In my life as a friar I’ve had opportunities to minister to pilgrims, as a spiritual guide of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Occasionally, some of us friars form the habit of using the upper church as a hallway, to avoid the crowds in the lower square and more easily access the via San Francesco. While taking this easier route is often frowned upon, during the hot days of summer it remains a constant temptation.
One early afternoon in 1998 I was passing a few scattered pilgrims in the upper church, as I headed out for a gelato. Just under the fresco depicting Francis stripping himself in the town square, a woman recognized me as the friar who had guided her group through the basilica earlier that day. Waving me down, she asked why I had described this moment of young Francis stripped himself of his clothes with modern images. I explained how Francis’ handing his clothing to his father, Pietro Bernardone, was akin to a wealthy teenager of today also giving up his or her cell phone, credit cards, wallet, and house key. Such an action then and now signifies a radical trust in God.
We then had a short discussion about how good art, like good literature, is timeless in its ability to speak to the human condition of every generation. In the case of these paintings it has been the responsibility of the friars, for almost 800 years, to interpret such beauty in a way that touches timeless truths in the context of the everyday life and circumstances of visiting pilgrims.
I described the paintings being like the dialogue of a Shakespeare play, remaining the same down through the centuries. The interpretative words of the friars, however, change the costuming and setting in the same way a modern interpretation of a Shakespeare play more readily touches the minds and hearts of viewers today. She nodded in agreement, telling me that she was from Los Angeles, and the recent 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet did just that by placing the Bard’s tragedy in the context of the gangs of LA (1).
To underscore my analysis of the perennial nature of the messages found within the frescos, she directed my attention to the hand of Francis’ father being restrained by another figure, so as to stop him from physically striking his son. I’ll never forget her words. She looked at the painting and asked, “His father abused him, didn’t he?” She did not need me to answer, for the fresco had already done so.
I walked with her to the center of Assisi, discussing along the way the relationship of Francis and his parents. This included how Francis’ father would lock him up in their house and when he departed, Francis’ mother, Lady Pica, would then free him. Arriving in the Piazza Comune I asked if she wanted to see the church built over the house of Francis’ parents, which preserved what is believed by many to be the “cell” in which Pietro would lock his young son. With a nod of agreement from her, we turned down a side street and approached the Chiesa Nuova when just outside the doors she stopped to look at the statue of Francis’ parents, Lady Pica holding a broken chain and Pietro holding Francis’ clothes.
She approached the statue, touched the chain, then stood back and looked at how the two figures were holding hands. Pointing at their hands she asked what happened to Francis’ parents and I explained that history is silent on this point. We simply don’t know. She then asked if I would wait for her while she visited inside the church.
Returning she referenced the statue of Lady Pica and Pietro, telling me that it is also good art, because it’s timeless. She saw the confusion on my face and explained, “The chain, the clothes and credit cards, the hand holding, history keeps repeating itself over and over again.”
I thought back to this afternoon in Assisi, when in 2017 the Academy Awards nominees were about to be read for best supporting actress. The announcement was prefaced with a brief commentary about how the nominees’ roles all had one thing in common: They were all roles of opposition. They were roles of opposing without hating, which women are better at then men. I thought of Lady Pica holding both a broken chain and the hand of her husband, Pietro, in that small Assisi piazza.
The nominees were read…and the Oscar went to…Viola Davis, Fences.
Fences is a coming of age movie in the context of the cycle of damaged black manhood. Accepting her award for best supporting actress, Davis began her speech with these words, “You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that’s the graveyard” (2). She went on to say that it is important that we consider the kind of stories that we want to tell. That we need to exhume the bodies from the graveyards and tell their stories of great potential. Stories of those who never saw their dreams come true, who loved and lost. Davis said that we must exhume and exalt the ordinary people! Fences, the movie that brought her the award, did this because it was, “…about people, words, and life, of forgiveness and grace” (3).
I wonder if we Franciscans have truly exhumed and exalted the ordinary life of Lady Pica. After all, she doesn’t even make an appearance in the frescos of the basilica, where the “Academy of Art in Assisi” denied her a supporting role in the life cycle of her son. Because she’s not there, is it easier for us to not tell the whole story of Francis life? Lady Pica and Francis, theirs is a story of those who suffered domestic abuse and extrapolating from the life of Francis they likely offered forgiveness and found grace.
When I think of the countless times that I’ve given tours in the basilica and stopped at the fresco of Francis stripping himself of his clothing, never did I once mention the phrase “domestic abuse”. My focus was always on Francis’ trusting in God. Have we really exhumed and told the entirety of their story, or do we simply note it as a curiosity or an obscure footnote in the bigger story of their lives? Lady Pica’s statue, her holding both a broken chain and the hand of her husband, is a start, but the scene of domestic abuse in Francis’ life, a story “about people, words, and life, of forgiveness and grace” is still not commonly shared.
In 2002 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops updated their 1992 pastoral letter, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women. They point out how, “Violence against women in the home has serious repercussions for children…who grow up in violent homes (and often) become abusers themselves. The stage is set for a cycle of violence that may continue from generation to generation” (4). Somehow, with the strength of Lady Pica, her opposing without hating, such a cycle did not take hold in Francis life. Can Lady Pica now become for us Franciscans the patron of breaking chains, breaking the cycle of violence, and of finding forgiveness and grace today?
The pastoral letter not only offers practical suggestions for the ministers in the Church, but also for both abused women and the men who abuse. In addition, there are suggestions for using liturgy to draw attention to violence and abuse (5). An entire resource was developed for the preaching of the Scriptures, which reminds us to, “be aware of the fact that possibly some form of domestic violence may impact a third of those who will be listening…on a given Sunday. Speak about gospel values of love, respect, kindness, and gentleness to others. Just a simple and pastorally sound reference to domestic violence lets people know that it is okay to approach you about the matter for help (6). With this in mind, the next tour I give to pilgrims in Assisi will be different.
In the stories of our lives we pass by so many people. Choosing to hurry down the varied hallways or short cuts open to us; we chance not taking the moment to really look up and appreciate the timeless work of art that each person is and recognize in silence and other signs a suffering from domestic abuse. To better do this, we Franciscans might consider exhuming and exalting Lady Pica as an award-winning supporting actress in our Franciscan narrative, to help to bring forgiveness and grace to broken families of today, including our own.
Michael Lasky, OFMConv
Director of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Ministry (Our Lady of Angels Province, USA)
Domestic Violence Hotline
(1) Romeo + Juliet 1996. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117509/ (accessed May 5, 2019).
(2) OSCARS https://oscar.go.com/video/90-stories-from-90-years-2/viola-davis-storyteller (accessed May 5, 2019).
(4) I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women A Pastoral Letter. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/domestic-violence/when-i-call-for-help.cfm (accessed May 5, 2019).
(6) Suggestions for Preaching about Family Violence. Rev. Thomas Johns for the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, Diocese of Cleveland, Women in Church and Society,
http://www.usccb.org/about/laity-marriage-family-life-and-youth/womens-issues/preaching-tips.cfm (accessed May 5, 2019).