at the feet of the Euganean hills, along an ancient road leading to the neighboring town of Este, my arrival at the Abbey appeared as if I had just stepped back in time. Read more
A Saint and a Pope–Humility Then and Now
“Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” St. Francis of Assisi
The new Pope Francis is giving the Vatican police and Swiss Guards a headache. He won’t ride in the Popemobile, but insists on riding around in an open-air white Mercedes jeep that he gets out of to intermingle with the crowds. He insists on walking when his security want him to go by car. On Holy Thursday he washed the feet of inmates at a detention center outside Rome instead of cleaning priests feet, or even delegating the washing. He won’t move into the papal chambers but lives in his own small apartment. Pope Francis is very determined to stay humble and makes no bones about it. It appears to be the beginning of a new wave of Pope.
When 76 year old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio selected the name Francis I as new Pope, it was a first for the church to honor St. Francis of Assisi. So who was this famous saint, chosen as the patron saint of Italy?
Born in Umbria to a wealthy cloth merchant in 1182, Francis lived a lavish lifestyle. He was constantly surrounded by many friends and always made himself the life of the party. Wanting to be a knight and accomplish outstanding deeds, he joined with Assisi and fought against neighboring Perugia.
When Francis left on the Fourth Crusade, he had an encounter with God that turned him back toward home. From that point on he devoted himself to the church. While at San Damiano, a small church close to Assisi, Jesus spoke to Francis through the cross above the altar to “go and repair my church.”
Upon hearing God, Francis renounced all his possessions, began preaching and built a following that became the Franciscan Order. He did rebuild San Damiano, but understood later that God had meant for him to rebuild His church body of believers.
Francis of Assisi embraced poverty, living with the poor and the lowest. He ministered to lepers and personally cleansed their wounds. He loved God and all His creation.
Why did the new Pope pick Francis for his name? Cardinals, as in the Bible, choose a name when they get a new job from God. They need a name that will support them and inspire them to accomplish the task God has for them to do.
“Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, then I thought of war. Francis loved peace and that is how the name came to me,” replied Pope Francis to the press. He spoke of St. Francis as a poor and humble man, concerned with the natural environment.
Pope Francis has already shown indications that he is much humbler than previous Popes of the church. In Argentina, he lived in a small apartment and cooked his own meals. He has shown no intention of moving out of his modest two room apartment at the Vatican hotel, the Casa Santa Marta, and into the elegant 12-plus-room papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace. He will use the papal apartment as his work space, to receive official guests and handle papal business. But he will return to his humble dwellings each night, eating in the communal dining room, and celebrating mass in the hotel chapel with Vatican groundskeepers, domestic staff, and other low-level workers. Francis keeps no personal aides.
So what do the Pope and the Saint have in common? I see the shadow of St. Francis on the Pope. Humble, simple, compassionate, companion to the lowly, eats with sinners, servant to others, concerned with the natural environment. Strong parallels exist between the two. This world desperately needs a St. Francis. Is it too much to hope that our new Pope just might be an answer to that prayer?
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St. Catherine and Me
“Be all God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” St. Catherine
I knew we would be good friends from the start. Catherine has that presence that compels you to be close to her, to hug her. I was instantly drawn to her simple humbleness, as if she were nothing but a small brown bird. So I approached her, wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed tight.
During our stay in Siena, I couldn’t escape the urge to visit her whenever I could. She made such an impression on me. Diminutive yet mighty, Catherine was a woman able to influence the greatest powers within her own country.
Who was this tiny Dominican nun who collected such a large group of followers, including me? Where did her charisma come from? How did she gain the respect of the most powerful?
Catherine was Siena’s Mother Terese. She reached out to the poor, the sick, and the homeless. She worked tirelessly helping others through the Black Plague, bringing salvation to many. People were drawn to her radiantly joyful nature and spiritual wisdom. She was someone people wanted to be around. In short, Catherine was a saint!
The painting above is the most accurate likeness of St. Catherine known to exist. It was painted by a contemporary friend, Andrea Vanni, and is housed in the Basilica of San Domenico.
I must confess, while passing through her sanctuary, this statue of her stopped me in my tracks. She stands looming with outstretched arms, clutching a crucifix and lilies, and she is huge. At night, lights are positioned to shine up on her, casting ominous shadows on the wall. Very intimidating. Although she tirelessly fought corruption within the church, the impression of fire and brimstone is so far from whom I believe she really was.
Born Catherine Benincasa in Siena during the late middle ages in 1347, the 23rd child out of 25, Catherine lived amazingly during her short 33 years. Striving for peace in Italy, she acted as liaison between the two great powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. Two supporting parties resulted from these two powerhouses. The Ghibellines comprised the imperial party, and the Guelphs supported the papacy.
The people of Florence, traditionally a Geulph city, were upset with the pope and his lingering in Avignon, France. They wanted him back in Rome as he had promised them. Little Catherine, through her works and letters, so impressed Pope Gregory XI that he did eventually return the papacy to Rome. As a result, she established peace between the Pope and Florence. She became known as “the mystic of politics.”
Basilica San Domenico, built in 1226, kept a cell in which St. Catherine spent much of her time. In fact, she hasn’t entirely left. Today her head can be seen inside an urn on a gilded tabernacle in the chapel dedicated to her. Her finger as well. The rest of her is kept in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, where she died in 1380. Her bodily remnants are called relics, and those of the saints were highly prized in every Italian city during this time. It was believed that housing a saints body part would protect that city from harm.
Sadly, Catherine struggled with anorexia. She ate very little and, as a result, her life ended early. This mindset of extreme neglect for the body was prevalent among the saints. They were convince this act brought them closer to God.
An author, humanitarian and servant, Catherine possessed a great passion for her faith, for the welfare of others, and for her country. She was greatly respected for her spiritual writings and her political boldness to speak the truth to those with the highest power in the country. It was exceptional for a woman in her time to have such influence on politics and world history. She was illiterate, yet managed to sway the greatest powers and minds of her age.
Address: Basilica San Domenico, Piazza San Domenico, Siena,Italy Contact: 0577/280893, Hours: Apr-Oct 7am-12:55pm and 3-6pm, Nov-March 9am-12:55pm and 3-6pm Cost: Free