ROME (AP) – Pope Francis' namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, founded his order of mendicant friars in the 13th century after receiving a calling from God to "rebuild my church." Some 800 years later, St. Francis' followers are rebuilding his church in the ancient tradition of door-to-door begging that St. Francis championed — but with a very modern twist.
With interest in things Franciscan at an all-time high, the friars who run the San Francesco a Ripa church in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood are launching a Kickstarter online fundraising campaign this week to try to raise $125,000 for the restoration of the tiny cell where St. Francis stayed when he came to Rome to see the popes starting in 1209, The Associated Press has learned.
Rather than ask for funding from the Italian government, which owns the church and is responsible for its upkeep, the friars decided on this more democratic crowd-funding initiative, thinking it more in keeping with the Franciscan tradition of seeking alms for just what they need, spreading the faith as they beg and making sure the poor are the priority.
"It seemed important to us, very Franciscan even, to say that today perhaps public money should be destined to more urgent things, more important things like social issues that are affecting Italy and Europe at large," said the Rev. Stefano Tamburo, the 43-year-old guardian of the sanctuary who is spearheading the campaign. "So like the friars in the past would go asking for a piece of bread, today we are going to ask for a dollar, a euro, so we can make this place as it was in the time of St. Francis."
Kickstarter is one of dozens of crowd-funding websites that have sprung up in recent years to let people raise money for specific projects, with the catch being that the money is returned to donors if the target isn't met in a certain time frame. Kickstarter campaigns have included Spike Lee movies, funky restaurants, arts projects and business startups. Since it was founded in 2009, more than $1 billion has been pledged for 136,000 projects, though only about 44 percent of them were successfully completed, according to Kickstarter's website.
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The Italian Interior Ministry's Fund for Buildings of Worship oversees the protection and patrimony of the church and 750 other churches across the Italian peninsula, including artistic marvels such as Santa Maria del Popolo with its famed Caravaggios in Rome and Santa Maria Novella in Florence, with frescoes by Giotto, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. But with government budgets tight, the fund welcomes private sponsorship for restoration efforts.
The Franciscan renovation calls for a thorough cleaning of the plaster walls of the tiny cell where St. Francis stayed above the sacristy. The walls have been caked in centuries of candle wax and soot and are crumbling in places. In addition, the friars want to restore a bug-infested Baroque reliquary over the spot where St. Francis slept and install new electric and air ventilation systems to better accommodate the throngs of pilgrims who have been flocking to the sanctuary ever since the first pope named after Francis was elected a year ago.
"We've seen a significant increase in pilgrims, but also Romans who maybe didn't know about this place," Tamburo told the AP on a recent rainy Friday inside the cell. "We want to provide a high-quality service, not just open the doors but explain how Francis lived in this place, and how this place can speak to us about St. Francis today."
As one might expect, the cell is terrifically bare, with the most important connection to the saint a slab of rock where he purportedly laid his head at night. Within the confines of the sanctuary though are some very Franciscan services on offer: The friars are currently housing more than a dozen young homeless men, most of them migrants, doing what both the saint and the pope asked of the faithful.
St. Francis was born to a wealthy cloth merchant in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi in the early 1180s. After falling ill and apparently having a prophetic dream, he cast aside his worldly wealth — literally stripped himself of his clothes — and decided to devote himself to the poor and to rebuilding a church that had fallen into spiritual ruin with priests more bent on luxurious living than saving souls.
Francis proposed a radically new way of living religious life that he believed was closer to what Jesus and his apostles lived — not as cloistered monks or parish priests on career paths but as itinerant and mendicant preachers, ministering to the urban poor and sick and relying exclusively on the charity of others to get by, said Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the theology department at Fordham University in New York and an expert in medieval church history.
He said the Kickstarter campaign was a creative way of continuing that tradition and seems very much in line with the type of church the Jesuit Pope Francis is seeking today: He has asked his priests to live simpler lives, close to their flocks while opening their hearts and homes to the poor.
"It's getting back to what they see as the core" of Jesus' message, he said of both Francis the saint and Francis the pope.