Here is a translation of the Letter the Holy Father Francis sent to the Bishop of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, Monsignor Domenico Sorrentino, for the inauguration of the Shrine of the Spoliation in the church of Saint Mary Major, former Cathedral of Assisi:
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You have informed me, dear brother, of your initiative, which is connected in a special way to the visit I made to Assisi on October 4, 2013 when, in the Bishopric, I paused in the Hall of Spoliation. Remembered there is the young Francis’ gesture, who stripped himself, to nudity, of all earthly goods, to give himself entirely to God and to brothers. To bring to light that singular episode, you wished to erect — in the church of Saint Mary Major, former Cathedral of Assisi, and in places of the Bishopric that witnessed the event –, the Shrine of Spoliation. Thus you added a pearl to the religious scenery of the “Seraphic City,” offering the Christian community and pilgrims another great opportunity, of which one can rightly expect spiritual and pastoral fruits. Therefore, I am happy to accompany the official inauguration, which will be held next May 20, with a reflection and a blessing.
I remember well the emotion of my first visit to Assisi. Having chosen Francis’ name, as ideal inspiration of my pontificate, the Hall of Spoliation made me relive with particular intensity that moment of the Saint’s life. Giving up all earthly goods, he detached himself from the spell of the god-money that had seduced his family, in particular his father Pietro di Bernardone. The young convert certainly did not intend to lack due respect to his father, but he remembered that a baptized <person> must put the love of Christ above the most cherished affections. Very visible in a painting that decorates the Hall of Spoliation is the father’s upset look, who moves away with the money and clothes of the son, while the latter, naked but now free, throws himself into the arms of Bishop Guido. The same episode is remembered in a fresco of Giotto in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis, which stresses the mystical impetus of the youth now projected to the heavenly Father, while the Bishop covers him with his cloak, to express the Church’s maternal embrace.
Going to visit the Hall of Spoliation, I asked you to have me see above all a representation of the poor. In that very eloquent Hall they were a testimony of the scandalous reality of a world still very marked by the gap between the endless number of indigents, often deprived of the strictly necessary, and the miniscule portion of possessors that hold the greatest part of the wealth and pretend to determine the destinies of humanity. Unfortunately, two thousand years after the proclamation of the Gospel and after eight centuries of Francis’ testimony, we are faced with a phenomenon of “global inequality” and of an “economy that kills” (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 52-60). In fact, the day before my arrival in Assisi, a great massacre of migrants was consummated in the waters of Lampedusa. Speaking, in the place of the “Spoliation,” also with the emotion determined by that sad event, I felt all the truth of what the young Francis gave witness to: only when he approached the poorest, at his time represented especially by the sick of leprosy, exercising mercy toward them, did he experience “sweetness of soul and body: (Testament, FF 110).
The new Assisi Shrine is born as prophecy of a more just and supportive society, while it reminds the Church of her duty to live, in the footsteps of Francis, despoiling herself of worldliness and clothing herself in the values of the Gospel. I confirm what I said in the Hall of Spoliation: “We are all called to be poor, to strip ourselves of ourselves; and to do this we must learn to be with the poor, to share with one deprived of the necessary, to touch the flesh of Christ! A Christian is not one who fills his mouth with the poor, no! He is one who encounters them, who looks at them in the eyes, who touches them.” Today it is more necessary than ever for Christ’s words to characterize the path and style of the Church. If in so many traditionally Christian areas of the world estrangement from the faith is verified, we are therefore called to a new evangelization. The secret of our preaching is not so much in the force of our words but in the fascination of our witness, sustained by grace. And the condition is that we not disregard the indications that the Master gave to His Apostles in the discourse on the mission, always appealing to the generosity of the evangelizers and fraternal solicitude in their encounters: “You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourer deserves his food” (Matthew 10:8-10).
Francis of Assisi had it very clear. He assimilated it in the meditation of the Gospel, but above all in the contemplation of Christ’s face in the lepers and in the Crucifix of San Damiano, from which he received the mandate: Francis, go, repair my house.” Yes, as in Francis’ time, the Church is always in need of being “repaired.” She is holy, in fact, in the gifts she receives from on high, but she is made up of sinners, and, therefore, is always in need of penance and renewal. And how can she be renewed if not by looking at her “naked” Lord? Christ is the original model of “spoliation,” as you, dear brother, wished to make evident, promulgating your letter of institution of the new Shrine on the solemnity of Christmas. In the Babe of Bethlehem the divine glory was as though hidden. It would be even more veiled on Golgotha. “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
From Christmas to Easter, Christ’s path is altogether a mystery of “spoliation.” In some way, the Omnipotence is eclipsed, so that the glory of Word made flesh is expressed above all in love and in mercy. The spoliation is a mystery of love! It does not show contempt for the reality of the world. And how could it? The whole world comes from God’s hands. In the Canticle of Brother Sun, Francis himself invites us to sing and to protect the beauty of all creatures. Spoliation makes us enjoy them in a sober and supportive way, with a hierarchy of values that puts love in the first place. One must be stripped, in essence, more than of things, of oneself, putting egoism aside which makes us defensive of our interests and our goods, impeding us from discovering the beauty of the other and the joy of opening our heart to him. A genuine Christian path does not lead to sadness, but to joy. In a world marked by so much “individualistic sadness” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 2), the Shine of the Spoliation intends to nourish in the Church and in society evangelical, simple and supportive joy.
A beautiful aspect of the new Shrine is given by the fact that, in the event of Francis’ spoliation, the figure also emerges of a Pastor, Bishop Guido, who probably knew him, if did not in fact accompanied him on his journey of conversion, and now receives him in his decisive choice. It is an image of the Church’s maternity that merits being rediscovered, while the youthful condition, in a general picture of society’s crisis, poses serious questions which I wished to focus on, proclaiming an apposite Synod. Young people are in need of being received, appreciated and accompanied. It is not necessary to be afraid to propose Christ to them and the demanding ideals of the Gospel. However, to do this it is necessary to put oneself in their midst and to walk with them. Thus the new Shrine also acquires the value of a precious place where young people can be helped in the discernment of their vocation. At the same time the adults are called to come together in unity of intentions and sentiments, so that the Church’s character of family can emerge increasingly, and the new generations feel themselves supported in their journey.
Therefore, from my heart I bless the new Shrine, extending my blessing to the pilgrims who will visit it and to the entire diocesan community. May the Holy Virgin, to whom the Shrine is dedicated, make felt all her maternal protection.
April 16, 2017, Easter of Resurrection
Francis[Original text: Italian] [Translation by Virginia M. Forrester]