The first thing you hear about Assisi from anyone who has been there is how peaceful it is. Even the road sign welcomes you to “Assisi: City of Peace” and everywhere throughout the city you see the motto “Pax et Bonum,” which is Latin for “Peace and All Good.”
My sister and I approached on foot at the golden hour, carrying our backpacks through the fields, feeling like every cliche of a pilgrim in the best possible way. Making the approach to the hilltop town on foot is exhausting, but we stopped only briefly at our Airbnb, picked up some street food and watched the sun set over the city from the Piazza Santa Chiara in front of the church where St. Clare was buried.
Expecting most of the churches to be closed, we wandered the streets but happened upon a stunning, English-speaking concert in the Basilica di San Francesco, where St. Francis was buried. Every few feet, we found new reasons to be delighted by the picture-perfect streets of the ancient town.
The next day, we saw most of the main sites: we climbed the hill to the castle, stopped at the church where St. Francis was baptized, hiked down the hill to San Damiano and the original Poor Clare convent. We went inside Santa Chiara and San Francesco, and saw the tombs of the saints and visited the house where St. Francis grew up. On our way out to the train station, we also visited St. Mary of the Angels, home of the Porziuncola — a tiny church within the large basilica where St. Francis began the Franciscan order and also where he died.
Although we were there just shy of 24 hours, it was a striking experience, and the dominant impression it left on me was that holiness is transfiguring.
Holiness is one of those words that had to be a little bit rehabilitated for me. Its default definition, at least for someone who grew up Catholic, seems to be some combination of distant haloed paintings and lifeless, even domineering, rule-following. An important step in my deepening understanding of holiness was the exercise of making a list of the people I admire and drawing out the qualities they shared.
When I did that, I began to understand what holiness actually looked like. Not so much the high-brow asceticism or perfectly executed laundry list of all the right devotionals as living fully alive and living fully devoted to the love of God and the love of others. Holiness can and certainly sometimes does include all those trappings, but those are only meant to be an outpouring of an all-consuming love. And when holiness is lived with love at the center, it is beautiful, full of life and deeply attractive. Though separated by centuries, it was awe-inspiring to see how the holiness of just a handful of people so deeply transformed the physical place they lived in and had ripple effects that continue to change the world today.
For many people I know who have visited Assisi, part of its power is their specific devotion to St. Francis and how much his spirituality has impacted their lives. That was not the case for me. As much as I admire both St. Francis and St. Clare, they are not the saints that I am most deeply drawn to. That is one of the beautiful things about holiness and the saints. We are all called to radical love of God and of neighbor, and to some universal mandates of morality and Church practice. But the way that that plays out in our lives is meant to be unique and to match the unique way in which God created each one of us.
Beautifully, my lack of specific devotion to St. Francis was compensated for by my two all-time favorite saints — St. Joseph and St. John Paul II. In the church where St. Francis was born, I found not only a beautiful statue of St. Joseph, but also a hall full of pictures of St. John Paul II, which was the one place in Assisi where I was moved to tears. It was a gift, and it speaks to the nature of holiness that in this place where two unrelated saints lived and are honored everywhere, I had a profound encounter with the saints that I have a personal relationship with. Holiness is the transfiguring reality of being close to Jesus, so it makes sense that a place of authentic intimacy with Christ would lend itself well to encountering others who were also close to Christ.
And one of the most striking lessons to be learned from Assisi is the vital importance of friendship and community. St. Francis is buried in the company of his original band of brothers and, of course, Assisi is known not just as his home but the home of him and his friend St. Clare. I was constantly reminded of my own community and the dear friends whose support, example and love have already profoundly shaped my growth in holiness. Even the “in-progress” holiness of my friends has been one of the most transfiguring forces in my life — drawing me closer to Jesus, teaching me to love and helping me to grow more and more into the person God meant me to be.
Catholic Herald young adult columnist Jacinta Van Hecke (left) and her sister Christina visited Assisi for about 24 hours. The visit made Jacinta Van Hecke think about holiness. (Submitted photo)