The province of Umbria forms a broad fertile plain in the centre of Italy through which the River Tiber runs south towards Rome. Along the eastern rim of this plain lie the Apennine Marches, and one of those great mountain shoulders heaved up above the valley is called Monte Subasio. On its lower slopes, facing west across the rich plain, stand several small fortified towns, of which the most famous by far is Assisi. Francis, who was born there in 1182, is the man who put this town on the map. And he continues to draw the crowds, whether pilgrim or tourist, from every corner of the world.
Sitting here in a busy cafe next to the main fountain, I can tell you that the cappuccinos are good. The small lanes of Assisi are full of both locals and visitors, alongside a lot of men and women in brown habits and open-toed sandals. When Brother Giles, a friend who is a Franciscan friar, visited me in Copenhagen last year, he was stared at on the streets of the city as he walked along dressed like this. Here in Assisi, dog collars and habits, and sandals and crosses, are the norm. The tourist shops have a strange mixture of wooden Pinocchio toys with long noses (he was another famous local, but with different moral standards!), catapults and knives, alongside icons and plastic models of Saint Francis of Assisi. This is a holy place, yes. But the real world of plastic and money-making lives right alongside.
Sipping another cappuccino, and fighting away a pigeon, I ponder for a moment. What on earth would this man Francis of Assisi, who lived in a very different Umbria, make of life in modern Europe today? The men in the bars seem more interested in the Chelsea vs Bayern Munich result than deep discussion about the state of the euro and the Italian economy. I am not sure whether we will remember the euro or even Chelsea 800 years from now. But 800 years after his death in 1226, the ideas and values of Francis of Assisi are alive and thriving.
Religious people (from all faiths) revere and follow Francis’s teachings of prayer, simplicity, poverty, chastity and obedience. Environmentalists take heart from Francis’s teachings and stories about nature and animals (he even preached to the birds). Political scientists and international relations theorists (such as Dr Scott M Thomas) cite Francis as an inspiration for their models on conflict resolution, peace building and the new economics. People working on Christian/Muslim relationships remember the way that Francis went to meet the sultan of Egypt (Malik-al-Kamil, the nephew of the famous Saladin) and work for understanding between faiths. The life of Francis, in this new age of ‘austerity’, seems to have more meaning than ever in 2012.
As we celebrate this Pentecost weekend, which is the birthday of the Christian Church, I salute good old St Francis of Assisi who stopped to make people think by doing radical things and living simply, and whose message of peace and simplicity speaks loudly to this generation. He is also the patron saint of Italy, but I won’t hold that against him.