In the early part of the 13th century, Giovanni Pietro di Bernardone (who went on to become Saint Francis of Assisi) underwent a transformative experience that inspired him to eschew the wealth and privilege to which he had been born, and to become one of the greatest champions of the poor and marginalized. Saint Francis of Assisi, who was canonized only two years after his death in 1226, attracted thousands of followers, which became the impetus for the formation of the Friars Minor (literally the Little Brothers), whose mission was the promotion of the love of God through acts of charity, respect for all creation, and the adoption of poverty.
This June, students from DePaul University in Chicago travelled to Italy to participate in a summer program, Franciscan Spirituality and Legacy. They began their journey visiting sites and churches in Assisi, and its environs, that were significant to the saint during the formative years of his vocation—e.g. the Rocca Maggiore, San Damiano, and the Porziuncola in Santa Maria degli Angeli. Later, they explored the mother church, the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, where they were given a guided tour of Saint Francis’s tomb.
In Rome, The Lay Centre’s Assistant for Programs, Robert White, led the group to St. Peter’s Basilica, and other religious and cultural sites, where they learned about Saint Francis within the context of the Catholic tradition. They also visited the Pontifical University Antonianum where they were warmly received by Fr Luca Bianchi, OFM (President of the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality), and Professor Leonard Lehmann, OFM spoke with them about Franciscan spirituality. Touring this academic institution elucidated the more intellectual side of the Franciscans, and the current role they play in the city’s pontifical university system.
“Having the opportunity to visit various Franciscan shrines and a distinguished Franciscan university is beneficial to understanding the Order’s mission, and the unique role that the Franciscans continue to have in the Church’s objective in promoting peace and justice,” said White.
The Lay Centre hosted lunch for the group on 22 and 23 June, at their facility on the Caelian Hill, which concluded with a roundtable discussion.
Sr Gabriella Pettirossi, F.S.E. (Secretary to Assistant Vice Prefect, Dr Ambrogio Piazzoni of the Vatican Apostolic Library), Fr Míchéal MacCraith, OFM of the Irish Franciscan College of St Isidore, and Fr Paolo Pugliese, OFM (a student at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute) were in attendance, and spoke about Franciscan values and their personal experiences as members of the Franciscan community.
When asked about Pope Francis’s adoption of the name of their founder, Sr Gabriela responded, “God raises the person the world needs now,” referring specifically to the Pontiff’s commitment to serve the world’s growing poor.
Dr Ken Butigan, who teaches Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies (PAX) at DePaul, was joined by colleague Dr Marian Díaz from the Institute of Pastoral Studies (ISP) at Loyola University in Chicago, who was also in Rome with a group of students.
Dr Butigan discussed the concept of PAX, which essentially provides students with skills to evaluate the origins and causes of violence, in order to find effective, non-violent resolutions to conflict.
Dr Díaz went on to emphasize that part of the peace making process is recognizing that “God is merciful. Peace occurs when we find the mercy within ourselves,” she said.
At the second roundtable discussion, students and faculty met with Dr Flaminia Giovanelli, Undersecretary at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (and the highest ranking lay woman in the Vatican), Dr Olga Zhyvytsya, Advocacy Officer at Caritas Internationalis, and Amaya Valcárcel, International Advocacy Coordinator at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Keeping with the program’s theme of peace and justice, the discussion was anchored in the of the role of the Church in addressing measures to prevent conflict that has increased refugees and asylum seekers globally. Human trafficking and methods to raise awareness of this widespread problem were also topics of consideration.
“Many migrants, especially women, are forced into labour, and we need to emphasize the value of work and human life,” expressed Dr Zhyvytsya. She went on to discuss how Caritas Internationalis not only works to promote laws that protect displaced people, but they insure that the laws are monitored and continually enforced.
Both Dr Giovanelli and Amaya Valcárcel praised Pope Francis for his commitment to the poor, which has aided Catholic humanitarian organizations to more effectively promote the need to assist immigrants.
“The Holy See plays an institutional role in peace-making and in alleviating suffering,” Dr Giovanelli asserted, “In particular, we are in the process of organizing conferences that promote human rights issues globally, not only in the Catholic community,” she said.
Valcárcel revealed that large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers are being fostered by many of the world’s poorest countries. “Industrialized nations have to be more generous in assisting with the burden of immigration, because the growth of displaced people in impoverished countries, particularly in urban centres, will inevitably create contention,” she stressed.
Each session ended with questions and comments from the students; many expressed their desire to work in areas that address human rights issues upon completing university. Valcárcel conveyed her belief that the world’s youth are becoming increasingly instrumental in mediating conflict.
“Positive changes can be seen in the collaborative efforts of young Christians and Muslims working together, even in volatile countries like Central Africa and Sudan,” she added.