Pope Francis has travelled to the Italian hilltop town of his namesake for the fifth time in his pontificate to honour the poorest and most marginalised and urge that they be welcomed and cared for by the church.
n one of his first outings in Italy since the coronavirus pandemic, Francis greeted schoolchildren and some of the 500 people taken by Catholic charity groups to Assisi to join him in marking the Catholic Church’s world day of the poor.
A refugee gave Francis a pilgrim’s walking stick and cloak outside the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, which hosts the famed Porziuncola chapel, birthplace of the Franciscan order of the pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi.
The pontiff greeted disabled children in the basilica and prayed in the chapel before hearing from a handful of people who offered heart-wrenching testimony about their lives on the margins.
One Spanish former drug dealer recounted how he turned his life around after a priest smiled on him and offered him shelter; a Romanian woman wept as she told Francis that she suffers such chronic pain that she cannot work; and two Afghans recounted how they recently fled to Italy after the Taliban takeover of their country, only to feel their souls are still there.
Many choked up and wept openly as they spoke to the Pope, who thanked them for their courage in telling their stories and “opening their hearts to give us their richness and heal our wounded hearts”.
“The presence of the poor is often seen as an annoyance and is put up with,” Francis said from the altar.
“Sometimes we hear it said that those responsible for poverty are the poor. So as not to carry out a serious examination of conscience on one’s own actions, on the injustice of certain laws and economic measures, on the hypocrisy of those who want to enrich themselves excessively, blame is laid at the feet of those who are weakest.”
He said the faithful could learn from the example of Francis and those who offer shelter to the poor and marginalised.
“Hospitality means opening the door, the door of our house and the door of our heart, and to allow the person who knocks to come in,” Francis said. “And that they might feel welcome, not ashamed.”
In an off-the-cuff remark, Francis also gave a mention to the retired archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who attended the service. He stepped down after a French court convicted him of covering up for a paedophile priest, only to have his sentence overturned on appeal.
Francis said Mr Barbarin knew what it was like to “suffer with dignity the experience of poverty — of abandonment, distrust”.
“He defended himself with silence and prayer,” the Pope added, as a clearly moved Mr Barbarin listened from the pews. “Thank you Cardinal Barbarin for your witness that edifies the church.”
The Argentine Jesuit is the first pontiff to have named himself after the 13th century friar, who renounced a wealthy, dissolute lifestyle to embrace a life of poverty and simplicity.
The Pope said in the first days of his pontificate that he chose to name himself after St Francis because he wanted a “poor church, and for the poor”.
Francis was last in Assisi in October 2020, when he signed his latest encyclical “Brothers All” on the tomb of St Francis on the anniversary of the saint’s death.