Assisi and Its Pilgrims

Like waves washing the feet of the city, wide-windowed buses flow up the highway each morning to discharge their passengers at Assisi’s medieval gateways. Perched on the lower slopes of Mount Subasio in Central Italy, the charming Italian hill town of 6000 inhabitants receives several million visitors a year.  Chattering in a dozen tongues, they stream up the steep narrow streets, overhung with geraniums to the great three-level basilica housing the remains of God’s “little poor one,” that most beloved of saints, Francis of Assisi. When the sun goes down, the crowds depart like a receding tide, and Assisi is once again at peace.

Alice and I had rented an apartment in the town for a two-week stay, and had celebrated our last evening with a restaurant dinner. About 9:30 PM, we emerged from our meal and ascended to the town square where we found that a crowd had gathered.  Police were out blocking traffic, the town’s tower was illuminated and soon its great bell began to toll and the crowd hushed.

Descending from the Cathedral of San Rufino, where a solemn Mass had just concluded, came acolytes bearing a processional cross followed by double files of men and women confraternity members in white gowns with blue and red mantles. The annual Corpus Christi procession had been scheduled to pass through the square an hour earlier and was only now beginning.  Down the narrow Via Roma came the holy women of the city, nuns in habit from the different convents and cloisters including rarely seen Carmelites, followed by long lines of friars in their Franciscan robes, priests and deacons in gold and white vestments, and finally the bishop flanked by clergy of the Cathedral Chapter.  Above the bishop was a white canopy held in the air by acolytes. With a wide veil over his shoulders and covering his hands,

The bishop carrying the Eucharist enters Assisi's main square.
The bishop carrying the Eucharist enters Assisi’s main square.

As the long files moved down the street into the darkness most of the bystanders — we included — joined in the procession.

In Italy, the Corpus Christi procession has taken place on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday for 800 years. From childhood to death, the annual journey with the Blessed Sacrament is part of the cycle of celebrations that make up the Italian year. The reassuring presence of Christ passing through the streets of towns such as Assisi seems as natural in Latin cultures as walking and breathing.

The crowd shuffled through the darkness, straining to hear the priest reciting the litany, responding to the verses that proclaimed Christ beloved by the father and center of every heart, and to each verse replied: “abbi pietà di noi,” “have mercy on us.”

Along the dark and narrow street, convent doors had been opened revealing seldom-seen chapels in full illumination.  Here and there, votive candles set out upon window ledges broke the darkness of the narrow street.  From time to time, the prayers would alternate with Eucharistic hymns in Italian or Latin. Recognizing one of the melodies, I found myself singing the refrain of the old Communion hymn: “Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore, O make us love thee more and more.”

Non-believers find the Catholic attitude toward Eucharist bewildering. They have difficulty seeing beyond the pageantry. For Catholics, the Eucharist is a profoundly personal and communitarian experience. It is a bonding with divine life, death and resurrection indelibly impressed upon the world. That evening we walked with Jesus to Jerusalem, or accompanied him from the Garden of Gethsemane, or followed him on the road to Calvary.

Emerging from the narrow streets we faced the bell tower of the Basilica of St Francis.

Other church bells had now begun to peal as the procession, numbering perhaps 500 people,  The face of the church was aglow under spotlights, and now the sound of its booming bells also swept over the city’s rooftops.

The ceremony concluded in the basilica with a brief Benediction Service. By 10:30 PM the Corpus Christi celebration was over. The crowd dispersed to their homes, and the town whose watchword is “peace and wellness” was again silent.

In a broken world, where our own spiritual lives are so often fragmented, things came together for me that evening. There was wholeness and timelessness to that Eucharistic walk. I had been part of the endless flow of pilgrims who through the centuries, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. With them I had experienced a continuity of faith, celebrated and renewed.