What attracts more than 6 million people a year to a little Italian town?

Joe Nathan
ECM Contributing Writer

In tough, challenging times, more than six million people a year go to a small Italian town on top of a hill. Although I am neither Christian nor Catholic, I was one of those six million recently. It’s easy to see why people come.

Yes, it’s beautiful. But there are many similar, scenic tiny towns scattered throughout this country.

The town is Assisi. The attraction is St. Francis.

He was born in 1182, more than 800 years ago. But his life, work and message remain as timely today, as they were hundreds of years ago.

St. Francis was born into wealth.  In his youth, he apparently enjoyed many of the opportunities that come with money.  But it did not satisfy him. Going off to war, he was captured and spent a year as a prisoner. Then he was released, and returned to Assisi, not sure what he should be doing.  He was like many other young people then and now, uncertain of direction and career.

The story goes that St. Francis felt God talked with him, asking him to renounce wealth and to promote peace and charity.  St. Francis did that for the rest of his life.

Among other things, he was a creative teacher.  We were told,and other material I’ve read agrees, that he used what educators call “visual aids.” As the well written and illustrated Wikipedia discussion of his life notes, “In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas manger scene…He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshipers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight.”

(A good short, illustrated discussion of his life is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_of_Assisi

Most of us will not give away our possessions. We won’t travel the country or world preaching peace, begging others to give money to the poor. We won’t turn away from our families.  We won’t found a religious order.

But there is so much we can do. And I think this is part of what attracts six million to the tiny town.

People don’t go just to honor the man, although that’s certainly part of it. They don’t go just to see the churches or the scenery,although the churches are impressive and the scenery is beautiful.

I think people go to find encouragement, hope and perhaps,that often used word, “inspiration.” To “inspire,” my dictionary tells me, means among other things, to“uplift.”

It wasn’t just walking some of the steep streets in Assisi that lifted me up. It was the reminder of a life lived well, helping others.

In this busy, complex, often troubled time, I found it more moving than I can convey to think about this man’s life, and what it means for me. Regardless of your religion or race, perhaps Assisi and St. Francis can do some of the same for you.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College.  Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu

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