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St Clare of Assisi

St Clare of Assisi

1194 - 1253 AD

We have no record of St. Clare feeling called to the priesthood, but incidents in her life have made her a ‘parable’ - showing that women are capable of priestly ministry. Just as in the case of the devotion to Mary Priest, and the legends surrounding St. Mary Magadalene, the stories about St. Clare made people think: ‘Why can women not handle sacred things?’

Clare of Assisi was the first woman saint to write a religious rule. She was canonised two years after her death, which also makes her the fastest female saint since officially instituted processes held sway. Pope Alexander IV, who officiated at her funeral, demanded white vestments and had to be forcefully dissuaded from canonising her on the spot.

In the Church’s traditional iconography, Clare is almost invariably depicted holding a monstrance. For lay women - as for lay men - in circumstances short of fire and earthquake, it was a mortal sin to touch the Blessed Sacrament or the sacred vessels before the later liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Oddly enough, Clare did not ‘hold the monstrance’; but this is how the Church has remembered her, recalling an event recorded in the Acts of her Canonisation [1253] and the Legenda [c. 1260]. In a too-familiar war scenario, Saracen troupes of the Emperor Frederick II had entered Clare’s Monastery, San Damiano,

“..the Lady made them bring her to the entrance of the refectory and bring a small box where their was the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Throwing herself prostrate on the ground she prayed with tears saying: ‘Lord look upon these servants of yours , because I cannot protect them’.” (1) .

The soldiers fled.

In commemoration of this, the Abbesses of Clare’s order had [it seems from early times] the permission to expose the Blessed Sacrament, before this opportunity was made available to other religious women.

Clericalism was [and still is] an issue in the Franciscan Order. Francis of Assisi was not a priest, though he did become a deacon. He promoted an, at this time, unfashionable devotion to the priesthood, a priesthood that the Church was earnestly trying to reform [IV Lateran Council 1215] and which was derided by the Albigenses and other heretical movements which prefigured or paralleled the Franciscans.

Francis said, that if some saint appeared to him from heaven and, at the same time, a poor priest should pass by, he would show reverence to the poor priest and ask the inhabitant of heaven to hold on. (2) Francis saw all life in terms of poverty, humility, love and service, and he saw himself, and all those who followed the Gospel in his footprints, as filling, so to speak, the empty space left before God by those members of the priesthood who sought financial security, power, a relaxation of the Church’s celibate requirement and freedom from parochial obligations. Into the vacuum of thirteenth century decay and unsuccessful reform there enter men and women bearing, as it were, the first symbol that Christ offers to his newly ordained priesthood in the Upper Room -- a towel and a bowl of water [John 13 1-15] . It is this image as part of a dream which Clare had, that impressed itself on her first companions. She was climbing up a very high stairway carrying a bowl of water and a towel for Francis, and when she reached him, Francis bared his breast to her and said “Take and drink”. (3)

The rule of life of the Poor Sisters of St Clare is to observe the Holy Gospel by living in obedience, without property and in chastity. The Church has always presented the universal priesthood of all her people as an identification with redeeming sacrifice; thus martyrdom, identified as it is with Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, is innately priestly, as is the ‘white martyrdom’ of obedience. To quote F.X Durrwell:

“The Church celebrates Christ’s sacrifice... in her faithful who die to themselves through obedience, with Christ on the cross; in those who struggle to gain heavenly love, who raise themselves out of this world towards purity and poverty of heart, with Christ who went to the Father; in all her faithful who work and suffer, who love God and neighbour who give themselves for the salvation of others. In all of them the Church is the redeeming sacrifice, the Mass celebrated in spirit and in truth.” (4)

This priestly obedience is manifested in a rather curious episode in the Fioretti.

“At one time among others the Pope (5) went to St Clare’s monastery in order to listen to her divine and heavenly conversation, for she was a shrine of the Holy Spirit... When their holy conversation was over the saint knelt with great reverence and asked the supreme Pontiff to bless the loaves that had been laid on the tables. The Pope answered, ‘Very faithful Sister Clare, I want you to bless these loaves and to make over them the Sign of the Cross of Christ to whom you have offered yourself completely as a spotless sacrifice’. But St Clare replied: “Most Holy Father, please excuse me, but I would deserve to be severely blamed if a vile little woman like myself should presume to give such a blessing in the presence of the Vicar of Christ.’ And the Pope answered: So that it should not be attributed to presumption, but that you may also earn merit by doing it, I command you under Holy Obedience to make the Sign of the Cross over those loaves of bread and to bless them in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then Clare as a truly obedient daughter did so, and a very beautiful and clearly marked cross appeared on the loaves. The Holy Father gave thanks to God, and departed taking some of the bread with him.”

Some interpreters have gone so far as to give a Eucharistic significance to this event. They are probably wrong. This was not the celebration of a Mass. It was not a 'sacrament', but in the understanding of the time a 'sacramental blessing' reserved to priests. And so, in a subtle way, it was a parable -- a parable pointing to the future, inspired by God through the Pope of that time . . .

John Wijngaards

Footnotes:

1. Process of Canonisation 9.2. Clare of Assisi: Early Documents. Regis Armstong OFM. Paulist Press1988. For a discussion of this in its historical context see the chapter Women mystics and the Clericalisation of The Church in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages Caroline Walker Bynum. University of California Press 1982.

2. Second Life of St Francis. 1247. Thomas of Celano. CLII 201. ed Placid Hermann OFM . Franciscan Herald Press.1963

3. Process of Canonization 3. 29 op. cit.

4. In the Redeeming Christ F.X. Durrweli. C.SS.R pg 77. Sheed & Ward 1963

5. The Fioretti of St Francis [prob. Ugolino de Monti Santa Maria, late 1 3th Century.] Ed. Raphael Brown OFM. Hanover House1958. The witnesses cited to this event suggest thst it was during the pontificate of Honorius III.

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