Today we mark the Feast of St. Clare of Assisi, the woman who took her inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi and became what he called his “little plant.” Together these two began a movement that inspired hundreds of thousands, men and woman from every walk of life, to follow in their footsteps. The greater Franciscan family stands as a witness to their devotion to this way of life which has changed the face of the Church even in our own age.
Both Francis and Clare were known for their love of Lady Poverty. While the male members of the Franciscan Family faced little opposition to their embrace of this austere form of life, St. Clare fought until her dying day for the “privilege of poverty.” Those who governed the Church were of the opinion that this form of life was too difficult for women and tried to deny her desire to live completely dependent upon the providence of God. Undaunted, she persisted in her desire and was finally granted her desire with papal sanction on the day before she died.
While complete poverty is oftentimes regarded as the chief charism of the Franciscan way of life, it must also be understood that poverty was simply a means to an end. Both Francis and Clare chose to live a life unencumbered with possessions so that they would be free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a radical fashion, choosing to regard all parts of creation as “brothers” and “sisters.” The charism of charity is really the defining characteristic of the Franciscan way of life. Both Francis and Clare demonstrated over and over again that they were moved by love of their brothers and sisters. They broke with all the usual customs of religious life in order to witness to the world the power of communal life. The legends that are cherished by the friars and the poor ladies are those that demonstrate this great love and brotherly and sisterly spirit.
If there is one difference between these two holy pillars from Assisi, it can be said that while Francis arrived at sanctity through a conversion from a life of sin, St. Clare demonstrated a holiness of life even before she left her family home in the dead of night and joined Francis and his followers at Our Lady of the Angels. She was known for her holiness and for her care for the poor even while still living in her family home, gathering around her the other women of the household for prayer and serving the needs of the poor of Assisi. When she did finally join St. Francis, it was only days before the other women of her household, sisters, mother, and servants joined her. So quickly did her little band of sisters grow that St. Francis gave them the little church and convent of San Damiano outside the walls of Assisi as their home and foundation. Today, the proto-monastery still keeps the crucifix that first spoke to Francis and called him to “rebuild my Church.”
The spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare lives today. It is that spirit that not only informs the lives of the men and women who profess this way of life, it has been renewed by the choice of our Holy Father to be known as “Francis,” the man who first wanted a poor Church for the poor. His voice joins that of St. Francis and St. Clare in setting aside the wealth and riches of this world in order to better live out the spirit of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.