Saint Clare of Assisi, Foundress of the Poor Clares
Feast day August 11th
Feast day August 11th
Cofoundress of the Order of Poor Ladies, or Clares, and first Abbess of San Damiano, she was born at Assisi, July 16, 1194 and died there August 11, 1253. She was the eldest daughter of Favorino Scifi, Count of Sasso-Rosso, the wealthy representative of an ancient Roman family, who owned a large palace in Assisi and a castle on the slope of Mount Subasio. Such at least is the traditional account. Her mother, Bl. Ortolana, belonged to the noble family of Fiumi and was conspicuous for her zeal and piety. From her earliest years Clare seems to have been endowed with the rarest virtues. As a child she was most devoted to prayer and to practices of mortification, and as she passed into girlhood her distaste for the world and her yearning for a more spiritual life increased. She was eighteen years of age when St. Francis came to preach the Lenten course in the church of San Giorgio at Assisi. The inspired words of the Poverello kindled a flame in the heart of Clare; she sought him out secretly and begged him to help her that she too might live "after the manner of the holy Gospel". St. Francis, who at once recognized in Clare one of those chosen souls destined by God for great things, and who also, doubtless, foresaw that many would follow her example, promised to assist her. On Palm Sunday Clare, arrayed in all her finery, attended high Mass at the cathedral, but when the others pressed forward to the altar-rail to receive a branch of palm, she remained in her place as if rapt in a dream. All eyes were upon the young girl as the bishop descended from the sanctuary and placed the palm in her hand. That was the last time the world beheld Clare. On the night of the same day she secretly left her father's house, by St. Francis's advice and, accompanied by her aunt Bianca and another companion, proceeded to the humble chapel of the Porziuncula, where St. Francis and his disciples met her with lights in their hands. Clare then laid aside her rich dress, and St. Francis, having cut off her hair, clothed her in a rough tunic and a thick veil, and in this way the young heroine vowed herself to the service of Jesus Christ. This was March 20, 1212.
Clare was placed by St. Francis provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo, near Bastia, but her father, who had expected her to make a splendid marriage, and who was furious at her secret flight, on discovering her retreat, did his utmost to dissuade Clare from her heroic proposals, and even tried to drag her home by force. But Clare held her own with a firmness above her years, and Count Favorino was finally obliged to leave her in peace. A few days later St. Francis, in order to secure Clare the greater solitude she desired, transferred her to Sant' Angelo in Panzo, another monastery of the Benedictine nuns on one of the flanks of Subasio. Here some sixteen days after her own flight, Clare was joined by her younger sister Agnes, whom she was instrumental in delivering from the persecution of their infuriated relatives. Clare and her sister remained with the nuns at Sant' Angelo until they and the other fugitives from the world who had followed them were established by St. Francis in a rude dwelling adjoining the poor chapel of San Damiano, situated outside the town which he had to a great extent rebuilt with his own hands, and which he now obtained from the Benedictines as a permanent abode for his spiritual daughters. Thus was founded the first community of the Order of Poor Ladies, or of Poor Clares, as this second order of St. Francis came to be called.
The history of the Poor Clares will be dealt with in a separate article. Here it suffices to note that we may distinguish, during the lifetime of St. Clare, three stages in the complicated early history of the new order. In the beginning St. Clare and her companions had no written rule to follow beyond a very short formula vitae given them by St. Francis, and which may be found among his works. Some years later, apparently in 1219, during St. Francis's absence in the East, Cardinal Ugolino, then protector of the order, afterwards Gregory IX, drew up a written rule for the Clares at Monticelli, taking as a basis the Rule of St. Benedict, retaining the fundamental points of the latter and adding some special constitutions. This new rule, which, in effect if not in intention, took away from the Clares the Franciscan character of absolute poverty so dear to the heart of St. Francis and made them for all practical purposes a congregation of Benedictines, was approved by Honorius III (Bull, "Sacrosancta", Dec. 9, 1219). When Clare found that the new rule, though strict enough in other respects, allowed the holding of property in common, she courageously and successfully resisted the innovations of Ugolino as being entirely opposed to the intentions of St. Francis. The latter had forbidden the Poor Ladies, just as he had forbidden his friars to possess any worldly goods even in common. Owning nothing, they were to depend entirety upon what the Friars Minor could beg for them. This complete renunciation of all property was however regarded by Ugolino as unpractical for cloistered women. When, therefore, in 1228, he came to Assisi for the canonization of St. Francis (having meanwhile ascended the pontifical throne as Gregory IX), he visited St. Clare at San Damiano and pressed her to so far deviate from the practice of poverty which had up to this time obtained at San Damiano, as to accept some provision for the unforeseen wants of the community. But Clare firmly refused. Gregory, thinking that her refusal might be due to fear of violating the vow of strict poverty she had taken, offered to absolve her from it. "Holy Father, I crave for absolution from my sins", replied Clare, "but I desire not to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ".
The heroic unworldliness of Clare filled the pope with admiration, as his letters to her, still extant, bear eloquent witness, and he so far gave way to her views as to grant her on September 17, 1228, the celebrated Privilegium Paupertatis which some regard in the light of a corrective of the Rule of 1219. The original autograph copy of this unique "privilege"--the first one of its kind ever sought for, or ever issued by the Holy See-----is preserved in the archive at Santa Chiara in Assisi. The text is as follows: "Gregory Bishop Servant of the Servants of God. To our beloved daughters in Christ Clare and the other handmaids of Christ dwelling together at the Church of San Damiano in the Diocese of Assisi. Health and Apostolic benediction. It is evident that the desire of consecrating yourselves to God alone has led you to abandon every wish for temporal things. Wherefore, after having sold all your goods and having distributed them among the poor, you propose to have absolutely no possessions, in order to follow in all things the example of Him Who became poor and Who is the way, the truth, and the life. Neither does the want of necessary things deter you from such a proposal, for the left arm of your Celestial Spouse is beneath your head to sustain the infirmity of your body, which, according to the order of charity, you have subjected to the law of the spirit. Finally, He who feeds the birds of the air and who gives the lilies of the field their raiment and their nourishment, will not leave you in want of clothing or of food until He shall come Himself to minister to you in eternity when, namely, the right hand of His consolations shall embrace you in the plenitude of the Beatific Vision. Since, therefore, you have asked for it, we confirm by Apostolic favour your resolution of the loftiest poverty and by the authority of these present letters grant that you may not be constrained by anyone to receive possessions.
When, some time later, a larger force returned to storm Assisi, headed by the General Vitale di Aversa who had not been present at the first attack, Clare, gathering her daughters about her, knelt with them in earnest prayer that the town might be spared. Presently a furious storm arose, scattering the tents of the soldiers in every direction, and causing such a panic that they again took refuge in flight. The gratitude of the Assisians, who with one accord attributed their deliverance to Clare's intercession, increased their love for the "Seraphic Mother". Clare had long been enshrined in the hearts of the people, and their veneration became more apparent as, wasted by illness and austerities, she drew towards her end. Brave and cheerful to the last, in spite of her long and painful infirmities, Clare caused herself to be raised in bed and, thus reclining, says her contemporary biographer "she spun the finest thread for the purpose of having it woven into the most delicate material from which she afterwards made more than one hundred corporals, and, enclosing them in a silken burse, ordered them to be given to the churches in the plain and on the mountains of Assisi". When at length she felt the day of her death approaching, Clare, calling her sorrowing religious around her, reminded them of the many benefits they had received from God and exhorted them to persevere faithfully in the observance of evangelical poverty. Pope Innocent IV came from Perugia to visit the dying Saint, who had already received the last sacraments from the hands of Cardinal Rainaldo. Her own sister, St. Agnes, had returned from Florence to console Clare in her last illness; Leo, Angelo, and Juniper, three of the early companions of St. Francis, were also present at the Saint's death-bed, and at St. Clare's request read aloud the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John, even as they had done twenty-seven years before, when Francis lay dying at the Porziuncula. At length before dawn on 11 August, 1253, the holy foundress of the Poor Ladies passed peacefully away amid scenes which her contemporary biographer has recorded with touching simplicity. The pope, with his court, came to San Damiano for the Saint's funeral, which partook rather of the nature of a triumphal procession.
The Clares desired to retain the body of their foundress among them at San Damiano, but the magistrates of Assisi interfered and took measures to secure for the town the venerated remains of her whose prayers, as they all believed, had on two occasions saved it from destruction. Clare's miracles too were talked of far and wide. It was not safe, the Assisians urged, to leave Clare's body in a lonely spot without the walls; it was only right, too, that Clare, "the chief rival of the Blessed Francis in the observance of Gospel perfection", should also have a church in Assisi built in her honour. Meanwhile, Clare's remains were placed in the chapel of San Giorgio, where St. Francis's preaching had first touched her young heart, and where his own body had likewise been interred pending the erection of the Basilica of San Francesco. Two years later, September 26, 1255, Clare was solemnly canonized by Alexander IV, and not long afterwards the building of the church of Santa Chiara, in honour of Assisi's second great Saint, was begun under the direction of Filippo Campello, one of the foremost architects of the time. On 3 October, 1260, Clare's remains were transferred from the chapel of San Giorgio and buried deep down in the earth, under the high altar in the new church, far out of sight and reach. After having remained hidden for six centuries-----like the remains of St. Francis-----and after much search had been made, Clare's tomb was found in 1850, to the great joy of the Assisians. On September 23 in that year the coffin was unearthed and opened, the flesh and clothing of the Saint had been reduced to dust, but the skeleton was in a perfect state of preservation. Finally, on the 29th of September, 1872, the Saint's bones were transferred, with much pomp, by Archbishop Pecci, afterwards Leo XIII, to the shrine, in the crypt at Santa Chiara, erected to receive them, and where they may now be seen. The feast of St. Clare is celebrated throughout the Church on August 11; the Feast of her first translation is kept in the order on October 23, and that of the finding of her body on September 23.