Pt. 6: In Assisi – St. Francis “also had a Veronica”
Assisi is an incredible and beautifully preserved medieval city, known best as the place where St. Francis was born, lived, and died. I had been in Assisi once before, in 2010, but during that time I saw only one site outside of the hotel–the tomb of St. Francis. There was a reason for that odd behavior, which I will explain. But, for this pilgrimage, I had wanted to include Assisi for the Year of Mercy pilgrimage, in thanksgiving to God for His infinite mercy, and for providing us here on earth with the help and friendship of the communion of saints in our most difficult trials on life’s journey.
Now, to explain why I had only seen St. Francis’s tomb on a previous pilgrimage–In 2010 I had been traveling with my husband and three youngest children, together with a pilgrimage group, primarily to see the Shroud of Turin, which at Pope Benedict XVI’s request, was being exhibited that year. While on the pilgrimage, my third son, back in the States, had fallen very ill. He had gone to the hospital and had been told it was most likely a virus from which he would eventually recover, but as the days went by, unable to eat, suffering from fever and chills; he could no longer even take care of himself. When we learned of the situation (communication was very difficult) we arranged for another older son to travel to help him, thinking any day he would improve. However, it soon became clear there was something more serious going on. Jaundiced and very weak, he had lost nearly thirty pounds. He was dying. Doctors could find no cause for his illness from looking at x-rays and MRIs. One doctor reluctantly began an emergency exploratory surgery as there was nothing else left to do.
By the time we received this terrible news we were nearing the end of our trip and had arrived in Assisi. Beset with grief and anxiety, unable to do anything for my son at that time, but pray, I went weeping to the tomb of St. Francis. I prayed and cried, cried and prayed the entire day. The friar stationed at the desk near the tomb gave me strange looks, for which I can hardly blame him. I must have been a sight. When I tired of kneeling, I got up and walked along the tomb, and begged the intercession of the friends of St. Francis, as well, who are entombed in the surrounding walls. Toward the back, behind the altar, in the same enclosure as the tomb of St. Francis, I found a name: “Here lies Jacoba, a holy Roman Noblewoman.” A woman? Buried in the tomb by St. Francis? I knew nothing about her, but figured she must be someone holy if she’s buried with the saint, so I begged her intercession as well.
Toward evening we received news from the hospital–the surgeon had discovered that our son’s appendix had ruptured, weeks before, in an undetectable manner, leaking toxins into his body and closing off the portal vein to his liver. He was still a very sick young man, but would recover. (His recovery took nearly three months.) I felt certain that I owed St. Francis and the saints at his tomb a debt of gratitude for petitioning, on my behalf, for my son before the throne of God–which is why I wanted to return one day to offer thanks. So, the day had come when we could give thanks at St. Francis’s tomb. We knelt in gratitude before the altar, and this time with the additional joy of thanksgiving that our son and his wife had just had their first child,a son.
We went on to see what I had missed in the Basilica; the incredible frescoes and relics. In the Relic Chapel after seeing St. Francis’s patched and tattered tunic and other precious relics, I stood in front of a display case which contained a beautifully embroidered silken veil and read the name, “Jacoba Settesoli.” I read on, “Like Jesus on his way to Calvary, Francis also had a Veronica.” (Veronica is the woman, tradition tells us, who wiped the Face of Jesus. She is the model of those who make reparation to the Face of Christ.)
Lady Jacoba was a noblewoman and widow, with two children from Rome, who became a follower of St. Francis. After having heard him preach she sought his guidance on how to be charitable. When Francis traveled to Rome, he would stay with Lady Jacoba as her guest and she cared for him when he was sick. She gave some of her property in Trastevere to the brothers, which they used to care for lepers. She gave up her life of comfort in order to help the poor. Woman were not normally permitted to be in company of the brothers, however, St. Francis made an exception in her case, jokingly referring to her as “Brother Jacoba.”
As Francis lay dying he sent an urgent letter by messenger to Lady Jacoba: “Brother Jacoba, the servant of the Most High, health in the Lord and communion in the Holy Ghost. Dearest, I want you to know that the blessed Lord has done the grace of revealing that the end of my life is nigh. So, if you want to find me still alive, hurry to Santa Maria degli Angeli as soon as you receive this letter.” He went on to request that she bring a gray cloth to wrap his body in, candles for burial, and almond cookies that she had made for him in Rome when he was sick. Before the messenger arrived in Rome, Lady Jacoba had already anticipated St. Francis’s needs by the light of the Holy Spirit and was on her way to Francis’s deathbed.
St. Francis’s biographer, Bl. Thomas Celano, wrote that Lady Jacoba brought not only the gray cloth, the candles, and the almond cookies, but also a pillow for his head, and a “sindomen pro facie” (a veil to cover his face in death, which was displayed in the Relic Chapel). So, St. Francis, an alter Christus who bore the stigmata, also had his “Veronica” in Lady Jacoba, who brought him consolation in his passion. (to be continued in Pt. 7)