Continuing his theme on women's contributions to the Church throughout history, Pope Benedict recalled the life of St. Clare of Assisi during his catechesis on Wednesday. “Her witness,” the Pope noted, “shows us how much the Church is indebted to courageous women rich in faith who, like her, were capable of giving a decisive impulse to ecclesial renewal.”
Born into wealthy nobility, the saint had a marriage arranged for her when she was very young, the Holy Father explained. However, at the age of eighteen, Clare left her family home and joined the Friars Minor at the church of Porziuncola in Italy. The renowned St. Francis of Assisi welcomed her, cut her hair and invested her with the penitential habit.
“Clare found in Francis of Assisi, especially at the beginning of her religious experience, not only a master whose teachings to follow but also a fraternal friend,” he said. “The friendship between these two saints is a beautiful and important element, for when two pure souls inflamed with the same love for God meet, from their mutual friendship they draw a powerful stimulus to follow the path of perfection.”
“Friendship is one of the most noble and exalted human sentiments, which divine Grace purifies and transfigures.”
The Pope continued to say how a Flemish bishop by the name of Jacques de Vitry, who visited Italy during that period, observed St. Clare and her followers' embracing of “a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality: ... radical poverty associated with complete trust in Divine Providence.”
It was because of this, he added, that the saint received “from Pope Gregory IX, or perhaps earlier, from Innocent III,” the so-called “Privilegium Paupertatis” which stated that Clare and her followers “could possess no material property.”
“This,” the Holy Father clarified, “was a truly extraordinary exception to then current canon law, granted by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time in appreciation of the fruits of evangelical sanctity they saw in the lifestyle of Clare and her consoeurs.”
“This shows,” he underscored, “how even during the Middle Ages women played an important not a secondary role.”
“In this context it must be remembered that Clare was the first woman in Church history to produce a written Rule, approved by the Pope, so that the charism of Francis of Assisi could be conserved in all the many female communities which were coming into being at that time, and which sought to draw inspiration from the example of Francis and Clare,” he added.
“In her convent of San Damiano,” Benedict XVI said, “Clare heroically practiced the virtues that should characterize all Christians: humility, a spirit of piety and penance, and charity.”
Pope Alexander IV canonized Clare in 1255, two years after her death. Her followers, the Poor Clares, still “play a vital role in the Church with their prayer and their works,” Pope Benedict said in conclusion.