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St Clare - Santa Chiara d'Assisi

Founder of the Order of St Clare - from Italy
Born 16 July 1194 in Assisi; died 11 August, 1253
Canonized in 1255 by Pope Alexander IV
Declared Patron of Television by Pius XII
Feast day - 11th August

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 15 September 2010 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
One of the most loved saints is without doubt St Clare of Assisi, who lived in XIII century and was a contemporary of St Francis. Her testimony shows us how much the whole Church is indebted to courageous women, rich in faith like her, capable of giving a decisive impetus to the renewal of the Church.

So who was Clare of Assisi? To answer this question we possess reliable sources: not only the ancient biographies, such as that of Thomas of Celano, but also the Proceedings of the canonization process promoted by the Pope only a few months after Clare's death and that contain the testimonies of those who had lived alongside her for a long time.

Born in 1193, Clare belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic family. She renounced her nobility and wealth to live humble and poor, adopting the way of life that Francis of Assisi recommended. Although her parents were planning a marriage for her with some prominent figure, as was then the custom, Clare, with a bold gesture inspired by her deep desire to follow Christ and her admiration for Francis, at the age of 18 left her family home and, in the company of a friend, Bona di Guelfuccio, secretly met the Friars Minor at the little Church of the Portiuncula. It was the evening of Palm Sunday in 1211. In the general commotion, a highly symbolic gesture took place: while his companions lit torches, Francis cut Clare's hair and she put on a rough penitential habit. From that moment she became the virgin bride of Christ, humble and poor, and she consecrated herself totally to Him. Like Clare and her companions, countless women through the course of history have been fascinated by love for Christ which, in the beauty of his Divine Person, fills their hearts. And the whole Church, through the mystical nuptial vocation of consecrated virgins, appears as she will be for ever: the beautiful and pure Bride of Christ.

In one of the four letters that Clare sent to St Agnes of Prague, the daughter of the King of Bohemia, who wanted to follow in Christ's footsteps, she speaks of Christ, her beloved Spouse, with nuptial words, which might be surprising but are moving: "Loving him, you are chaste; touching him, you shall be purer; letting yourself be possessed by him, you shall be a virgin. His power is stronger, his generosity more elevated, his appearance more beautiful, his love more sweet and every grace finer. Now you are enfolded in the embrace of him, who has adorned your breast with precious stones... and has crowned you with a crown of gold engraved with the sign of holiness."

Above all at the beginning of her religious experience, Clare had in Francis of Assisi not only a master whose teachings she would follow, but also a brotherly friend. The friendship between these two saints is a very beautiful and important aspect. Indeed, when two pure souls enflamed with the same love of God meet, they draw from their reciprocal friendship a strong incentive to travel on the way of perfection. Friendship is one of the noblest and loftiest of human sentiments which divine Grace purifies and transfigures. Like St Francis and St Clare, other saints also lived a profound friendship on the path towards Christian perfection, such as St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal. And it is St Francis de Sales himself who writes: "It is beautiful to be able to love on earth as we will love in heaven, and to learn to want the good in this world as we will eternally in the other. I am not here speaking of the simple love of charity, because this we must have for all men; I am speaking of spiritual friendship, within which two, three or more persons exchange devotion, spiritual affections, and really become one in spirit."

After spending a period of some months in other monastic communities, resisting the pressure of her family who initially did not approve of her choice, Clare settled with her first companions at the Church of San Damiano where the Friars Minor had organized a small convent for them. She lived in this monastery for more than 40 years, until her death in 1253. We have received a first-hand description of how these women lived in those years, at the beginning of the Franciscan movement. It is the admiring account of Jacques de Vitry, a Flemish bishop who came to Italy on a visit, in which he affirms having found a great number of men and women, of every social class who, having "left all things for Christ, fled the world. They called themselves Friars Minor and Sisters Minor and are held in high esteem by the Lord Pope and the Cardinals.... The women dwell together in various homes not far from the city. They receive nothing but live on the work of their own hands. And they are greatly troubled and pained, because they are honoured more than they would like, by both clergy and laity."

Jacques de Vitry had perceptively noticed a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality which Clare was very sensitive about: the radicalism of poverty associated with total trust in divine Providence. For this reason, she acted with great determination, obtaining from Pope Gregory IX or, probably, already from Pope Innocent III, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis. On the basis of it, Clare and her companions at San Damiano could not possess any material property. This was a truly extraordinary exception compared to the current canon law, and the ecclesiastical authorities of that time conceded it, appreciating the fruits of evangelical holiness that they recognized in the way of life of Clare and her sisters. This shows how also in the Middle Ages, the role of women was not secondary but considerable. In this regard, it should be remembered that Clare was the first woman in the history of the Church who composed a written Rule, submitted for the Pope's approval, so that the charism of Francis of Assisi would be preserved in all the communities of women that were already being established in large numbers in her own time and that desired to be inspired by the example of Francis and Clare.

In the Convent of San Damiano, Clare heroically practised virtues that should characterise every Christian: humility, a spirit of piety and penance, charity. Although the superior, she wanted herself to serve the sick sisters, subjecting herself also to the most humble tasks: charity, in fact, overcomes every resistance and whoever loves, makes every sacrifice with joy. Her faith in the real presence of the Eucharist was so great that on two occasions a miracle happened. Just with exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, were distanced the Saracen mercenaries, who were about to attack the convent of San Damiano and devastate the city of Assisi.

These episodes, like other miracles, whose memory lives on, prompted Pope Alexander IV to canonize her in 1255, only two years after her death, sketching a eulogy in the Bull on the Canonization in which we read: "How vivid is the power of this light and how strong is the clarity of this luminous source. Truly, this light was enclosed in the cloistered life; and out of them luminous beams radiated; it was collected in a small monastery, and outside throughout the vast world. It was kept inside and spread out. Clare in fact hid herself; but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame cried out." And it is just like this, dear friends: the saints are those who change the world for the better, who transform it in a lasting way, instilling in it energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can arouse. The saints are the great benefactors of humanity!

St Clare's spirituality, the synthesis of the holiness she proposed is summed up in the fourth letter she wrote to St Agnes of Prague. St Clare used an image very widespread in the Middle Ages, from patristics: the mirror. And she invited her friend from Prague to be reflected in that mirror of perfection of every virtue which is the Lord himself. She writes: "Happy certainly is she who is granted to enjoy this sacred union, to join with the depth of her heart [to Christ], to the one whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire, whose affection impassions, whose contemplation restores, whose goodness satiates, whose sweetness replenishes, whose memory shines gently, whose fragrance will bring the dead back to life, and whose glorious vision will make blessed all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. And since he is the splendour of glory, radiance of eternal light and mirror without stain, look at this mirror every day, O queen spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it, so that you may thus adorn yourself completely, inwardly and outwardly.... In this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable charity..."

Grateful to God who gives us saints who speak to our hearts and offer us an example of Christian life to imitate, I would like to conclude with the same words of blessing that St Clare composed for her Sisters and which still today the Poor Clares, who play a precious role in the Church with their prayer and with their work, preserve with great devotion. They are expressions in which the full tenderness of her spiritual motherhood emerges: "I bless you in my life and after my death, as I can and 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 mother have blessed and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen."

St Clare - Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague

Happy the soul to whom it is given to attain this life with Christ, to cleave with all one’s heart to him whose beauty all the heavenly hosts behold forever, whose love inflames our love, the contemplation of whom is our refreshment, whose graciousness is our delight, whose gentleness fills us to overflowing, whose remembrance makes us glow with happiness, whose fragrance revives the dead, the glorious vision of whom will be the happiness of all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. For he is the brightness of eternal glory, the splendour of eternal light, the mirror without spot.

Look into that mirror daily, O queen and spouse of Jesus Christ, and ever study therein your countenance, that within and without you may adorn yourself with all manner of virtues, and clothe yourself with the flowers and garments that become the daughter and chaste spouse of the most high King. In that mirror are reflected poverty, holy humility and ineffable charity, as, with the grace of God, you may perceive.

Gaze first upon the poverty of Jesus, placed in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. What marvellous humility! What astounding poverty! The King of angels, Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger. Consider next the humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labours and burdens which he endured for the redemption of the human race. Then look upon the unutterable charity with which he willed to suffer on the tree of the cross and to die thereon the most shameful kind of death. This mirror, Christ himself, fixed upon the wood of the cross, bade the passers-by consider these things: ‘All you who pass this way look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.’ With one voice and one mind let us answer him as he cries and laments, saying in his own words: ‘I will be mindful and remember and my soul shall languish within me.’ Thus, O queen of the heavenly King, may you ever burn more ardently with the fire of this love.

Contemplate further the indescribable joys, the wealth and unending honours of the King, and sighing after them with great longing, cry to him: ‘Draw me after you: we shall run to the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly bridegroom.’ I will run and faint not until you bring me into the wine cellar, until your left hand be under my head and your right hand happily embrace me and you kiss me with the kiss of your mouth.

In such contemplation be mindful of your poor little mother and know that I have inscribed your happy memory indelibly on the tablets of my heart, holding you dearer than all others.