ASSISI, Italy – In 1966, peace activist Charlotte Keys wrote an essay in McCall’s titled, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?” Keys was the mother of a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War jailed for refusing to respond to his draft notice, so the piece had a personal edge and resonated widely.
Today in Assisi, I was almost moved to ask, “What if they gave a papal trip and nobody came?”
Normally when a pope heads to the birthplace of St. Francis, the squares and streets of this small Umbrian town groan with humanity, as thousands flock to see the pope and to visit the sites associated with the Poverello, or the “poor man of Assisi.” Hotels fill up, restaurants overflow, cabs and buses shift into high gear, shops sell out of knick-knacks and curios, and the local economy gets a massive boost.
Today, by way of contrast, Assisi felt like a ghost town.
One could move through the city center as Pope Francis arrived to sign his new encyclical letter, Tutti Fratelli, devoted to the theme of human fraternity, without bumping into anyone, without hearing the usual cries of Viva il Papa! and seeing the usual throngs of pilgrims brandishing papal flags, without even worrying about lines at shops or restaurants.
There were posters celebrating the pope’s visit around town, but beyond maybe a couple hundred people who went to the Basilica of St. Francis to wave as the pope entered, you would have had no sense that the world’s most recognizable religious leader was here.
For the most part, the surreal quiet is because Pope Francis wanted to keep this visit strictly private, not wanting to pose unnecessary health or security risks related to the coronavirus. Although the pandemic remains relatively contained in Italy compared to much of the rest of Europe, yesterday the country recorded a total of 1,900 new infections, the largest total since a national lockdown ended in early June, and there are fears of a new wave of cases that could send the country into a second quarantine.
In part too, the subdued tone in Assisi today is related to the fact that the whole region of Umbria has been hit with strong rains and wind, driving many people indoors and discouraging others from coming.
In truth, however, today’s quiet was nothing new: Things have been strangely silent in Assisi for months, ever since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and stern limits on international travel. Recently the city’s mayor, Stefania Proietti, published an open letter to Umbrian members of the Italian parliament virtually begging them to seek emergency financial aid for Assisi, which she said has lost the lion’s share of the roughly million and a half visitors it received last year.
“Assisi is a suffering city,” Proietti wrote. “It’s a city which, more than others, felt and is still feeling the effects of Covid.”
“Here there are lots of hotels that have never reopened, lots of shops that have never opened their gates, because despite small signs of a recovery, the social-economic situation here is truly dramatic,” Proietti wrote.
In an interview with Crux shortly before the pope arrived, Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi said the local church understands why the pope wanted to keep his trip under wraps.
“This was a very strict decision by Pope Francis … he doesn’t want to create problems, he wants to solve them, and we appreciate that,” he said.
“We hope he’ll be able to come back to Assisi in a more official way, with people participating,” Sorrentino said.
A typically gregarious son of Italy’s Naples region, Sorrentino said that even though Pope Francis wasn’t able to bring a vast crowd with him to provide a shot in the arm to the local economy, he brought something of even greater value Saturday.
“Today, this is a journey during a pandemic,” Sorrentino said. “That’s important for the theme of the encyclical he’s going to sign, because the kind of fraternity he’s talking about is a fraternity of love.”
“Right now we’re experiencing a fraternity of pain all over the word,” Sorrentino said, “a pain that strikes even the most powerful people in the world. We’ve felt our fragility, that we are all fragile.”
In that context, he said, the message Francis came to Assisi to deliver is especially valuable.
“We’ve experienced that we are all brothers and sisters in fragility and pain. Why shouldn’t we also be brothers and sisters in love?” he asked.
“This is the challenge of today’s encyclical, a challenge of Gospel love. Pope Francis is saying we have a difficult future, but we can have hope to be saved by the grace of God and through our mutual love, our fraternity,” Sorrentino said.
“Fraternity,” he said, “is the new name of hope for the world.”
Such rhetoric may not bring the tourist buses winding back up the narrow streets of Assisi, at least not yet. But in a city in many ways on its knees, and with no quick end in sight, most people here seemed to think no ray of hope was unwelcome – especially on a gray, rainy day that seemed to perfectly complement the hardship.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.