In September 2015 a group from Voxtorp with their Komminister Ulrika Zwaard visited the parish of Witney for a long weekend covering the busy time of the annual Witney Feast. We shared some walks in the Oxfordshire countryside, and our visitors played a lively part in the Feast programme. Ulrika preached at the traditional fairground service, with our choir gathered behind her on the gallopers. On the Monday many groups of schoolchildren visited St Mary’s Church, and our Swedish visitors acted out the story of St Lucia with them.
During this visit we talked of what next for our friendship link. Ulrika opened out an invitation from Kyrkoherde [Pastor] Magnus Hullfors; that up to ten people from Witney might after Easter 2016 join members of the Swedish parish on a pilgrimage to Assisi. We responded with warmth.
Magnus has led frequent pilgrimages with his parishioners: to Assisi several times, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela among others. He has a special love for Italy, and for St Francis and St Clare. Visitors from Witney spent a week in Sweden in August 2014 when the programme included prayer walks led by Magnus in the countryside around Voxtorp. On a previous visit to Witney, Magnus has shared with us his way of walking and praying together.
In some years, a spring Swedish party to Assisi has included young people, pre or post confirmation. Ulrika had planned this for 2016, but in the end this did not work out. So the party that arrived at Rome Fiumicino on the Wednesday after Easter, March 30th, comprised Magnus with ten parishioners from Sweden and eight from Witney. We were a little disappointed not to be a Witney party of ten. Various keen people couldn’t make the particular dates. Our team vicar Neil Trainor came with his wife and eight year old daughter.
Each party arranged its own travel to Rome. Magnus organised the rest. We travelled by coach to Assisi and back to Rome. Magnus has long been friends with the Brigidine Convent in Assisi just outside the city wall, so only ten minutes’ walk from the centre. Sister Marcellina and her fellow sisters were kind and capable hosts, and the convent is lovely, its rooms, its chapel, its dining room, its setting.
Magnus had worked out a draft programme in advance and shared it with all who would be coming. The programme bore in mind that some of us, both Swedish and English, had visited Assisi before, some of them with Magnus; but there were many first timers. Magnus invited Neil to prepare a scheme for daily prayers, morning and evening, including two Eucharists for the Convent chapel. He suggested that Neil base the prayers on Common Worship Morning and Evening Prayer, in English.
We arrived on the Wednesday after Easter. On Thursday Magnus led us on a tour of the city “in St Francis footsteps”. Magnus would stop and tell us the story at key points, and we would often pause to pray. On Friday we visited the great Basilica San Francesco (where he was buried), and spent time with the wonderful frescoes. Our Swedish guide then led us through the upper parts of the city. Saturday we left Assisi by coach to visit Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, where a Benedictine brother spoke to us in the convent. We went on to a mountain village, Castellucio, in whose valley famous organic lentils are grown, and we enjoyed the soup in a restaurant there. Sunday we were back in Assisi and went to the Anglican Eucharist at the Church of St Leonardo – a packed church, with expatriates from the wider area, and another large group of Swedish young people.
We had a splendid afternoon walk on Mount Subasio, enjoying the lovely flowers and the broad vistas. Many of us felt particularly close to Francis here, his life and his world. The walk led us to the hermitage Eremo delle Carceri where we reflected on Francis’ prayer and retreats in his later years, and on his receiving the stigmata. On Monday we had a longer walk down from the city into the plain: to San Damiano, where Francis received the call “Rebuild my Church”, and which later became the home for St Clare and her sisters: then to Rivotorto: finally to the Portiuncula, preserved within the magnificent Church of St Maria degli Angeli. On Tuesday morning we said farewell to Sister Marcellina and her sisters, boarded our coach back to Rome, and with more farewells went our separate ways.
Magnus’ programme gave us good free space, early evening and some of the afternoons. Each evening after supper we met in the convent common room for “conversations” to
reflect and to share our feelings and experience. Some evenings a speaker joined us, including a lively Danish Franciscan from The Basilica San Francesco. Another evening Sister Marcellina talked about her order, and their ministry of hospitality in Assisi. But always Magnus invited us each in turn to say something about the day and about whatever concerned them.
On our final evening in the convent chapel we blessed tau crosses and each received one.
The pilgrimage was a rich experience in many ways, for the walk with St Francis, of course, and for our walking and talking and praying together, Voxtorp and Witney.