When Sister Rebecca White was in the 8th grade in Glennonville, Mo., she read a book on Saint Francis of Assisi by Franciscan Friar Murray Bodo.
“Ever since the eighth grade, I’ve been in love with Francis,” she said. “I chose his feast day (Oct. 4) for mine. For years, I’ve wanted to make a week retreat in Assisi. Three years ago, I almost went. But now that I know more about the topography of Assisi, I doubt I could walk the hills.”
Instead, Sister Rebecca has taken the next best route. On Oct. 7, 2021, she began a six-week program titled “Assisi Pilgrimage Online: A Virtual Journey of Peace and Nonviolence in the Footsteps of Francis and Clare.”
Presented through the Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, the pilgrimage is led by Ken Butigan, who teaches at DePaul University in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Program. He has led four groups of students on a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome.
“This virtual retreat is really great for me,” Sister Rebecca said.
Saint Francis founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor – better known as the Franciscans – in 1209. Two years later, he founded the Second Franciscan Order for women with the young noblewoman Clare of Assisi. The community is better known as the Poor Clares. Saint Francis later formed a Third Order for lay people who wanted to observe the Franciscan principles of simplicity in their daily lives. Before she founded the Ursuline Sisters, Saint Angela Merici was a Third Order Franciscan.
The website that Sister Rebecca visits for this program describes the pilgrimage as an opportunity “to study the lives of the founders of the Franciscan tradition, to pray for peace, to build community, to strengthen our nonviolent journey, and, most importantly, to open the space for spiritual deepening and discovery in this time of crisis and opportunity.”
“I’ve experienced two sessions. There are some preparation readings, a brief audio recording and sometimes a video to prepare for each session,” Sister Rebecca said. “There is an 8-minute audio reflection about Francis and Clare. It helps us to reflect on their lives. I knew nothing about Clare before starting this. Ken gives a talk first, then we break into small groups of three people to discuss topics. We are shown the sites for that evening’s discussion.” About 35 people participate in the two-hour program each Thursday evening.
When Sister Rebecca joined the Ursulines in 1979, she used her nurse’s training to serve in the Mount infirmary. Her real dream then was to serve with migrant farmers, sharing their poverty and spirituality, she said. She has served in many ways through the years, but her participation on the steering committee for NonViolent Owensboro is one of the ways she is in touch with the early vision for her life as a Sister. The organization promotes nonviolent living and direct action through education and community partnerships.
“Francis was called to voluntary poverty, to bring about peace,” Sister Rebecca said. “In the program, there’s a lot of comparison between Saint Francis and Pope Francis to move us away from militarism and to lift up the poorest of the poor,” she said.
Now 50 years since she first grew to love Saint Francis, Sister Rebecca is virtually walking the paths he took, and striving to live her life like Francis and Clare.
“There was something that drew me as an eighth grader about living simply and being a peacemaker,” she said.