Xavier Magazine

On Pilgrimage

In this personal journal, Theology Professor Gillian Ahlgren chronicles her journey to Assisi, Italy, as part of her study of the spirituality of St. Francis in June.

[Read Gillian Ahlgren’s journal, “On Pilgrimage.”]

Xavier Magazine

San Damiano, San Rufino: Bringing Lessons to Life

During her sophomore year at Xavier, Lauren Myers went to a psychic with some friends from school. It was just for fun. The woman asked her a few questions then told Lauren, “There’s something missing, something off track in your life, and you need to find it.” Lauren tried not to pay too much attention to what the woman said, but it bothered her a lot, because, since coming to college, she’s been thinking the same thing.

Myers, a special education major, now finds herself in Assisi, sitting on a bench facing a rose-studded courtyard at a sanctuary called San Damiano. She’s journaling, something she hasn’t done in a while, and it feels good. The stone structure encircling the courtyard houses a church and chapel, dormitories for the Franciscan friars who live there and the ancient wooden stalls of  St. Clare’s choir room and refectory where she and her cloistered sisters followed the teachings of Francis.

It is here that Francis, still nursing the wounds of war and pondering his uncertainty about his family’s wealth and social standing, stumbled upon a crumbling little church and stepped inside to pray. A voice spoke to him from the cross telling him: “Go. Rebuild my church.” Believing God had spoken to him, Francis suddenly had a purpose, and he set about rebuilding that church and many others to follow.

People thought the merchant’s son had gone mad, but others came to help, and a few stayed on, attracted by his simple interpretation of Jesus’ message. Men donned tunics and sandals and walked with him through the Umbrian hills rich with olive trees and vineyards, preaching the gospel, ministering to the lepers and meditating in hillside caves and grottos. He often returned to pray at San Damiano, one of his most famous sanctuaries, and eventually gave it to Clare and her growing order of religious women.

“I really liked San Damiano,” Myers says. “It was so peaceful and gorgeous and beautiful, and you could feel it around you. I could just sit there all day. I felt very at peace with myself and able to reconnect, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time.”

The place reminds her of what the psychic said to her months before. Now she knows what the woman was trying to tell her. “I honestly believe what she said. She noticed that something was missing in my life, and I feel I definitely found it. It was my relationship with God.”

In a vision she had about 15 years ago, Margaret Horne is extracting herself from her mother. They are entangled, like spaghetti, and she manages to pull herself free. Afterward, she weeps in the arms of a friend, feeling relief for the first time in her life. “I felt I had given birth to myself and was separating from my mother,” she says. “I had been so connected to her. It was a very liberating experience.”

Horne tells her story in a lounge of the Hotel Giotto. The rain beats down on the muted countryside beyond the patio, creating a rhythmic backdrop to the conversation. It’s a good day to explore the life of Francis, who went through his own liberating experience on a piazza near Assisi’s Cathedral San Rufino.

On a cold March morning in 1206, Bishop Guido held court on the piazza to hear Bernardone’s charges of theft against his son. Francis had given away his father’s money, clothing and a horse to help fund the rebuilding of San Damiano. Bernardone beat him in public and locked him up for weeks. Months later, appearing before the bishop, Bernardone demanded his son repay him and come home to the business. But Francis had other ideas. Facing the crowd, he announced he would return his father’s money and clothing. Then he dramatically stripped himself naked, handed the items to the bishop and declared his intention to follow God. From now on, he said, he would recognize only “Our Father, who art in heaven,” not his own father.

It was a poignant moment in Francis’ life, a turning point that severed him from his family and his old life and set him on a new path as a follower of God. For Horne, the parallels are unmistakable, as she still struggles with her anger toward her parents. Her father always said she’d never amount to anything, and her mother never showed affection.

“I always thought she didn’t love me, and her emotional absence was the factor that kept me tied to her,” she says. “Now I’ve gotten an awareness about how Francis’ life was so negative as well. He was treated like dirt by his father, yet he did not allow those experiences to tear him down. I think St. Francis has really taught me how to be accepting of who I am and how important it is.”

Alyssa Hagy’s grandfather is a minister who’s traveled around the world, including to the Holy Land. But he’s never been to Assisi. He convinced Hagy, a junior studying occupational therapy, that a trip to the ancient city would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So Hagy came. And now, she’s sitting inside a medieval church on the side of a mountain, about 35 miles south of Assisi, wondering: Why am I here? What does God mean to me? Who were these people who built this place?

“I’ve heard stories of Jesus all my life,” she says, “and instead of just sitting in a class, I thought I wanted to feel something and emotionally be able to experience God.”

The sanctuary at Greccio is a place where Francis came to do the same—to meditate and pray, sometimes retreating into a natural grotto in the woods. It was also here in 1223 that he created the world’s first Nativity scene, complete with livestock and local residents standing in for Joseph and Mary. An altar now sits in the large cave where the scene was set up, beneath a faded fresco of Francis at the crèche.

Many ancient and modern Nativity scenes are on display throughout the church, but it’s the rest of the sanctuary that piques Alyssa’s interest—the wooden dormitory built after Francis died where 15 Franciscan friars lived in simple cells, each with a Roman numeral carved above the door, and the original friary cut out of rock down below with the tiny cave at the far end where Francis slept.

Later, walking the ancient streets of Assisi, Hagy sees Franciscan friars in their brown, hooded robes padding across the town square. After experiencing the places their predecessors created, she gains a sense of real history backing up the church stories of her youth.

“There’s this underground world where these saints really walked, and seeing all the monks means this must be real. They’re living their whole lives for St. Francis and God,” she says. “My relationship with God is growing since I went on this trip. For awhile I questioned a lot of things, but Assisi just brought proof of what I’m trying to find.”

Xavier Magazine

La Verna, Basilica: Bringing Lessons to Life

Inching her way out on the ledge, Margie Hardebeck steadies herself by the railing and gazes at the sacred rock. She’s standing on the precipice across from where Francis, just two years before he died, received the wounds of the crucified Christ. It’s an awesome space in many ways—nothing but empty air between her and the steep, bare cliff where swallows, swifts and larks swipe insects on the wing.

Over their birdsongs, the deep sound of men’s voices reaches her. It’s rhythmic and chanting. Dashing up a set of steps, she peers down a long hallway and sees a procession of brown-robed men walking toward the Chapel of the Stigmata erected over the sacred rock after Francis’ death. The friars are singing a Gregorian chant, and they’re followed by a throng of faithful pilgrims.

Hardebeck is mesmerized. Mount La Verna—a two-hour bus ride north of Assisi—taps into her spiritual yearnings and confirms her decision to come to Italy. It’s a place that Francis frequently visited for meditation and prayer, a mountaintop retreat donated to him and his fledgling order where he walked to throughout his life. Today it is a sprawling sanctuary and retreat in the mountains of Tuscany where the friars make chocolate and liqueurs to sell to the faithful who arrive in droves on weekends and holidays looking for inspiration of their own.

The place inspires Hardebeck to have faith in her quest to discover her true calling. A graduate student in theology, she’s on this pilgrimage because she’s decided to retire as a family physician and do something else. But what exactly? She’s entertaining the idea of becoming a hospital chaplain. She’s even had thoughts of joining a religious order.

But she’s really not sure which way to turn. And emotionally, she’s tapped out after handling her parents’ deaths. “It was a really difficult experience for me. Even my dog died right after they did.” So while she’s trying to figure out her next career move, she’s also exploring her own spiritual beliefs. Perhaps one will lead to the other.

“It also occurred to me that if I’m going to be a chaplain, I’d better know what this faith is all about,” she says. “The master’s degree in theology may lead to a career choice change, but the self-enrichment I get in Assisi will be real good for me in a spiritual sense.”

She discovers that opportunity for self-enrichment while standing on the ledge, contemplating the man who kneeled on the rock and felt God in his veins. As Francis, in poor health from his recurring malaria and widespread travels, returned to La Verna for long retreats, so must people, particularly those in health care professions like hers, return often to the well to replenish themselves. “I feel I’m still working through what Francis’ message really is on a deeper level—emptying out in order to be filled up.”

Katie Huey and her two undergraduate companions, Myers and Hagy, stroll the cobbled streets of Assisi in the early evening. Exhausted from their trip to La Verna, they’ve rewarded themselves with pizza from the wooden oven of a pizzeria on the square. Now, as they contemplate gelato, that delectable Italian dessert, they spy the façade of the Basilica di San Francesco lit up for the night by spotlights.

Wandering over, they’re struck by the quiet space in front of the gigantic structure—nothing like the throngs they experienced the day before when tourists streamed in and out. On this night, with the building locked up tight, the space is transformed into something resembling the aura of St. Francis—comforting, inspiring, spiritual.

It’s so beautiful, the girls lie down on the bricked plaza to get a better view of the looming facade. Francis never saw the basilica built to commemorate his life and his sainthood. And he might recoil if he saw what he would describe as opulence but others see as splendor. But the basilica was a done deal when Pope Gregory IX canonized St. Francis on July 16, 1228, just two years after his death, and laid the first stone of the new structure, erected on a hill where death sentences had been carried out.

By 1230, the lower church was completed, and Francis’ mortal remains were moved to an elevated crypt now open to visitors and prayerful pilgrims. The upper church, completed in 1236, hosted a procession of the greatest Italian painters of the day—Giotto, Pisano, Cimabue—who left a legacy of frescoes on its walls depicting the life of the famous saint. The church presents a rare example of Italian Gothic art that attracts visitors seeking spiritual and cultural gratification.

For Huey, it’s a perfect representation of the material wealth the Church accumulated contrasted with the simple life of the man it seeks to venerate. “Gillian Ahlgren showed us how he is so much like us, that he started off kind of materialistic in a wealthy family and went off and he didn’t know who he was,” Huey says. “It’s like at 20 years old, you leave your house and go to college and you start asking yourself, who am I? So it’s cool to have that connection with Francis.”

As she lies there with her friends, staring up at the Gothic façade, birds fly in and out of the spotlights, and she realizes Francis is there on the warm plaza with them. “Because he is human,” she says. “He wanted to be a friend among us, not above us.”

Xavier Magazine

Bring Lessons to Life

[Watch an online slideshow.]

A symphony of birds escorts Margaret Horne along a cobbled path leading from the medieval stone walls of the ancient city of Assisi, Italy, down a green sloping hillside still wet from the morning dew. It’s a warm Sunday in June, and Horne is walking to San Damiano for early morning Mass on the last day of an eight-day pilgrimage. The fork-tailed swallows dip and dive, echoing their sweet songs to each other, and Horne, entranced by the experience, is transported back to her youth.

She’s 9 years old again and, in the early morning hours of a summer day in Galway, Ireland, she hops on her bicycle and pedals furiously, leaving her seven siblings sleeping in their beds. Turning onto the narrow country road, she begins the three-mile trek to church, passing hedgerows and pastures dotted with grazing cows and sheep. The warm summer air stirs her blonde curls as she pumps.

At the church, she pulls in and lets her bike clatter to the ground. Slipping into the pew at the back, she feels the coolness of the church wrap around her clammy skin and welcomes the peace it brings. She sits alone, reveling in the solitude that is a respite from her chaotic home. The church is the only place she feels the possibility of love, because there is no love at home, not from her mother or her father, only the endless tasks of providing food, clothes and housing for the growing family.

Today, at the church of San Damiano, she feels that peace again. Now 69 years old, Horne has come to Assisi in search of the love her parents could not provide and the resulting self-esteem she never knew. It works. “I got in touch with myself,” she says. “I learned to look at my life and the world as a feast, and that I can turn all the negativity that I’ve experienced into something positive.”

Horne is one of 15 people on a study abroad pilgrimage led by professor of theology Gillian Ahlgren. Titled “Franciscan Spirituality: A Pilgrimage,” the course also attracted several non-students like Horne, who wanted to experience the life and world of St. Francis of Assisi. The famous saint, known popularly as the patron saint of animals, is all that—and so much more. The young man-about-town, reveler, soldier and prisoner became an environmentalist, peacemaker, humanitarian and ascetic. Ahlgren created the trip to offer a glimpse into this medieval world in which Francis lived and to show the parallels of his life with the social, political and economic issues of today.

Xavier is unique, Ahlgren says, in offering such travel options that are both academic study and spiritual experiences. They’re a level beyond typical study abroad programs. And in her new role as director of faculty programs in the University’s Division of Mission and Identity, Ahlgren plans to expand spiritual study opportunities for students and alumni.

“I don’t know of other universities that are this academic and theological. Most pilgrimages are done by churches and missions, not universities. We do pilgrimages because students go away different people. In class, I can’t make the hills of Umbria come alive and walk around Perugia and show how it made one religious. Here I can.”

Like Horne, many of the Assisi travelers are on a personal journey to heal old wounds, discover their spiritual selves or improve their relationship with God. Some seek direction in their professional or personal lives, while others simply want a respite from the daily grind or a lesson on the history and culture of the region. But on visits to six of the most important sites in the life of the saint who inspired generations, everyone develops a fondness for the lovely and ancient city of Assisi—its architecture, people and cuisine—and its most famous son, Giovanni “Francesco” Bernardone.

Yogi Wess has spent her entire life working to help other people. It’s in her blood somehow, perhaps because her mother was a nurse and her father turned to service work after confronting his own alcoholism. Wess turned her humanitarian nature into a profession—developing an agency that cares for the elderly, becoming a registered nurse and signing on part-time in the hospital at the county jail. There she passes out pills and asks the inmates how they’re doing. She treats them as human beings.

“My work has always been spiritually driven,” she says. “I stand at the meds window and look out at 800 young men. The potential is overwhelming.”

So when she walks into the chapel beneath the Chiesa Nuova, the church built over the place where Francis was born and raised, Wess simply dissolves. She feels him everywhere—through the stone walls, the cool floor, the smooth brick ceiling. Sitting on a worn, wooden bench, she leans her head back against the wall during the group prayer and hymn, closes her eyes and lets the tears flow as she listens to the story of Francis’ whole troubled life.

Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant with a thriving business, Francis was not very serious. He preferred revelry to working in his father’s shop. But shortly after he marched off to war in 1202 to defend Assisi against the neighboring town of Perugia, he was captured and held prisoner for a year. It was his first experience of deprivation, living alone in a small, dark cell with only his thoughts for company.

After being ransomed by his father and brought home, his mother, Pica, nursed him back to health. It took a year, but he was a changed man, weakened by the malaria he contracted in prison and more interested in helping people who suffered as he did than in making money for his father. When he gave his father’s money away, an angry Pietro Bernardone locked him in a tiny barred space in their home. Again, Francis was alone in a cell where he confronted his life and his faith.

“When I walked in here, I was just overcome with the spirit of St. Francis,” Wess says. “It took my breath away. I was joyous. I felt his love and his presence. It was pure and moved me to tears.”

Wess is working on her master’s in theology, and the possibility of going to Assisi to experience the spirituality of St. Francis and earn credit made too much sense, so she borrowed money to pay for the trip. “For me, the whole need to go is to be empty and quiet. I’m trying to find out why I’m here and what direction I’m trying to go in. Assisi shows you that, no matter where you are, the overpowering sense of God’s love is available to everybody, and how we can live that out.”

Xavier Magazine

Choices We Make

We asked our scholars to examine the following areas to help us better understand why we choose our leaders.

Gender I Christine Anderson, chair, department of history
At the time that women got the vote, everyone thought it would make a huge difference because women were thought of as morally superior to men, in the fact that they weren’t involved with corruption, right? They cared about children, about peace, so there were many people who thought the world, or at least the United States, would become a much better place once women became voters.

What happened was that women did not vote as a block. Women voted the way their husbands did, not because they were told to do so, but because of their economic and social interests. Their political world was, generally, very similar. So that, although there was some reformist revolution relating to women and children and internal health in the early 1920s, it turned out that women voting really didn’t make much difference. Women have voted very much the same way, historically, that men in their communities have voted. And remember that African-American women—especially in the South—were not voting until the 1960s. So we’re really talking about white women.

In the last several decades, what has begun to emerge, maybe, is what some call a gender gap, where women are assumed to emphasize more social concerns. Not so much about peace, but much more so about social concerns. They have tended toward Democratic candidates in small numbers. In close elections, it could make a big difference. It’s pretty gradual, though.

I would continue to emphasize the ways that women vote according to other categories, though, such as race, education, economic status. Those things also matter—maybe more so right now—than gender bias does.

National Security I Tim White, professor of political science and sociology
National security won’t be as important to voters in this year’s presidential election as it was four years ago because 9/11 is being reinterpreted by many people who now believe the war in Iraq isn’t as critical as it once seemed.

In most elections, aside from presidential races, voters pay little attention to national security, and sometimes not even in presidential contests. In times of peace, voters focus on issues like the economy. In times of war, people feel threatened and national security becomes important.

In 2004, John Kerry was defeated primarily because voters felt more secure with President Bush. The war in Iraq was initially cast by Bush as a response to 9/11 and while the war continues, it is now seen by many people as less critical than four years ago. And so, national security isn’t as big an issue in the Obama-McCain election as it was in the Kerry-Bush contest. There’s not the same feeling of an imminent crisis as there was four years ago that would make voters forego their present concerns about the economy.

Also, the pain of the war in Iraq—which can be associated with heightened concern about national security—isn’t as wide ranging as it was in World War II or the Vietnam War when military conscription personally affected many more people than today’s all-volunteer military.

Globalization I James Buchanan, director, Brueggeman Center for Dialogue
There’s a distinction between globalization and internationalization. International issues have always played a big role in electing our presidents—foreign policy is always a key issue. Increasingly, that relates to trade deficits and so forth.

But this is a transitional period for America. It’s a transitional period in terms of energy, the workforce, what opportunities are available, how to build wealth for retirement. It’s a transitional period in terms of the levels of debt people are going to carry. And it’s a transitional period because all of this is no longer simply a national problem: It’s tied to a global reality.

To some degree, I think that the candidates right now are still focusing on internationalism, as opposed to really focusing on globalization. Since World War II, we’ve had it relatively good, and we just think that a new president can come in and dramatically change our reality with a new national policy. We can’t think that way any more. It’s no longer a national reality of which our nation is part. Whatever we’re going to talk about, it’s going to require sacrifice on behalf of the American population, and that’s not a message that’s ever going to be popular.

So how does a candidate talk about that? I don’t think they do. I think what you have to do is to try and read between the lines of what they’re saying, see who their advisors are and get some kind of gauge of how much courage they have—whether or not they really want to be a visionary and take on the long-term, really hard challenges with which we’re faced. Because they are long-term—and very difficult—challenges.


Advertising I Indra DeSilva, chair, department of communications
Advertising is so important in shaping the way people vote that it is the main reason elections have gotten so outrageously expensive. Anyone can run for president, provided they can raise millions of dollars. Most of that money goes to advertising, which is becoming more expensive—especially radio and television advertising. Newspapers and magazines can add pages to accommodate more political advertising, but radio and TV are limited to 24 hours a day. As demand for advertising airtime increases, the price goes up and candidates are forced to raise even more money.

The high price is worth it to candidates, though. Research shows that advertising has a big impact on voters. Even if only half the advertising works, that is enough. Negative advertising—ripping your opponent instead of promoting yourself—may be distasteful, but is especially effective. Think back to the 1964 presidential campaign when an ad for Lyndon Johnson portrayed his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as having an itchy finger on the nuclear bomb trigger. The ad showed a little girl plucking petals off a daisy and counting. Her counting was superseded by another voice counting down the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and the image of innocent daisy picking was replaced by an eerie mushroom cloud. That turned out to be very effective.

Negative ads tend to be dirtiest on television because of the power of moving images, and the daisy ads put a very powerful image in voters’ minds. We say we don’t like negative ads, but research shows they work.

The Internet I Bob Cotter, associate vice president for information resources
The Internet has impacted the way we elect our leaders in two ways: One, it has allowed information outside the homogenized, corporate, conglomerate filter to be very easily transmitted. You have access to that information and you can create your own viewpoints and distribute them. Secondly, you don’t have to do that as a “crazy guy in the basement” anymore. You can be part of a social network of like-minded people. With the Internet, you can create online social communities.

In 2004, Howard Dean probably did more to lead this change than anyone. He had some very good strategists who understood how to use the Internet for fundraising. Barack Obama also has found the Internet as a very efficient way to get contributions not just from deep pockets but from normal-sized pockets. He also took it up a quantum leap this year by using the Internet to embrace social networking.

In an image-rich age, it finally comes down to the ability of candidates to put themselves across digitally as well as verbally. And I think the Internet will continue to be very influential. In a way, it has replaced the public square where people gather. It allows us to invite more participation, to invite a more vigorous exchange of ideas—just what the republic was set out to do.

Fundraising I Mack Mariani, assistant professor of political science
In many ways, fundraising is a distraction from what candidates should be doing. But, it does provide candidates with some level of feedback from voters, as well as generating support from individuals and groups. At the end of the day, campaigns are about getting the message out.

The way to get the message out in modern America is through media and advertising, and so if candidates are going to have a voice and if people are going to hear that voice, candidates are going to have to raise money.

Raising lots of money has also become important because of the decline of political parties in the United States. People used to connect with candidates through the parties. Political parties supplied the people to campaign for candidates. You had armies of people knocking on doors and holding meetings, and in the early 1900s voting rates were around 90 percent. Political parties were more integrated in governance and there was a lot of patronage, but civil service laws have diminished the power of patronage.

The rise of television as a mass medium helped change that. Political parties used to be part of the nation’s entertainment. Parades and speeches used to provide people with something to do. Thousands of people would turn out to hear three- and four-hour speeches. Now, people get a lot of their entertainment from television. That has forced politicians to change course. Voters now watch TV, so that’s where politicians go to reach them.

Economics I David Yi, assistant professor of economics
Historically, the condition of the economy has impacted the election outcome, especially in the general election where we elect the president. If the economy is in a recession, people tend to blame the current sitting president. Of course, sometimes people vote along the party line no matter what. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, if you’re an independent voter or a swing voter, and the economy is in trouble, that may have some impact on how you vote.

There are different indices people use to measure how the economy is doing, but one of the indicators we should pay attention to is the consumer confidence level. The economy might be in a sluggish stage, but as long as consumer confidence is high, the chance of the incumbent getting re-elected isn’t bad. But if consumer confidence is really low, that means consumers are really concerned about the future of our economy, and that can translate into electing someone from the other party.

If you look at the past 60 years, the Democrats’ economic policy was better for low-income families. But if you look at the income growth rate for families during the election year, under the Republican Party they did better. That’s interesting isn’t it? So perhaps the Republican Party has better strategies of getting elected. Because voters are myopic, they only look at what is happening now.

Of course, voters consider different issues, not just the economy, but foreign policy issues, such as what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. These days there’s the issue between Russia and Georgia—all these play important roles. And if you’re a voter who cares more about foreign policy, then you might vote based on these issues, and the impact of the economy will be minimized. We’ll have to see.

Diversity I Cheryl Nunez, vice provost for diversity
Race is a political construction on which every political question and contest must invariably turn. Across every measure of life outcomes—income, wealth, employment, education, morbidity, morality—racial disproportionality is a fact of national life. Yet in the color-blind tradition of the post-Civil Rights era, racial discourse in politics is impermissible. The fact that no serious presidential campaign has ever addressed itself to the eradication of systemic racial inequity is a testament to the intractable influence of race on politics.

While campaigning for racial equity would be political suicide, politicians are well aware that race can be invoked for political advantage. Appeals for law and order, school choice, welfare reform and color-blind hiring—accompanied by racially coded rhetoric and imagery—can predictably trigger white racial resentments toward inner-city violence, black “welfare queens” and reverse discrimination. So race influences elections even when never spoken.

There should also be no doubt that the race of candidates matters. Both conscious racial bias and unconscious assumptions can influence voter preferences. While it is conceivable we could elect a president of color, it is unthinkable we would ever elect any candidate who poses a serious threat to the racial status quo. And until race is understood as central to serious political thought and policy making, it remains the elephant in our nation’s living room. And try as some might to ignore the beast, its footprints are impossible to miss.


Xavier Magazine

St. Francis of Assisi

Francis was born in 1182 to a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy,  who expected his son to work for him. His mother, Pica, named him Giovanni after John the Baptist, but Pietro di Bernardone called him Francesco after his beloved France, where they often traveled to buy goods used in making clothing for the wealthy citizens of Assisi.

Young Francis was a reveler and troubadour who dreamed of writing French poetry and also of knighthood. In 1202, at age 20, he joined the battle against the nearby town of Perugia, but instead of finding glory, he was captured and imprisoned for a year.

Traumatized by the isolation, illness and deprivation of prison, Francis began questioning the purpose of his life, his family and his materialistic society and compared it to the teachings of Christ. Humbled, he turned to God for solace and direction.

Soon after, Francis renounced his father and his former life. He began rebuilding churches and lived in poverty, preaching the gospel and ministering to lepers. In 1209, he received papal permission to start the Friars Minor, an order of monks who scattered across Europe to do their work. Francis even went to Egypt to meet muslim leaders.

Years later, he set up the first actual Nativity scene near the town of Greccio to celebrate Christmas. And in 1224, suffering from poor health and bad eyes, he had a vision on Mount La Verna in which he received the stigmata—the wounds of Christ—during a 40-day fast.

Francis spent the last days of his life in a little church he’d restored near Assisi. He died on Oct. 3, 1226, and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1228—the quickest in history. The next day, the pope laid the cornerstone for the Basilica of Saint Francis built to venerate the beloved, gentle preacher who lived in simplicity and joy.

During his life, Francis wrote poetry, prayers and psalms, including his “Canticle of the Sun” and “Canticle of the Creatures,” which praise God for creating the world and all living things. The title of the film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” by Franco Zeferilli, about the life of Saint Francis is taken from the canticles.

Xavier Magazine

Intimate Opera

Douglas Geers selected a powerful theme for his first opera: 9/11. The 1990 graduate with a double major in music and English is now a University of Minnesota professor and specialist in electronic music. He’s composed and recorded numerous musical pieces, but delving into opera was a new challenge—especially when the topic is the terrorist attack on America.

Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness premieres in September at New York City’s acclaimed La MaMa E.T.C. The opera is based on Wickham Boyle’s book, A Mother’s Essays from Ground Zero, and reflects on how 9/11 affected her family. Boyle wrote the words for the opera and Geers wrote the music, combining traditional instruments and computer-generated electronic music.

Geers divides his time between Minneapolis and New York City and was in New York when the airliners smashed into the World Trade Center towers. “A former student of mine died in the tower,” says Geers. “The attack was very personal to me and a lot of other people, and it also touched people all over the world. But, as an artist, I had to take an event everyone thinks they already know and make them see it in a new way.”

The opera is not a documentary and doesn’t deal with global politics. It tells specific stories about specific people on and after 9/11. “This very intimate focus makes it universal,” says Geers. “That’s the power of art. What moves people is not some generic information about the abstract. This opera is about a mother and her husband and their children and about chaos and coping.”

Geers worked off and on for a year and a half writing the music for the 90-minute opera. “This first opera was not easy because you look back on all the masterpieces and that can be daunting,” he says. “Composing the pieces of music was like trying to build a house in the middle of the night. I can feel this is a door and this is a window, and the process of composing accelerates. But it was a long process and a lot of work. It was my primary compositional task over 18 months.”

Xavier Magazine

Profile: Patrick Duffy, Jr.

Bachelor of General Studies, 1985
Lay pastoral minister, Little Brothers of the Gospel of
Charles de Foucauld, Managua, Nicaragua

Life Inside | “I’m called to live in the midst of and with the poor,” Duffy says. “It’s a life of insertion and being with rather than just being for. My vocation is inside the faith, but outside the box.”

Reality | More than halfway through a degree in business concentrating in real estate at the University of Cincinnati, Duffy read about St. Francis Xavier and realized his future did not lie in property sales. He transferred to Xavier and added a concentration in psychology to feed his growing interest in social work.

A Year to Remember | “I was living in a house with a couple buddies, and we came together around a priest who helped us discover prayer not in a churchy, geeky way, but in a real way. It was then I discovered there wasn’t a career program out there for me, and I was heading toward something different.”

Navajo Dreams | After working awhile in the mental health field,  Duffy took a job working with special needs children on a Navajo Indian reservation. “I fell in love with the Native American culture, their spirituality and working cross-culturally. I learned that’s how I wanted to spend my life.”

Comboni | After his father died of cancer, Duffy entered the seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in 1988. By 1992 he was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to finish his training. He chose Sao Paulo because the Church there is so committed to his dream—working with the poor and the street children.

Children of the Streets | “A real street kid has cut off his emotional connections with his family because there’s usually no father and there are too many kids. They opt for the streets and don’t go back. Our job was to reintegrate them with the family.”

Moment of Truth | As he lived among the people, Duffy felt called away from the traditional priesthood. “I discovered true Church in Brazil—doing services between the gunfire of drug dealers. But the people still showed up. As a priest I was going to be asked to do something else. I just didn’t fit into the box.”

Charles de Foucauld | Duffy returned to Cincinnati without taking his vows and read a book about Charles de Foucauld, a former Trappist monk who inspired people to live the gospel by working and living with the poor. He was so inspired, he joined the Little Brothers of the Gospel and moved back to Brazil to work with them as a Charles de Foucauld lay pastoral minister.

Living the Mission | Today, Duffy lives on the outskirts of Managua with his family, teaching scripture to students and holding workshops and retreats for teachers. His work is supported by a fundraising group he organized in 2006 in memory of his father called Partners In Mission Nicaragua. Its web site,, includes a blog Duffy writes about his work in the barrio.

Xavier Magazine

Profile: Suzanne Kathman

Bachelor of Arts, 1990
Executive director, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries

Basic Questions | After graduating with a nursing degree in 1974, Kathman began a 21-year career in critical-care nursing. She spent the last 15 years in the open-heart intensive care unit. “I loved being a critical-care nurse, but somewhere in my 30s, I started to have some of the basic questions like, ‘What is the overall purpose of my life?’ I had the sense something was missing.”

A Shifted Focus | Soon she found her way to Xavier with the intent of earning a BSN. After taking electives in history, however, she shifted focus. For a particular class, she found herself spending a lot of time at the downtown Cincinnati library. “In the course of my presence there, I became very aware of the homeless people coming into the library. They were sitting in there to get out of the cold and were eating out of the garbage cans.”

The Right Place | “I had this movement started in me, and I wanted to do something about this situation.” She mentioned this to a friend at church who suggested she volunteer for Bethany House of Hospitality, a shelter for women and children run by the Sisters of Mercy. “I started volunteering there with the intent of only working a couple of hours each month, and I just felt like I was where I was supposed to be.”

The Right Time | At the same time, she began a separate journey with the Sisters of Mercy. “I felt very much like that was an extension of my family. It felt like I had come home to something that I didn’t know was missing. It was all part of that spiritual discernment. It led me to understand that my call was not to vow religious life, but I did feel called to become a Mercy associate, which entails making a covenant with the Sisters of Mercy to share in their prayer life, their ministry and their community.” Today, she lives in the community house with the sisters.

Making Connections | Kathman also volunteered with the Sisters of Mercy H.O.M.E. (House of Mercy Environment) program, which provides care to low-income seniors. After realizing that these seniors needed more than her once-a-week visits, she came up with the idea to train homeless or low-income women as homecare aides to provide the needed services and break the cycle of poverty. So, in 1993, she founded Healing Connections Associates to implement the nurse aide training program.

Merging Ministries | A few years ago, Kathman began talking to two other Sisters of Mercy ministries about the possibility of combining their efforts. Last April, Kathman led the merger of Healing Connections Associates, the Sisters of Mercy H.O.M.E. program and Mercy Connections into Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, of which she is the executive director.  “We couldn’t have been timelier in terms of economy when small non-profits really struggle to raise the resources that they need. We’ve become more efficient. We’ve become more effective. We’ve strengthened our ability to serve the needs of the community. It’s been a great experience.”

Xavier Magazine

Profile: Bill Fuchs

Bachelor of Science-Business Administration, 1970;
Master of Health Administration, 1972
President of Group Operations, Catholic Healthcare
West Phoenix

A Big Net | As head of Catholic Healthcare West’s regional operation in Arizona, Nevada, and the southern and middle portions of California, Fuchs is responsible for 14 hospitals, 10 imaging centers, six ambulatory surgery centers, numerous joint ventures, 19,000 employees and annual net revenues of $2.5 billion.

Leaving Home | Fuchs, a St. Louis native, was originally in seminary studying for the priesthood when he began looking for a Catholic—preferably Jesuit—university outside his hometown to continue his education. “I had never heard of Xavier,”
he says. “I saw it on a map. It was a Jesuit university 400 miles away, and it sounded like a start. I liked it the moment we drove onto campus.”

Into the New | “It was a huge adventure to leave the seminary, go 400 miles away, know no one and immediately meet nice, impressive people in Brockman Hall. I entered Xavier as a sophomore, and I didn’t know anything. They would hustle me around and show me how to buy books or go to the cafeteria, things that we didn’t have to do in seminary. It was very, very exciting.”

Finding a Direction | By age 20, Fuchs discovered his life’s true calling. Xavier had one of the few accredited MHA programs in the nation at the time, but getting in was difficult. Fuchs credits former program chair Ed Arlinghaus with giving him the opportunity. “I’m very grateful for what Xavier did for me.”

Career Path | Fuchs did his MHA residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Dade County, Fla., where he remained for seven years following graduation. From there, he moved on to a 10-year association with the Hospital Corporation of America, where, among other duties, he served for a time as executive director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer center in Tampa, Fla. He then moved again, this time for seven years as head of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lexington, Ky., before launching the consulting phase of his career.

Taking the Reins | Fuchs joined Catholic Healthcare West seven years ago after several years as a consultant. Initially, he served as vice president of operations, working out of Pasadena, Calif., and overseeing seven hospitals. He moved into his current position six years ago.

Bleeding Blue | Fuchs is a lifelong supporter of Musketeer basketball—he hosted a dinner at his Camelback Mountain home for 100 Xavier alumni and fans following this year’s NCAA victory over West Virginia. But he says times have changed since his undergraduate days when the team drew maybe 1,500—all of them students—to home games. “The parking lot outside of Schmidt Fieldhouse held 20 cars and there would be maybe two cars for a game—and those were probably the referees’ cars.”