Officially known as the “Santuario Francescano di Rivotorto,” the Franciscan Shrine of Rivotorto is very close to the city of Assisi and like Assisi, is another important place in Franciscan history. The Rivotorto shrine lies in the plane beneath Monte Subasio on which Assisi is built.
The “sacred hut” or dwelling of the first Franciscans is located inside the church at Rivotorto. The present church was built around and over the very modest places where Saint Francis and his first followers lived. The huts or cells were built of stone. Over the entrance to the church at Rivortorto is the Latin inscription: Hic Primordia Fratrum Minorum.” Translated as, “Here was the beginning of the Friars Minor.” Friars Minors is the official title of the main branch of Franciscans, best translated as “little brothers.” The Order of Friars Minors was founded by Saint Francis in 1209.
Today there are several other branches of Franciscan friars as well. The Order of Friars Minor Conventuals was founded as a reform in 1517. The Order of Friars Minor Capuchians, another reform, began in 1520. At one time there were also Franciscans knows as Observants, another called Discalced or Alcantarines, as well as the Recollects and the Riformati friars. These latter four groups were dissolved by Pope Leo XIII in 1897 incorporated into the main Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, whose initials are: O.F.M..
There are other Franciscan-inspired Orders too, such as the Graymoor Franciscan friars, founded in 1909, the Friars of the Immaculate, founded in 1970 and the Friars of the Renewal, founded in 1987. My monastery is especially close in friendship with the latter group, which has a friary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, dedicated to San Juan Diego. We also have Franciscan Friars Minor in New Mexico, but many fewer than fifty years ago.
For Franciscans of whatever branch, Rivotorto near Assisi in Umbria is a special place, for it is the setting of some of the earliest episodes in Saint Francis’ spiritual journey. At Rivotorto Saint Francis went through an initial period of solitude and eventually shared this site with his first brothers, Bernard, Peter, Giles, Sabbatino, Morico and others. While the imposing church built over and around the friars’ first dwelling is from a later date, the reconstructed cells within are representative of the beginning of the Franciscan movement. Rivotorto is also close to San Damiano, where the crucifix was located that spoke to Francis, telling him to “rebuild my church.” San Damiano is also where Clare and the first Franciscan women lived. The San Damiano Crucifix is now at the Poor Clare monastery in the middle of Assisi, at what is called “Santa Chiara” church and monastery. My maternal grandfather was named Giles, the name of one of Saint Francis’ first followers, and for that reason Rivotorto has a personal place automatically in my heart.
In mid-May this year a group of us monks made a pilgrimage to Assisi and included a visit to Rivotorto. Since we drove to Assisi in our “curia car,” it was easy to reach Rivotorto as well as Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Saint Francis received Saint Clare into religious life, and the hillside city of Assisi. We were also able to see the place where Francis retreated in later life, above Assisi, called the “Eremo delle Carceri,” Hermitage of the Cells, a small but beautiful shrine to the memory of Saint Francis.
From the Carceri we drove a little farther up the hill to the former monastery of “San Benedetto al Mount Subasio.” Now mostly in ruins after earthquakes, Benedictine monks once lived there. They deeded the property to the first Franciscan for the church of the Portiuncula, the “Little Portion,” which Saint Francis had built, dedicated to Saint Mary of the Angels. The Franciscan shrine of the Portiuncula is close to the train station at Assisi. Small though it be, the Assisi station is a stopping place for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming to Assisi by train each year. Many others arrive in tour buses, cars or on foot.
Our short pilgrimage to Assisi this year lasted just two days and we spent one night at the Benedictine monastery of San Pietro in Assisi. The monks there were very hospitable to us. Their early-Gothic tenth century church dedicated to Saint Peter is striking in its simplicity and beauty. The rest of the monastery buildings are from later centuries and are well maintained. Earthquakes over the centuries have done damage, but the most recent repairs at the end of the last century have made the building habitable once again. The work of repairing required that the monks vacate the monastery for over a year. Like much of Italy, Umbria, where Assisi is located, is no stranger to earthquakes.
It was from Rivotorto that Francis and his first ten brothers set out in the spring of 1209 toward Rome to meet with Pope Innocent III. The Pontiff granted approval for the new Order and its Rule. After the Roman sojourn Francis and his brothers returned to Rivotorto. They lived there from 1208 until 1211, when twelve of the band moved to the Portiucula, a few kilometers away. Some friars remained at Rivotorto and it became a place for friars wishing a more eremitical or solitary way of life. In 1455 a church was constructed there for Mass to be celebrated. In the 1600s a larger church and more adequate friary were built. The present neo-Gothic church was completed in the late nineteenth century. An earthquake in 1854 had destroyed the previous church.
At the time of Saint Francis, the main hut at Rivotoro was described as “so narrow that the brothers could barely sit or sleep in it.” Another story is told that when Francis began having brothers at Rivotorto, one time, around midnight, when all were asleep, one of the brothers cried out, saying, “I’m dying! I’m dying.” Startled and alarmed, all the brothers woke up. Francis called out, “Who was it who said I’m dying?” The brother who had shouted out, answered, “I’m the one.” Francis asked, “What’s the matter, brother? Why are you dying?” He answered, “I’m dying of hunger!” So that the brother would not be ashamed of eating alone, Francis had the table set and ate with the brother and had all the other brothers get up and they all had something to eat as well. This story comes from the Franciscan “Mirror of Perfection.” The first account about the cramped quarters comes from the first life of Saint Francis, written by Thomas of Celano. Both documents are important for Franciscan lore.
The modest stone cells inside the church of Rivotoro today are reconstructions of the first huts occupied by Francis and his brothers. Nonetheless, at this site it is easy to imagine the fervent followers of Francis “setting up camp” in this tranquil spot that remains so to the present. There is a paved street with many cars coming and going just in front of the sanctuary, but looking out beyond the church toward the hill of Assisi, one can be inspired to give praise to God for the witness and work of Saint Francis and his first followers and all those of the present.