On August 12th of every year, the Institute of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, joins the Franciscan Order in celebrating the feast of St. Clare of Assisi, the first professed Sister of the Seraphic Order. The most beloved daughter of Our Father Saint Francis, Clare is a teacher and mistress of contemplation. She spent the majority of her life contemplating the Crucifix that spoke to Francis in the church of San Damiano, thus collaborating with the building of the church, together with her sisters.
- Who was Saint Clare?
Clare was born in Assisi in 1193, in the house in Piazza San Rufino, long owned by a very distinguished family. Her father was a nobleman belonging to the aristocratic class. Her mother, Ortolana, looked after the needs of her family, but found time nevertheless to dedicate herself to the best of her ability to divine worship, and often did works of charity.
Having been much impressed by the conversion of Francis, Clare even refused the proposal for marriage offered by her parents. She ardently desired to see Francis, to speak to him and to hear him preach at the Basilica of San Rufino. She often visited him; he urged her to turn her back on the world, instilling in her the sweetness of belonging to Jesus Christ. (Life of St. Clare by T. de Celano, par. 5, 6) Henceforth, she entrusted herself to Francis’ judgement, choosing him as her guide on the path she had to follow.
In a short time, several were the young girls who, being attracted by the example and the austere life of poverty of Clare, joined her and the little group of the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano” that grew around her. As foundress of the Second Order Franciscan, Clare wrote and fought for over forty years to see her Rule given approval by the Church, which she obtained on 9th August 1253. Two days later, on 11th August 1253, Clare died in peace, her last words being a word of trust and thanksgiving to God:
“Depart in security because you have a good guide for the journey; go, because he who created you has also sanctified you; he has also guarded you and kept you in his tender love, as a mother loves her child! May you be blessed, my Lord, who has created me”(Celano, Life of Clare, 46.)
Pope Alexander IV canonised Clare on 26th September 1255, two years after her death. Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Patron of Television on 14th February 1958.
- Francis and Clare
If Francis was the son of a rich man, Clare was the daughter of a nobleman. She was eleven years younger than Francis. In the Middle Ages, formal education was not very much encouraged. Hence, like any other woman of her time, Clare had a very secluded, sheltered life. Unlike Francis who had a very dissipated youth, Clare had a very pious youth. Hence, we can truly say, that it was only the love and search for Christ, which brought them close to each other; it was the same evangelical vocation which united them.
Francis and Clare: two beings who met in Christ, who helped each other to walk towards Him, enamoured by the same love, and the same way of the Gospel.
- Who was Francis for Clare?
It is impossible to speak of Clare without at the same time mentioning Francis.
We can almost touch the primordial role of St. Francis in the lives of St. Clare and her sisters, the first Poor Ladies of San Damiano, expressed by Celano, her first biographer:
“Father, Father, what shall we do?… What do you bid us do, shut up in this prison, us whom you will never again visit as you used to? All our consolation departs with you and no solace like it remains to us buried in the world… O father of the poor, lover of poverty! Who will strengthen us in temptations, O you who experienced innumerable temptations and knew how to overcome them? Who will console us in our trials, O you who were our helper in troubles which found us exceedingly?” (1Cel. 117)
Francis is said to have been for Clare, “her comfort and teacher, who had first established her in the grace of God”. (SP, 108)
For Clare, Francis will always be and remain:
the Prophet, the Ambassador, the Founder,
the Father, the Teacher, the Guide,
the Example, the Gardener.
a) Prophet: In her Testament, Clare reminds us of the prophecy of Francis, a prophecy which has marked her profoundly, and has influenced her immensely because she saw in Francis the medium through which she received from God the announcement of her vocation.
“He (God) has deigned, through his saint, to speak to us of our vocation”. (Test.9 to 17)
b) Founder and Father:
From the very first words of the Form of Life, Clare underlines this double and unique role of Francis; she herself withdraws into the background: “The Form of Life of the order of the Poor Sisters that Blessed Francis established is this …” (RCl.1)
It is important for Clare to stress the fact that it was Francis who founded the Order: “The Lord gave us our most blessed Father Francis as a founder…” (Test. 48). Francis founded the order; the Rule was approved; therefore the Order of the Poor sisters had the right to exist. It is the Second Order in the Franciscan Family, integrated into the whole.
c) If Francis is the master and guide of Clare, we can truly consider Clare as the exceptional disciple of Francis. It is not Francis who writes the form of life for the Poor Ladies at San Damiano, even if Clare tells us so (Test,33); it is Clare herself who will write the Form of Life, this first Rule written by a woman, for women, and she will do it as a responsible, free disciple of Francis.
d) Francis was for Clare the gardener; hence several times she calls herself “his little plant”.
Clare cherished a great love for the Eucharistic presence of Jesus. An example of true devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, we find in her one of the first models of our special vocation, that of “adorers”: in September 1240, she saved her sisters and the city of Assisi from the hands of the Saracens, through her faith and powerful prayer before the Eucharistic presence. Clare was not afraid of the enemy: she asked that the Sacred Reserve be shifted to the refectory, prayed intensely before it and put to rout the enemy through the power of the Eucharistic Presence. (Celano, Life of St. Clare, ch.21-22)
- Exhortation of Mary of the Passion.
Mary of the Passion had tasted the life of the Poor Clares in Nantes, at the very beginning of her religious life, a life of poverty endured with much generosity and joy with total self-offering for and like Christ. As Foundress of the Institute of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, she considers St. Clare as the special patron of the professed Sisters of the Institute. It is to her, to Clare, that we confide the fidelity of all the finally professed sisters of our Congregation.
In the meditation for the feast of St. Clare, Mary of the Passion exhorts us:
“Ask St. Clare to teach us what a treasure we possess in the Blessed Sacrament which we adore every day in all our convents. If we wish to conquer and crush the demon […] let us live as she did, closely united to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the desire and faithful protector of virgins. (MD, 506, Feast of St. Clare)
Mary of the Passion continues:
“What Clare did at Assisi, may we under her protection, succeed in doing throughout the world, by staying closely united to Jesus, the Bread of the Strong, as the seraphic virgin did, carrying everywhere the message of our Immaculate Mother.” (CT/1, 106)
As a sign of our respect and love towards the Poor Clares, on the day of her feast day, Mary of the Passion invites us to send a small gift or an offering to the Poor Clares living close to our convent. If no Poor Clares live close by, we offer a meal to a poor girl. (CT/1: Directory, feast of St. Clare)
Most High, glorious God, may the example of Clare of Assisi impel us to love you with our whole heart and to seek your will in all the events of our lives. May her serene poverty remind us of who we are and who you are, that we might surrender our lives to you with complete trust. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.