FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

12. Franciscan Sanctuaries (4)

Carceri, Basilica of St. Francis,
La Verna, Greccio, Fontecolombo


Le Carceri

12.19 From Porta Cappuccini the road winds up Monte Subasio. It was on this lonely mountain that Francis had one of his most dear hermitages, known as Le Carceri (800 metres).

A suggestive view of "Le Carceri"

Monte Subasio was always popular with the hermits, and the chapel of "Sancta Maria carcerum" was one of the most famous centres of eremitical life. The actual friary underwent various alterations during the centures. From the primitive nucleus of the chapel of the Virgin and the small cave of St. Francis, the buildings included the present-day friary, first built by the Fraticelli who lived here until 1340 and then enlarged by the Observant reform friars, and especially by St. Bernardine of Siena in 1426.

At "Le Carceri"

Le Carceri expresses well what 2 Cel 95 says about Francis: "All his attention and affection he directed with his whole being to the one thing which he was asking of the Lord, not so much praying as becoming himself a prayer".

Basilica of St. Francis

12.20 Pope Gregory IX canonised St. Francis in Assisi on 16 July 1228, and published the Bull "Mira circa nos" (19 July 1228). The following day he laid the foundation stone of the basilica ("specialis ecclesia") which he wanted to be built in honour of the Poverello, and which he announced by the Bull "Recolentes" of 29 April 1228. This church was to be subject directly to the Pope himself. Gregory IX declared it "caput et mater" (head and mother) of the Order of Minors in 1230. In 1228 Brother Elias received from Simone Pucciarelli on 30 March, in the name of Pope Gregory IX, a plot of land on the "Colle del Paradiso", on the western side of the town of Assisi. There he masterminded the building of two superimposed churches, a lower basilica or burial crypt and an upper basilica or monastic church.

The lower church at Assisi - site of the tomb of St. Francis

The remains of St. Francis were solemnly transported to the new church on 25 May 1230. Pope Innocent IV consecrated the basilica on 25 May 1253. Pope Benedict XIV declared the church a Patriarchal Basilica and Papal Chapel on 25 March 1754 with the Constitution "Fidelis Dominus". Pius VII, on 12 September 1818, gave permission to the Minister General of the Friars Minor Conventuals to proceed with the excavations underneath the main altar of the lower basilica in order to find the tomb of St. Francis, which had been conceiled by Brother Elias and then by Pope Eugene IV in 1476.

The tomb of St. Francis

The tomb came to light on 8 December 1818, and on 12 December the remains of St. Francis were exhumed. In order to facilitate the visits of the growing number of pilgrims to the tomb, a new neo-romanic crypt was opened underneath the lower basilica. On 18 June 1939 Pope Pius XII declared St. Francis patron saint of Italy. A votive lamp with oil donated by the various regions of the Italian peninsula burns on the tomb. On 18 January 1978 Pope Paul VI authorised the Minister General of the Friars Minor Conventuals to proceed with the reopening of the tomb and scientific study of the remains of St. Francis. This took place between 24 January and 4 March 1978.

The tomb of St. Francis as seen in 1978

On 5 November 1978 Pope John Paul II came to Assisi as a pilgrim and visited the tomb. He returned on 12 March 1982 with the Italian episcopal conference, and again on 27 October 1986 for the international day of prayer for peace. The lower and upper basilica are a splendid monument of art, with fresoces by Lorenzetti, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Giotto. The friars are available on request for guided tours of the basilica.

La Verna

12.21 Il monte della Verna in the Casentino, Tuscany, was the property of Count Orlando di Chiusi, who offered it to St. Francis on 8 May 1213, when he met the saint in the castle of San Leo, in Montefeltro. Francis and the brothers went up for an annual retreat on the mountain during the lent of St. Michael (15 August - 29 September). Count Orlando built a small chapel on the mountain, dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels. It still forms the primitive nucleus of the Franciscan hermitage of La Verna. On La Verna, Francis received the gift of the stigmata on a morning close to 14 September 1224, when he had the vision of the Crucified Seraph who imprinted his flesh with the wounds of the Passion. On La Verna Francis composed the Praises of Almighty God and gave a special blessing to Brother Leo. On La Verna, St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the Order (1257-1274) had the inspiration to write the mystical treatise "The Journey of the Soul into God".

12.22 The hermitage presents a complex of buildings. The chapel of St. Mary of the Angels (1216-1218) has some precious terracotta basreliefs by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1528). The same artist is also the author of other famous basreliefs in the principal basilica which began to be built in 1348, notably the terracotta of the Annunciation. Some precious relics of St. Francis are venerated in this church. The corridor of the stigmata leads you to the chapel of the stigmatisation of St. Francis on the exteme edge of the mountain face. This chapel also has a beautiful terracotta by Della Robbia, this time a Crucifixion. Other areas are associated with episodes of Francis' experiences on La Verna, notably the cell of St. Francis, the Sasso Spicco, the oratories of St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure, and the chapel of the Maddalena. The present-day friary is much larger and was built between 1239 and 1300, together with the refectory, built in 1518. Other small chapels dot the mountainside, and especially a small chapel on the top of the mountain, known as La Penna (1238 metres).

Greccio

12.23 The hermitage of Greccio stands some 2 kilometres away from the village of Greccio, which is a medieval castle, built above the Rieti valley. This valley was very dear to Francis, who often passed from these surroundings on his way from Rome to Assisi. In fact we find 4 Franciscan sanctuaries in the Rieti valley, namely Greccio, Fontecolombo, Poggio Bustone and Santa Maria della Foresta.

The hermitage of Greccio is intimately linked with the celebration of Christmas which Francis organised here in 1223. Thomas of Celano (1 Cel 84-87) gives us a clear description of what took place.

12.24 The most important section of the sanctuary is the chapel of the crib, which was built in the present form in 1228. A rock under the altar indicates the place where Francis arranged the manger of the crib. The cave wall is surrounded by a fresco from the school of Giotto. It shows Francis wearing the dalmatic of a deacon and taking into his arms the infant Jesus. Another interesting section of the sanctuary is the primitive Franciscan friary, with the dormitory, the refectory and the cell of St. Francis.

12.25 Another section is made up of the friary dating from the times of St. Bonaventure. A modern church built in 1959 can take larger groups for prayer and community celebrations.

Fontecolombo

12.26 The hermitage of Fontecolombo lies some 5 kilometres from Rieti. It marks the place where Francis wrote the Later Rule of 1223, confirmed by Pope Honorius III on 29 November. The name Fontecolombo derives from the latin "fons columbarum" (the fountain of doves). The place was originally the property of the Benedictine abbey of Farfa.

12.27 The church of Fontecolombo was consecrated in 1450 by Cardinal Nicolò di Cusa. It is dedicated to St. Francis and St. Bernardine of Siena. The original nucleus of Fontecolombo includes the hermitage, in which Francis underwent the painful operation when he had his temples cauterised in 1225. Further down there is the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, which is the original chapel in which Francis and brother Leo prayed. On the side of the altar one can find the TAU painted on the wall. The Sacro Speco is a kind of crevice in the rock, and it marks the place in which Francis retreated in solitude and prayer in order to write the Later Rule. Other holy places include the chapel of St. Michael and the grotto of Brother Leo.

Other Franciscan Sanctuaries

12.28 Many other places are associated with the life of St. Francis of Assisi. We shall only mention some of them. The Rieti valley also boasts two other sanctuaries, namely the church of San Fabiano, or Santa Maria della Foresta, where Francis was taken when he went to Rieti for the cure of his eyes, and where his prayers brought forth a mirculous abundance of grapes in the vineyard of the poor priest, which was trampled upon by visitors. Poggio Bustone is a small village high up on the valley. The church is dedicated to St. James, and marks the occasion in which Francis went to this town with his well-known salutation "buon giorno, buona gente". A small sanctuary further up marks the place where the saint had the mystical experience of the total remission of his past sins.

12.29 An enchanting hermitage in Umbria is the Speco di San Urbano, or as it is widely known, Speco di Narni.

12.30 In Tuscany, outside Cortona, one can visit the hermitage of Le Celle di Cortona.

12.31 This has been our last contribution. The aim of this material is simply that of providing the barest essentials for an initial knowledge of the Franciscan charism.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm
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