There are 4 steps to sainthood (servant of God, venerable, blessed and holy) and nearly one hundred religious devotees who have passed through the Franciscan Convent of Bellegra are on one of the steps of this list. How is it possible?
To try to understand this first you need to go to Bellegra by car or walk along a one of the side paths of St. Benedict’s Way. Subiaco can be seen across the Aniene Valley from Bellegra and one can recognise the fortress and the monastery of Santa Scolastica. Bellegra was one of the stages on the way to Rome.
The Franciscan Retreat and Convent of Bellegra is immersed in a natural ‘cone of silence’ in the forest below Bellegra town. We are not accustomed to the absence of noise and perhaps this is the first strong feeling that we experience on arriving. You hear the natural sounds of the woods and the animals and nothing else. There are no other roads, no radio stations, no public streets. Nothing but peace.
The convent was founded by Saint Francis during his coming and going from Rome to gain approval for the Rules of His Order. Innocent III had given his verbal consent, but Pope Honorius III and his curia changed articles, lost documents and sought to delay the ‘birth’ of Franciscans.
And thanks to Pope Gregory IX who had gone to Bellegra, and had known Saint Francis, the Rule was approved and with it the permission to ‘be poor’.
The concept of a poor church scared those who were still immersed in the task of having both temporal and spiritual power on this earth.
The Bellegra retreat preserves this simplicity and it portrays the poetry of a simple life, one that you can easily perceive by visiting the museum and viewing the small brothers’ cells. You see old clothes, the instruments with which they flagellated themselves and the few pieces of furniture they used.
Two Saints have contributed to the creation of this miracle of peace: Saint Francis and Saint Thomas of Cori in the eighteenth century.
Let’s start from the beginning: the Bellegra convent was a step on the way and Saint Francis assisted by giving the convent the spirit that the brothers would have to follow in later centuries.
It is reported that there were many squads of bandits in the area and the forests were dangerous. These brigands were also hungry and often went to the convent to ask for food. The population was in doubt whether to help the brigands before their conversion or to wait for their repentance.
Saint Francis had no doubts and asked his monks to go to the woods to look for bandits and to offer them bread and cheese and that next times the bandits asked to bring bread, cheese, and add wine.
The conclusion was that the brigands ceased their raids and three of them entered the convent and are now sanctified. The conversion of the three thieves is the story that gave the convent its reputation and created the halo of holiness around it.
Perhaps for this reason in 1700s St. Thomas of Cori decided to settle right here, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Here is written the new Rule of Minor Friars: 12 Points focused on meditation and poverty that were then adopted by all Franciscans.
For example, it is absolutely forbidden to keep money but only to use it for the purposes of good. The brothers can only trust in providence and in prayer that moves providence itself.
St. Thomas was a true spiritual master and shaped this place on the Franciscan spirit, which had faded through the centuries, and he made silence and inner research the basis for the daily lives of brothers of Bellegra.
It is no coincidence that after him the incredible manifestation of holiness in many friars has come to reach almost 100 people who are on various steps toward holiness.
The convent hosts a meditation school for religious devotees and pilgrims who want to stay one night or more on their journey, which is always an inner journey. An experience at Saint Francis of Bellegra is something that marks life and, perhaps, may be the beginning for many others of their own road to holiness.
Remember to stay one night in this convent on your way to Subiaco. It may change your life!