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Franciscans take their mission into heart of Rome's summer nightlife

As dusk falls over Rome, giving only the slightest relief from the summer heat and humidity, two Conventual Franciscan friars join thousands of Romans and tourists on the banks of the Tiber River.

Armed with smiles, but also fliers about the Franciscan missions, Father Paolo Fiasconaro and Brother Raimondo Porcu pass every evening -- from 7 p.m. to midnight -- at their stand amid the restaurants, bars, shops, bookstores and stages that form the Roman Summer festival.

The black-habited friars have been part of the summer scene since the festival opened June 12 and plan to remain until it closes Sept. 2. And they plan to be back next year with a stand that's bigger and better.

Father Fiasconaro said many people are surprised to see the friars amid the twinkling lights, thumping music and hawkers selling everything from hats to candy. But he said he also has been surprised at how kind, open and respectful everyone has been.

"Our stand isn't a store. We don't sell anything," he said. "It's simply a Franciscan presence and witness. Just being. That's the most beautiful thing."

"We don't force anyone to stop," he said, "but the simple fact that people see us here in this secular place raises questions for them," beginning with "Why are the Franciscans here?"

Pope Francis "really wants us to leave the sacristy. We must go out and be among the people," the friar said.

The corner of the stall is decorated with a huge photo of St. Francis of Assisi and another of Pope Francis. The two together, he said, form "the cornerstone" for the booth and for what the friars are doing along the river.

St. Francis of Assisi, their order's founder, called his brothers "to go out into the world, bringing the Good News, but especially to proclaim peace and goodness with simplicity and joy," he said. And, Pope Francis "dreams of a missionary church, a church that goes out, that is present on the peripheries where people spend their time."

"After two months of being here (at the festival) for the first time, I've seen that people are amazed at first -- 'Look there are Franciscan friars walking around on the banks,'" he said. But most people accept the fliers, and he said a surprising number wander back to chat after initially hurrying by.

Father Fiasconaro said he also was surprised at how few of the fliers end up on the ground alongside those advertising bars and restaurants.

One of the passersby, he said, "told us we were a torch lit in this place -- I wouldn't say of perdition -- but this place that is very secular. People believe in us Franciscans. I must say, the Franciscan habit really does sweep away confessional ideologies. St. Francis draws people. Even those who don't believe and refuse to take a flier treat us with respect and have love for a friar who would approach them. This is beautiful."

Still, he said, smiling, "I had no idea it would be like this."

"I believe being on the banks of the Tiber is putting into practice precisely what Pope Francis means by mission," he said.

"It makes me sad to realize there are some pastors who think only about the 10 percent who go to church, those who spend all day everyday with the little old ladies in the church, while 90 percent of the people -- who make up the periphery -- are never touched by the church's pastoral work." Father Fiasconaro said. "It's absurd, but the periphery is 90 percent" of the people within a typical parish's boundaries.


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