Pope prepares for 'poverty' visit to St Francis town

Pope Francis waves as he leaves after leading the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct 2, 2013. Pope Francis will outline how the Catholic Church should follow the humble example of St Francis of Assisi during an historic visit
Pope Francis waves as he leaves after leading the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct 2, 2013. Pope Francis will outline how the Catholic Church should follow the humble example of St Francis of Assisi during an historic visit on Friday to the hometown of the saint whose name he adopted. -- PHOTO : REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis will outline how the Catholic Church should follow the humble example of St Francis of Assisi during an historic visit on Friday to the hometown of the saint whose name he adopted.

Some 100,000 pilgrims and over 1,000 journalists are expected to follow the Argentine pope as he visits the sites associated with the mediaeval saint in the hilltown in Umbria in central Italy.

The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francesco Bernardone grew up an arrogant and war-mongering young man before his spiritual enlightenment.

He famously shed his robes in front of his father in a renunciation of earthly riches and donned a sackcloth to live like and for the poor.

"I want to talk about how the Church should take off its clothes, how in some way the Church should repeat the gesture of St Francis," the bishop of Assisi, Domenico Sorrentino, quoted the pope as telling him ahead of the historic visit.

Francis, who has called for a "poor Church for the poor", has said he wants to overhaul the 2,000-year-old institution, making it less "Vatican-centric" and closer to ordinary people.

One of his proposals was to use abandoned monasteries and convents to house refugees and there are rumours that he could announce the abandonment of archaic clerical titles.

Francis has set up a new council of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him in an unprecedented experiment to make Church government more "horizontal" and less hierarchical.

The eight held their first closed-door meetings with the pope this week in which the Vatican said they discussed how to "refresh" the Church and they will accompany him during his visit to Assisi.

The visit is due to begin at 0600 GMT and wrap up at 1700 GMT Friday, with the pope expected to meet groups of poor, sick and handicapped people who are being looked after by Catholic orders or charities.

Logistics and security are expected to be complicated but the pope's bodyguards have said they have already had to adapt because of his constant desire to engage with his followers.

The pope has said the visit is a "pilgrimage" to visit the home of St Francis (1182-1226), whom he has praised for preaching peace, protecting all of God's creation and reaching out to the needy.

St Francis, who is also the patron saint of Italy, was said to have heard God tell him: "Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins" - a reference to the Church.

That is the same message that cardinals expressed for the new pope at the dramatic conclave in which he was elected in March, following a wave of financial scandals and child abuse cases.

The saint's gesture of renunciation by derobing took place in the bishop's palace of Assisi on April 12, 1207 when his father asked him to return the riches he had given away to the poor.

The pope is expected to visit the room where the act took place and meet with poor people.

There is expectation in Vatican circles of a possible major announcement during the visit.

But leftist daily Il Fatto Quotidiano said the pope need look no further than the town of Assisi itself in his desire to clean up the Church.

The newspaper said that pilgrims and tourists are fleeced by religious institutions in the town and that former convents have been turned into hotels while no refectory offers free meals for the needy.

Francis's visit to Assisi is different from that of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI because it is focussed on the saint's message of poverty rather than that of inter-religious peace.

The trip will be the pope's third in Italy after he visited the island of Lampedusa in July where he called for more tolerance of immigrants and Cagliari in Sardinia in September when he denounced "an idol called money".