The taxi ride to the Porziuncola took us past the St. Francis Basilica, an immense church that we spotted from the castle yesterday, but didn't know what it was. It was a teaser for later in the trip, since that's our last stop before heading to Rome.
The Basilica surrounding the Porziuncola was built in the 1500's and I think it's size is comparable to places like Notre Dame. Driving up to it throws you off a bit because you come up on the huge side wall that stretches at least a whole city block. From what you know and have seen in pictures of the Porziuncola, you learn that it's a tiny sanctuary in the middle of marsh lands. It was given to Francis because it was the least stately and most out of the way that the bishop had to offer (exactly what Francis wanted). Of course, the swamps have been drained and a modern city fills the space now, but your mind is still expecting something small, not this gargantuan structure. The Brothers tried to stop the Pope from erecting the Basilica in the 1500's but were unsuccessful.
As you walk up the nave, with immense paintings, sculptures and altars lining the chapels to the left and right, you see the tiny church, almost as if in a spotlight under the center dome of the structure. Then almost like using a green screen for movie special effects, I could see in my mind's eye the wilderness wipe away the current surroundings.
We held a mass inside, with many other visitors taking communion along with our group of pilgrims.
In a small hallway beside the main sanctuary is a statue of St. Francis holding a basket. A group of doves inhabits the space and one was sitting in that basket as we made our way through. A really sweet image.
Afterwards we went to two chapels where Francis cared for lepers who were cast out of the city. They sit in the valley near the foot of Mt. Subasio and the whole of Assisi is visible; nestled in the green mountainside and under a deep blue sky.
Sister Anne told us how when a new Podesta took over they spent a month going from house to house to discover lepers. They were dragged out, put through a ceremony that was like a living burial and cast out forever to the leper colonies, never to return to the city that dominated their view everyday for the rest of their lives. She described how they had to wear special garments to denote that they were lepers, wear gloves and use special cups to dip in water. Human contact for them was forbidden.
Part of Francis' transformation was overcoming his revulsion to the smell of lepers and spending time, in direct contact, caring for them. He also made this a proscription for those who wanted to join the order, one year of service at the colony.