For many years my list of important places to see in Italy has included the Franciscan Sanctuary of La Verna, located in Tuscany, high in the Apennine hills, not far from the city of Arezzo. The hope was realized this year when three monks of our curia were able to spend most of a day at this beautiful shrine, built atop rocks in the middle of a lush Tuscan forest.
La Verna is considered especially holy as it was the place where Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, that is, the visible wounds of the Passion of Christ, on his hands, side and feet. This occurred on September 17, 1224, during a forty day retreat of fasting and prayer that Francis was making at La Verna mountain hermitage, in preparation for the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel on September 29th. During his prayer on September 17th, Francis was given a vision of seraphic, that is, winged angels, transporting the crucified Christ and leaving the visible wounds of the suffering Savior on the body of Francis. He was forty-three when this occurred and he died two years later at the age of forty-five.
Because of the importance of the place where Saint Francis received the stigmata, La Verna has been for centuries a site of pilgrimage for people from around the world. The shrine has many chapels and places of prayer, with splendid views of the Casentino valley far below. The Italian Franciscan Friars Minor (O.F.M.) who staff the shrine welcome pilgrims to join them for prayer and Mass throughout the day, year round. They are also available for the Sacrament of Penance and guided tours of the sanctuary.
We Benedictine monks arrived at La Verna by car, but there is public transportation to the shrine, first by train to Arezzo, then by bus to the mountain shrine. The day we visited La Verna the sun was shining and spring was in full swing. Upon arrival, we saw a large number of Franciscan friars, not only those who run the shrine, but also novice friars from others parts of Italy making a pilgrimage to La Verna, as we later learned, in preparation for profession of vows not long after their visit.
Soon after we arrived at La Verna we attended Mass in the small chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, (Saint Mary of the Angels). This chapel, the oldest building at La Verna, was already built in the time of Saint Francis. The present director of the shrine, a Franciscan friar and priest, was celebrant at the Mass we attended, along with other pilgrims and the dozen or more Franciscan novices mentioned above and their director. After Mass we visited the larger church of the shrine, above the smaller chapel. On display there, in a large glass cabinet, is the brown habit worn by Saint Francis when he received the stigmata.
We proceeded to explore other chapels and places of prayer at the sanctuary, along with other pilgrims present that day. This was mostly done in silence, as seemed fitting at this holy place. The small chapel built on the place where Saint Francis received the stigmata is very impressive, as well as the caves in the rocks where he and other friars retreated. The harmony of the location and the buildings is striking and much of it evocative of the times of Saint Francis, as all the buildings are from centuries past, but obviously lovingly cared for and maintained. Also noteworthy at La Verna are the large and stunning Della Robbia masterpieces of ceramic sculptures from the fifteenth century, made in the city of Florence. These include a beautiful Annunciation scene and all of them are of large dimensions, adorning various chapels at La Verna.
There are a number of options for people wishing to make a longer stay at La Verna. These include the main guesthouse at the sanctuary, with room for one hundred persons. Nearby is the large refectory where meals are served, and the room doubles as a restaurant for day pilgrims. We monks had our pranzo or lunch there on our visit. The menu and price is fixed, and includes pasta, salad, meats, bread, cheese and fruit, as well as water and wine. The food, which was excellent, was brought around by servers in “monastic fashion,” in large serving dishes or trays. It was a very pleasant experience, feeling more like a monastic than a restaurant meal, and was very reasonably priced, under twenty dollars per person. The spacious “Pilgrim Refectory” is open year round, with seating for up to six hundred at a time. The day we were there, in the middle of the week and in May, there were a few dozen present at the midday pranzo meal.
In the middle of the forest, about two miles from the sanctuary, is another guest facility, called “Oasi San Francisco,” or “Oasis of Saint Francis,” housing up to fifty, it is for individuals, families and conference groups who wish to retreat and pray in the shadow of La Verna. There is a chapel there and a spacious conference room. These guests also eat in the Pilgrim Refectory and are welcome to attend Mass and other prayers with the friars at the shrine.
A third guest house is called “Casa Tau,” from the letter “T” of the Greek alphabet, which Saint Francis adopted as his special symbol, reminiscent of the Cross of Christ. Casa Tau is designed for groups who take care of their own meals, with a kitchen and dining area, a chapel and a meeting room in the building. There are rooms for up to seventy persons, and the friars require a minimum of twenty persons to use the facility. These guests must be between the ages of seventeen and thirty years old. Adult leaders would also be expected for the groups with younger people. Sleeping bags or sheets, as well as towels, need to be brought for stays at Casa Tau, unlike the other guest facilities at Verna which supply these items.
There is also a guest possibility for male religious, priests and seminarians who wish a time of rest and spiritual renewal in the midst of the Franciscan friars of La Verna. For those who want more solitude and prayer in the Franciscan convento, that is arranged with the friars.
For young adult women and men who wish a period of private retreat, rather than with a group, there is the “Casa di Preghiera,” the House of Prayer. Franciscan friars are the directors of those on retreat in this facility.
Finally, there is also the possibility of single “overnight” stays for pilgrims on their way to various Franciscan sanctuaries or other holy sites in Italy and beyond. The pilgrim facility at La Verna is reminiscent of the “paradas” on the “Camino” to Santiago Compostella in Spain. There is a dormitory with fifteen beds, and those staying over need to bring sleeping bags or linens, as well as towels. Because of the limited space, but unlike the paradas on the Santiago Camino, reservations are required.
La Verna is one of the most beautiful shrines I have ever visited. It is well worth a visit for a day and certainly longer if at all possible.