By Raymond Syms, Editor
All eyes were on him as he slowly exited the popemobile parked behind the altar.
Pope Francis grimaced in obvious pain, suffering from strained ligaments in his right knee for months. On doctors’ orders, he has been using a wheelchair and a cane to get around so he can let it heal.
Reading about the Pope’s ailment is one thing but seeing him struggle to get to his chair using a cane is another. “Papa!” shouted a Mexican delegate rows behind. The response: “Francesco!”. Three times the call and response were made.
When he finally plopped down in the chair, he turned to the World Meeting of Families delegates seated to his left, waved, and smiled.
Papa Francesco had already taken the customary drive around the square to hold a baby or two and greet pilgrims who had been assembling for the last two hours in the hot sun to get into the sectioned off area.
First sign that the Pope was coming: the unmistakable appearance of Swiss Guards marching to their strategic positions, and watchful security dressed in black ties and suits accessorised with earpieces. Some wore shades.
The June 25 Mass was originally set for 5.15 p.m. Rome time, but with temperature rising during the week to over 37 degrees Celsius, organisers pushed back the start time to 6.30 p.m. Delegates were fortunate to be seated in a shaded area.
The Mass was celebrated in Italian, but English-speaking delegates behind us logged into the livestream for the English translation.
The call and response went up again at the end of the Mass as the Holy Father made his way slowly back to the popemobile. This time, comfortably seated, his smile was broader and his wave effusive as if to say “Gracias, amigos!” for the support. Delegates waved back as the Holy Father was driven slowly down the ramp to exit right.
The World Meeting of Families in Rome 2022 was over. Now, we Caribbean delegates prepared ourselves to visit the resting place of the saint from whom Pope Francis took his name.
We had to leave early the Sunday morning to get to the Roma Termini station for the train heading to the Province of Perugia. Our destination: Assisi. We settled in one of the air-conditioned carriages and chatted a bit as the train left on time for the two-hour plus journey, covering 182 km according to the ticket.
Everyone took a nap. I opened my eyes from time to time. The scenery had changed: from housing apartments, commercial buildings, and walls of graffiti to fields of hay rolls and sunflowers. There was no signage as we passed small towns and farms.
Finally, we arrived in Assisi and caught the bus to the town centre where we visited the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels). Again, there are benefits to having an archbishop and bishop around. We were able to celebrate Mass in the Chapel of Tears.
Holy Mass was still being celebrated in Italian in the main church. One oddity is the first chapel built by San Francesco d’Assisi (St Francis of Assisi) is situated in the middle of the basilica. We joined others in prayer inside the small chapel for a while.
We soon left to catch the bus that would take us to the bottom of the hill that leads to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. The courtyard reminded me of the Abbey Church at Mt St Benedict, only three times larger.
There are three levels to the basilica. The lowest level, down a winding staircase, is St Francis’ tomb in the centre of a column. We sat there in prayer, relaxing in the dim, cool, subterranean silence, save for the shuffling feet and murmurs of other visitors.
The level above had other chapels for prayer and towards the back, an exhibition of historical artefacts. The upper level of the basilica is the main church with an annexed souvenir shop. Outside the basilica is a beautiful garden with greenery cut in the T-shape of the Tau cross of St Francis.
But this was just the basilica. Visible further up were other churches. “You need a week here to really discover Assisi,” explained Fr Ragbir.
After a tasty lunch at Osteria da Santu Mangione, strategically located between two buildings, we walked uphill towards the piazza. Along the way there were all types of shops featuring the work of artisans.
Soon enough, it was time to return to the town centre. We hustled down to the bus stop, then to the train station and waited on the train from Perugia.
Assisi: a sacred place not to be forgotten.