Peace on earth, goodwill to men. This common refrain around Christmastime sung in Christmas carols and found inside Christmas cards seems mostly unused during other times of the year. It might be odd to use as a greeting instead of “Hi, how are you?” simply “Peace & All Good!” This, however, is precisely the way in which Francis of Assisi used to greet people in his time, albeit in Latin, Pax et Bonum, or Italian, Pace e Bene.
I had the good fortune to travel to Assisi, Italy, this year where the phrase is ubiquitous. Found on pottery tiles large and small, paved in quiet corners and noisy piazzas. “Pace e Bene” permeates the pavement and buildings around the city. The phrase is a gentle reminder of Francis’ greeting and his message of peace. Peace seems to swirl in the air around Assisi. Every year, there is an 18-mile peace march from Perugia to Assisi. But this wasn’t always the case.
During Francis’ lifetime, war and violence was present on every level. His city of Assisi was nearly constantly at war with the neighboring Perugia. Even within the city of Assisi, the noble families were at war with the emerging merchant class, a civil war within the city. Personal violence between people was a real everyday experience. Peace was rarely known and probably never taken for granted.
The effect of Francis’ greeting “Pace e Bene” in medieval time was more bewildering than it might be today. Many people responded to his peaceful greeting with contempt, ridicule, mockery and violence, especially at the beginning of his ministry. His message of simple peace, however, quickly attracted followers who, like Francis himself, gave up a life of wealth and prestige (and war and violence) to spread this simple message.
His message was radical and his greeting of Peace and All Good caught people off guard. But when backed up with Francis’ very real peaceful response to every moment, people saw a different way. A way of peace. His way spread. Within 10 years, Francis had 5,000 friars that followed him into this way of spreading peace (not counting St. Clare and her sisters, and an order of lay people, too).
His way of peace starts with an inner peace, found through prayer in understanding the unconditional love of God and in following, in the most pure and extreme way, the example of Christ. It wasn’t a solitary peace confined to a monastery, but a peace spread to others in the form of joy, love, compassion and forgiveness. A peace in seeing divine love in others as well as yourself.
Part of Francis’ conversion story includes his youthful repulsion of lepers, who lived in colonies outside of medieval cities and wore bells to warn people they were coming near. Francis was beckoned by a vision from God to embrace and kiss a leper, and thereafter, spent much of his life caring for lepers in their colonies. His way of peace respects all and loves all, just as God does.
The peace persists in Assisi where it has been a world site for peace conferences and ecology (peace of another kind —realizing divine love in our earth and the natural world).
I wonder how our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation, our world could change if we greeted each other more frequently with a warm handshake and the offering of “Peace & All Good!” Or, perhaps, if we started each session of Congress in this way. The greeting is a way to hold our differences and our similarities together with openness, respect, love, and a new way forward.
Melinda Corroto is executive director of Andrews House in Delaware.