13 Jul Forty years since the first Franciscan march: Bishop Cetoloni recounts the origins
After years of difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Franciscan march is back this year, with groups of young people from different backgrounds setting out on foot to reach Assisi on the day of the Pardon of Assisi, August 2nd. More than forty years after the first Franciscan march, Bishop Rodolfo Cetoloni, bishop emeritus of the diocese of Grosseto (Italy) – and a Franciscan friar for almost fifty years – tells us about the birth of this initiative, which has changed the lives of thousands of young people around the world.
How did the idea of the Franciscan march come about?
We are in the early months of the year 1980, in the Convent of St Francis in Fiesole (Italy), where the formation house for theology students (temporarily professed) and the Franciscan youth and vocational pastoral house were located. In that year, it was Tuscany that had to offer oil for the lamp burning at the Tomb of St Francis, patron saint of Italy. So in the friaries and dioceses they were trying to organise some special initiatives, so as not to reduce everything to the days of the celebrations of this event on 3-4 October. In the Tuscan provinces and dioceses, the idea of undertaking pilgrimages of groups or parishes to Assisi was suggested. So in our friary, so full of young people, a more creative way to implement this idea was sought. One day, while having coffee after lunch, Brother Daniel and Brother Michael suggested we go to Assisi on foot! Touched to the core, I took up the provocation and accepted. The times were very different from now. Few people spoke of the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena or other itineraries. A few scouts walked and a few people jogged on Sunday mornings. But by then the idea had been launched. As the person responsible for the vocational pastoral ministry, I took it upon myself to organise it.
What was it like to organise the first Franciscan march?
I worked with Father Eugenio Barelli, master of the professed, I questioned a few scout leaders to get an idea of what walking for several days entailed, I studied the itinerary with Father Martino Bertagna (historian and archivist). A leaflet was made (mimeographs of the time with hand-drawn, waxed paper stencils) and distributed around. We didn’t think there would be much participation, we thought about 20 to 30 people and for accommodation it shouldn’t have been so difficult to be accommodated in a small group. For food we would organise ourselves day by day.
We chose a date for July, but already in June we realised that we had more than one hundred and twenty members. It got very complicated, but working together and the sense of community that characterised the Fiesole house helped us. Particularly providential was the choice of the parents of a young man who took the trouble to think about provisions. With some of the students and Father Eugenio, I toured the places on the itinerary a couple of times to ask for accommodation in parishes or other places. Many would widen their eyes and say: ‘To Assisi on foot?! In the heat of July? And in how many?” It was almost impossible to find accommodation in Assisi: I have always said that the credit for allowing this experience goes to the Sisters of the Infant Jesus who had the courage to put the classrooms of the nursery school at our disposal. It was really complicated to get organised due to our inexperience and the lack of such initiatives in the past. We also set ourselves the theme of content and prepared a booklet with texts by St Francis. While studying the itinerary, we also identified a few places where we could listen to some testimonies: a monastery, a parish.
How did the first few days of walking go?
We began with a retreat at La Verna, which was very intense due to the words of Father Vittorio Battaglioli in the little Church of St Mary of the Angels. I remember everyone’s wonder and curiosity about what was going to happen and how we were going to move. During the night, Brother Luciano, a master of the art of iron and creative in all things, made Franciscan tau for each one (this sign was also not yet in use). The Guardian of La Verna, Father Alfonso, gave them to us, together with a beautiful message to take to the Mayor of Assisi. And so we set off! We were not used to walking in groups, there was no sign to guide everyone: there were those who ran and those who went slowly. We arrived the first evening in Anghiari that we were undone by this chasing each other, waiting for each other, making a group. The solution was a good inspiration: to arrive in the village saying the rosary in the last few kilometres. This gave us the pace and the atmosphere to really be together and to offer a first message to the people. And so every day, we got better and better organised, also seeing the different gifts that there were among the young people (some from Campania, others from Tivoli) and their inventiveness. Someone also invented Radio Pellegrina, which jokingly broadcast every day what was happening. Songs were sung all the time, to support each other along the way, and the sun did not let itself be prayed for the strength with which it burned us. I remember the richness of some of the brothers in their meditations at the stops and the prepared and unexpected encounters in front of some bar or with some family that offered us water to drink or a refreshing bucket. What we discovered did not depend on the programme: it was our being together, the walking in nature, the mutual help, the fatigue, the presence of brothers, young people and a nun (she was the first and then they grew in number and collaboration), the essentiality, the ability to overcome oneself when one almost had to stop. Fatigue loosened many knots, made us helpless, and there was a real desire to continue what we were discovering day by day.
What were the fruits of this first Franciscan march?
The most unexpected and still moving fruit was in front of the Porziuncola: we arrived from a side street and the Custos greeted us with a few words as we sat in a semicircle in front of the place of Francis’ beginnings. It was a moment of an intensity I have never experienced before: it truly felt as if we were one heart and one soul. Even though I had not met everyone or spoken to everyone I remember distinctly the sense of being united with everyone, like a gift of fraternity and unity. And tears were the joyful expression of everyone.
In October, I too went to Assisi for the Oil of the Lamp event with many others, but by then that experience had marked us. Among other things, the Stigmatine Sisters had prepared their Chapter by making a similar itinerary to ours (they had asked us for directions and advice, and we had gone to the Porziuncola when they arrived).
How was the first Franciscan march initiative replicated?
In November in Loreto at the meeting of vocations animators from the OFM Provinces of Italy, I told them about the March and read some letters from the participants. Someone proposed replicating it the following year at the national level, and at that time there were still no common initiatives at the national level. The idea went through and the following year we were four or six provinces: about 600 participants in all. Everything was better organised. Each province had its own itinerary in its own region and then arrived in Assisi at the end of the Feast of Forgiveness. We would choose and share the preparation of the common theme. The Franciscan march then extended to all the Provinces, even outside Italy (Egypt, Bolivia, Croatia, Holy Land, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan), becoming an occasion and experience, truly lived to the full, of Franciscan themes and content.
Then came the search for other national gatherings such as ‘Martha and Mary at La Verna’ (the hermitage and Franciscan prayer), the proposal of ‘Emmanuele’ in Greccio (the Incarnation).
What were the effects of the march on the participants and in the Church itself?
All of this made the relationship between the friars of the Franciscan Provinces grow a lot: I remember Father Arcangelo Zucchi, from Lombardy, who was decisive in the development of the work among us in those years, or Father Walter Viviani, from Piedmont, with the spirituality tracks he prepared. The relationship with the Church also grew (at the end of the 10th March we were received at Castel Gandolfo by John Paul II, with the Minister General and some Provincials) and the relationship with the entire Franciscan family (male and female, lay and religious). The march was also important for the vocational choices of the boys, which were very wide, in a vision of the Church in which vocations help each other (from monasteries, to marriage, to work, to the missions, to profession). Also important was the in-depth study of themes of spirituality both in the preparation and in the conduct, done by marchers (brothers or lay people) and thus also an immediate, comprehensible direct language. From the very beginning, when ‘vocational’ concerns nagged at everyone, it was intended that the March should be an offer of encounter, for all, convinced that, in the truth of who one is, the Lord passes by and mirrors each one. This is true for those who are already in a made choice, for those who are searching, and for those who are not searching for anything, but in that intense atmosphere they meet and are involved and perhaps begin a journey.
To date, I believe more than 70,000 people have attended the Franciscan marches. From the third March onwards, we have exceeded a thousand and touched peaks close to 2,000 marchers.