Saturday, March 3, 2012

Catholic travel: Italy and Assisi

                                                A Religious Experience

Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations today. Besides its many attractions it has for the Catholic traveler a special significance. When my wife and I travel we like to go to Mass every day. Not only does every little Italian town have its own church, but each little district in the town will have its own church. Of course in the larger cities you can hardly cross the street without bumping into a Catholic church which is still functioning as a center of worship.

For an American Catholic the spiritual benefit of attending Mass even in Italian is immeasurable. Still, I have to admit that for a tourist there are some ancillary advantages. First, it is a pleasure to observe Italians at worship. On Sundays the churches are well attended and Italians attend with gusto. They sing out the hymns more so than we do here in America.
At a daily Mass attended by half a dozen elderly women, they sang an a cappella version of the Ave Maria that was as good as anything I've ever heard.

Secondly, even though most of the precious art works that were originally in these churches have been removed to pinacotecas and museums, there is still plenty to see although the churches are extremely dark except when services are being conducted. In some churches if you drop a coin in a box, you will get a couple of minutes of light illuminating some masterpiece. Any tourist can do that but sometimes a Mass goer can get a special perk. If you attend the 10:30 daily Mass in the Baptistry in Florence, you will be allowed inside before the mob of tourists is admitted. Before and after Mass you will be able to walk around observing the incredible ceiling and walls virtually alone.

One year my wife and I happened to be in Assisi on October 4, the feast of St. Francis. Assisi is a special town on any day but it was really something that weekend. The day before was a Sunday and we attended Mass in the magnificent lower church of the Basilica of St. Francesco. The Mass was packed with pilgrims from all over come to honor St. Francis.

Assisi is a hill town with panoramic views over the surrounding Umbrian countryside but to me the most wonderful thing about Assisi is the sounds. Monday morning we were awakened by the incredible bells of San Francesco which rang steadily for more than five minutes at 7:00. Two hours later a procession from the town's central square, the Piazza del Comune, wound its way down the via di San Francesco to the Basilica. Every year a different region of Italy is represented in the procession. That year it was Abruzzo from the South. People marched  in their native costumes behind their local banners down to the Church to attend Mass.

Loudspeakers broadcast the proceedings for the thousands who couldn't get inside while TV camera crews roamed through the crowd and helicopters floated above. After Mass some politician gave a speech, and then gaily dressed singing groups performed traditional songs from Abruzzo. Finally, the crowd began to disperse for lunch and siesta.

That night after dinner my wife and I were walking back to our hotel. By then even the area around the Basilica was deserted. Yet as we passed the doors of the lower Church, we heard a small group of Americans singing the hymn of St. Francis.

            Make me a channel of your peace…###


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