Letter from Father Roch Niemier, O.F.M.

Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, Milwaukee

October 31, 1997

Dear Pilgrim,

God's peace be with you. THE ASSISI EXPERIENCE—Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs—is alive and well! I say this in the light of the recent earthquakes in Assisi which raised questions in the minds of some regarding the Program's future. I wish to put to rest any rumors that may raise such concerns.

Let me first answer some questions. Is it safe to go to Assisi? Yes, without hesitation! The streets, piazzas and cafes are all waiting for you. Most hotels are open and Casa Papa Giovanni, where our pilgrim groups stay, is one of the most secure in the city. This is due to the fact that part of it is built into the side of the mountain and to the anti-earthquake reinforcement measures that were employed in its renovation. Is it appropriate to come to Assisi? More than ever. The best thing that anyone can do for Assisi now is to show up and walk its streets. This helps bring hope and encouragement to the people.

Can we visit sanctuaries and churches? Yes! And we will be able to enter many of them. St. Clare, San Rufino, St. Mary Major and the Chiesa Nuova are damaged. We do not know the extent of needed repairs. The Porziuncola (St. Mary of the Angels) is intact, but the cupola yet needs to be examined before visitors will be welcome . The Lower Basilica and Tomb of St. Francis, San Damiano, the Carceri, and Santo Stefano will definitely reopen and be ready to receive pilgrims. (Mass has already been celebrated at the Tomb of Francis.)

We have developed new ways to tap into the spirituality of each place, even if we may not be able to enter some of them directly. Can we do The Assisi Experience? Without question, and in a deeper and more meaningful way than ever.

To this end we invite you to consider the following three focuses:

(1) REBUILDING PROCESS. The people and the town of Assisi are rebuilding their homes and their lives. Their rebuilding process is a symbol of our call, as it was for Francis, to rebuild society, the Church, our families, our communities and our lives. Our programs will continue to take you through Rome, the Rieti Valley, La Verna and Assisi where we will visit each sanctuary with historical input, lectures, prayer, rituals and leisure. More importantly, however, there will be the call to rebuild life today as we share in Assisi's own rebuilding venture.

One morning while in Europe I chanced upon a TV movie on the life of St. Francis. The closing scene has Clare viewing the dead body of Francis as the brothers carry him past San Damiano. Clare speaks these words as Francis passes: Once you thought you were called to build chapels of mortar and stone, but you have been building chapels in millions of hearts all over the world. We are called to the same: not to focus on bricks and mortar and well-defined sanctuaries, but on hearts that are rebuilt in the image of Jesus and the Gospel.

We all know the gospel account of the barren fig tree (LK 13:6-9). The farmer wishes to cut it down because there is no fruit. The gardener convinces him to wait one year so he can prune it and take care of it so as to produce a yield. I came across a reflection on this passage by Patti Normile (St. Anthony Messenger Weekday Homily Helps) that seems worth sharing.

James Michener, author of many extraordinary books, tells a story in The World Is My Home about what keeps him writing decade after decade. When he was a small child, a farmer who lived near Michener's family hammered eight nails into the trunk of an old, unproductive apple tree. That year the aged tree yielded an enormous crop of succulent apples.

When the small boy asked the farmer how this miracle had happened, the man told him, "Hammering the rusty nails gave it a shock to remind it that its job is to produce apples." Michener says that in the 1980's, when he was nearly 80, he had some "nails" hammered into his "trunk"—heart surgery, vertigo, a new hip. Like the apple tree, Michener determined that he would recommence bearing fruit.

The gardener in the parable of the fig tree and Michener's farmer gave their trees another chance to bear fruit. God gives each of us another opportunity to be fruitful for the kingdom of God.

Assisi's earthquakes are like rusty nails being pounded in, the shock reminding the city (and ourselves) of the need to produce more abundant fruit through the ongoing renewal of our lives. Can we on pilgrimage be so open and receptive?

(2) FRANCISCAN CONTRIBUTION TO HISTORY. When Francis and Clare came on the world scene, they literally changed history regarding social structures, military structures, ecclesiastical structures, religious and family structures. Since our pilgrimages invite you to implement and integrate the Franciscan vision of life, they therefore invite you to change history. Can we hear the invitation and allow ourselves to get caught in the vision?

(3) CELEBRATING THE NEW MILLENNIUM. All of the above is a most wonderful way to focus on and celebrate the coming millennium. Join us on pilgrimage, as a stimulus to the rebuilding of life, so as to change history and create a new society under Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

I am writing these reflections sitting at a Café along the Via della Conciliazione in Rome, looking out over St. Peter's. I've just returned from a day trip to Assisi. Earlier I had been there with a pilgrim group, our Franciscan Study Pilgrimage, during the first earthquakes and witnessed the resulting fear and damage. I want to assure you that rebuilding has begun. Our groups will have a strong and secure pensione.

Hope is returning to the hearts and spirit of the people. And next year, 1998, and for many years to come, Assisi will witness The Assisi Experience over and over, as the grace of God challenges us to a richer and deeper life. You are invited to join us.

God's loving and healing touch come upon you and the people of Assisi.

Respectfully and fraternally,

Fr. Roch Niemier, O.F.M. Director

P.S. If you would like to receive information on our Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, please go to our Web site Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, or contact the Pilgrimage Office by email or by postal mail: Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, 1648 South 37th St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53215-1724. Phone: 414-383-9870. Fax: 414-383-0335.


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