St Mary of the Angels parishioners at a papal audience in Rome.

St Mary of the Angels parishioners attended Pope John Paul’s beatification and visited Franciscan sites

Pope John Paul II, the “pilgrim pope”, visited more than 120 countries during his term of office. He clearly left a lasting impression during his 1986 trip to Singapore, judging from the animated retellings of the visit by Church of St Mary of the Angels parishioners, who were in Rome for his beatification.

Many of the 84 pilgrims from the parish, who had signed up for the April 24-May 7 Franciscan Pilgrimage to Italy, shared similar sentiments with Mr Noel Hon, who is in his early 60s. “Having been touched by his love, I felt called to witness the beatification.”

The beatification Mass at the Vatican on May 1 was one of many highlights of the pilgrimage led by Friars John-Paul Tan and Derrick Yap.

The experience entailed a long wait in the blistering hot sun with a crushing crowd of 1.5 million. The experience gave one a real sense of the universality of the Catholic faith which was being celebrated.

La Verna, where St Francis received the wounds of Christ.

“It’s nice to see people from around the world, speaking different languages, coming together as one to celebrate the joyous occasion,” said Mr Danny Yap, 29.

While the beatification was a highlight of the pilgrimage, it was the visits to the various places associated with St Francis of Assisi which inspired prayer and reflection.

“By seeing and praying at the caves and places where Francis lived, prayed, worked and died; one gets a better sense of Francis’s experience of God and how that experience of God continues to impact the people of today,” said Friar John-Paul.

La Verna – the Sanctuary of the Stigmata illustrates well God’s desire to touch us. This was where St Francis received the wounds of Christ after having prayed for himself to know the physical pain of Christ and to experience the love which enabled Christ to embrace suffering.

Whilst not many of us can identify with Francis’ impassionate plea to suffer, walking up towards the property, one feels God’s presence ever so strongly. The soft and willowy quality of the beech trees speak of a quiet assurance that God is present no matter what one’s circumstances are.

At Mass, we were again reminded of the Cross as an act of redemptive love.

Francis was a real person, in love with God. He wanted to know who God is, who he himself is, and who God is for him. For this, he dedicated much of his time to prayer, in the sanctuaries of Poggio Bustone, La Foresta, Greccio and Fonte Colombo in the Rieti Valley.

The bare rock of the caves which Francis retreated into spoke of a poverty of spirit which evoked an understanding of his deep yearnings. This served as a reminder for us to ask the same questions which he asked and to offer a humble prayer asking for our own yearnings to be satisfied.

The natural beauty of the Rieti Valley profoundly evoked the feeling of being connected with the spirit of St Francis. To be able to say our morning and evening prayers under glorious blue skies and amid rolling fields of all hues of green, yellow and red was an invitation to see the Lord where we seldom see.

Friar John-Paul Tan speaking at the Eremo delle Carceri hermitage in Assisi.

To sing Francis’ famed Canticle of the Sun while savouring the Lord’s creations was a privilege in itself – we had become privy to that Spirit which moved Francis. It was no wonder that Francis was absorbed in writing what is perhaps his most important work here – the rule of the Franciscan Order which 800 years later is still kept by the friars.

All of this brings about a new respect for the majesty of Brother Mountain which inspires through the many gifts it offers.

Of the many churches visited, St Mary of the Angels and Basilica of St Clare complete the Franciscan story well. St Mary of the Angels was where it all started. It houses the Porziuncola, the chapel which St Francis restored after having heard Jesus urging him to “restore my church”.

One cannot help but offer a prayer with a sense of anticipation before the original San Damiano cross from which Francis heard these words, and which today hangs at the Basilica di Santa Chiara.

It calls forth awe in the power of the cross in fuelling spiritual transformation.

As pilgrims having spent time in a period of sacred wandering, the next step is to respond courageously as Francis did.

As one pilgrim, Ms Bailyne Sung, aptly summed it up: “Thinking and acting out of the box in his time, Francis stuck to his calling and spirituality.”

We have seen through the example of Francis that life is a journey which must be embraced with a leap of faith. This is but the beginnings of being more alive now in living out our Franciscan heritage; in deepening our sense of fraternity and embracing creation to reflect the face of God.

By Friar Derrick Yap and Vivien Lee

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