During his general audience on Sept. 15, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on Christian culture in the Middle Ages. He devoted his catechesis to another great woman of that period — St. Clare of Assisi, friend of St. Francis and founder of the Poor Clare nuns.
Born to a wealthy family, Clare espoused the Franciscan ideal of radical poverty, chastity and trust in God’s providence. She and her sisters embraced a life in religious community at the Church of San Damiano in Assisi. She maintained a close spiritual friendship with St. Francis, reminding us of how the great saints have found in such a friendship a powerful impetus to greater love of Christ.
St. Clare is an example of the decisive role that courageous and faith-filled women have played in the renewal of the Church throughout the ages.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Undoubtedly, one of the most beloved saints is St. Clare of Assisi, who lived in the 13th century and who was a contemporary of St. Francis. Her witness shows us how the whole Church is indebted to courageous and faith-filled women like her, who have given a decisive impetus to the renewal of the Church.
Who was Clare of Assisi? We have some reliable sources to help us answer this question: not just ancient biographies like that of Thomas of Celano, but also the acts from the process of her canonization, which the Pope began only a few months after her death and which contain the testimonies of those who were close to her over a long period of time.
Clare was born in 1193 to a wealthy and noble family. She gave up her noble title and her wealth in order to live poorly and humbly, adopting the lifestyle that Francis of Assisi espoused.
Since her parents were planning — as was the custom at the time — her marriage to a prominent man, Clare, at the age of 18, in a bold gesture that was inspired by her profound desire to follow Christ and by her admiration for Francis, left her family’s home and, together with her friend Bona of Guelfuccio, secretly met up with the Friars Minor at the little church of the Portiuncula.
This happened on the evening of Palm Sunday in 1211. In the great emotion of the moment, a symbolic gesture occurred. As his fellow friars held lighted torches in their hands, Francis cut Clare’s hair, and she was clothed with a coarse penitential habit. From that moment on, Clare became a virgin bride of Christ, poor and humble, and consecrated herself entirely to him.
Down through history, numerous women like Clare and her companions have been captivated by this love for Christ, who, in the beauty of his divinity, fills their hearts. The entire Church, through the mystical nuptial vocation of these consecrated women, is shown to be what she will always be — the beautiful and pure bride of Christ.
In one of four letters that Clare sent to St. Agnes of Prague, the daughter of the king of Bohemia who wished to follow in her footsteps, Clare speaks of Christ, her beloved spouse, in nuptial terms, which might seem disconcerting at first, but which are very moving: “Loving him, you are chaste; touching him, you will be more pure; letting yourself be possessed by him, you are virgin. His power is stronger, his generosity loftier, his appearance more beautiful, his love gentler and all grace finer. Now you are enfolded in his arms, he who has adorned your breast with precious stones ... and has crowned you with a crown of gold marked with the sign of sanctity” (Lettera prima: FF, 2862).
Friendship With St. Francis
Clare found in Francis of Assisi — especially at the beginning of her religious experience — not only a teacher whose teachings she was to follow, but also a brotherly friend. The friendship between these two saints teaches something beautiful and important.
Indeed, when two souls meet, both of which are pure and burning with a mutual love for God, this friendship provides them with a powerful stimulus to pursue the path to perfection. Friendship is one of the most noble and exalted human sentiments that God’s grace purifies and transfigures.
Like St. Francis and St. Clare, other saints have also lived in deep friendship along this path to Christian perfection, like St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal.
As St. Francis de Sales himself wrote: “It is lovely to be able to love on earth as they love in heaven, and to learn to love one another in this world as we will eternally in the next. I am not speaking here merely of the love of charity, because we must have this for all people; I am speaking of spiritual friendship, in which two, three or more persons exchange devotion and spiritual affections, and truly become one spirit” (Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 19).
Founder of the Poor Clare Nuns
After spending several months with other monastic communities and after having resisted pressure from those family members who initially disapproved of her decision, Clare and her first companions settled in the Church of San Damiano, where the friars had set up a little convent for them.
She lived at this convent for more than 40 years until her death in 1253.
A firsthand description of how these women lived during these years — the beginning of the Franciscan movement — has been handed down to us. It is the account of a Flemish bishop, Jacques de Vitry, who was visiting Italy and who spoke with admiration about the good number of men and women of all social classes that he found who, “leaving everything for Christ, fled from the world. They are called Friars Minor and Sisters Minor and are held in great regard by the Lord Pope and by the cardinals. ... The women ... live together in various hospices not far from cities. They do not receive anything, but live from the work of their hands. And they are pained and profoundly disturbed because they are honored more than they would like by clerics and laity” (Lettera dell’ottobre 1216: FF, 2205.2207).
Bishop Bishop de Vitry keenly perceived a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality to which Clare was very much drawn: radical poverty associated with complete trust in God’s providence. For this reason, she worked persistently in order to obtain from Pope Gregory IX — or perhaps even earlier from Pope Innocent III — the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis (see FF, 3279), according to which Clare and her followers could possess no material property.
This was truly an extraordinary exception to canon law as it existed then, granted by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time in appreciation of the fruits of Gospel holiness they recognized in the way that Clare and her sisters lived.
Her Role in the Church
This shows how even during the Middle Ages the role of women was not secondary, but rather was of considerable importance.
In this context, it must be remembered that Clare was the first woman in Church history to compose a written rule, submitted for the Pope’s approval, so that the charism of Francis of Assisi would be preserved in all the many communities of women that were being established even at that time and that sought to draw inspiration from Francis’ and Clare’s example.
In her convent at San Damiano, Clare heroically practiced the virtues that should be characteristic of every Christian: humility, a spirit of devotion and penance, and charity.
Even though she was the superior, she personally served the sisters who were ill, taking on the most humbling tasks. Indeed, charity overcomes any resistance, and those who love will make any kind of sacrifice joyfully.
Her faith in the real presence in the Eucharist was so strong that miraculous events were recorded on two occasions. Through the mere exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, she was able to thwart the Saracen mercenary soldiers who were about to attack their convent at San Damiano and destroy the town of Assisi.
These incidents, as well as other miraculous events that were recorded, led Pope Alexander IV to canonize Clare in 1255 — just two years after her death — praising her in his bull of canonization: “How vivid is the force of this light and strong is the clarity of this luminous light! Truly, this light was shut up in a hidden cloistered life, yet outside it radiated luminous brilliance without; it was gathered into a small monastery, yet stretched outside to the whole wide world. It was guarded inside and yet spread outside. Clare, in fact, hid herself, but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame cried out” (FF, 3284).
This, my friends, is precisely how it should be. Saints are those people who change the world for the better, transforming it in a lasting way, injecting the energy that only love inspired by the Gospel can arouse. Saints are mankind’s greatest benefactors!
A summary of St. Clare’s spirituality can be found in her fourth letter to St. Agnes of Prague.
St. Clare uses the image of a mirror, an image that was very widespread during the Middle Ages and that traces its origins back to the writings of the Fathers of the Church. She invites her friend from Prague to look at herself in that mirror which is the perfection of every virtue: the Lord himself.
“She who is granted to enjoy this sacred union is certainly happy,” she writes, “to adhere with the depth of the heart [to Christ], to the one whose beauty all the blessed multitudes of the heavens admire incessantly, whose affection impassions, whose contemplation restores, whose goodness satiates, whose gentleness fills, whose memory shines gently, thanks to whose perfume the dead will return to life and whose glorious vision will make blessed all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. And given that he is the splendor of glory, pure whiteness of the eternal light and spotless mirror, look every day in this mirror, oh queen, bride of Jesus Christ, and scrutinize continually in him his face, so that you will thus be able to adorn yourself completely within and without. ... Shining in this mirror are blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable charity” (Lettera quarta: FF 2901-2903).
In thanksgiving to God, who gives us the saints to speak to our hearts and offer themselves as models of a Christian life that we may imitate, I would like to conclude with the words of blessing that St. Clare herself composed for her fellow sisters and that the Poor Clares — who play an important role in the Church through their prayer and their works — preserve even to this day with great devotion. They are words through which the tenderness of her spiritual maternity emerges: “I bless you in my life and after my death, as much as I can and even more than I can, with all the blessings with which the Father of mercies has blessed and will bless in heaven and on earth his sons and daughters, and with which a spiritual father and a spiritual mother have blessed and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen” (FF: 2856).