To understand Clare and also Francis, we must look at the Middle Ages – from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to the 1300s. During the Middle Ages, along with most of the rest of society, the Church became stagnant. This is a quick & simple generalization of the times. Bishops were considered part of the rich and powerful nobility. Prayers and rites or ceremonies were in Latin which common folks did not understand. The Bible was also in Latin, which was a foreign language to most people of the time. Monks and nuns lived in monasteries closed off from general society. Many monasteries supported their local community through charity and development programs. Many were centers of learning and education, but to those who could afford it and understood Latin. Overall, the Church was separated from the common folk and was installed in the monasteries. The common folk had to try to pray, have a relationship with God, and lead a good life as best they could according to the limited catechesis they had received. Things continued like that for centuries.
But the Holy Spirit had other plans. God wanted to rebuild the Church and society – breathe new life into the Church. According to early accounts, Clare resisted an arranged marriage at the age of 15, even though that was typical at that time. When she was 18 years old, she heard St. Francis preaching in Italian (not Latin) in a public square (not in a church). She probably also observed how he lived with the other Franciscan friars and their dedication to others, their service to the poor, to the lepers. Clare was open to the Holy Spirit and fell in love – with God and the action of the Holy Spirit. She accepted the challenge of living a Christian life radically given over to poverty and service to others sharing St. Francis vision. She cherished and maintained that joy of young love and vision for all her life.
At the time there were no religious sisters in active service as we have now in the Church. There were only nuns in large, wealthy monasteries. To enter a monastery a girl had to bring a large sum of money, a dowry of sorts, to the monastery. Clare’s vision was so radical that the Church did not know how to respond. The idea of women in active ministry, living and working outside of a nunnery in poverty as common folk was unknown at the time. She established a monastery in Assisi for the Poor Ladies, the Poor Clares. She had to wait a long time to get official approval for her way of life. Two days before her death at 59 years of age, the Church finally approved her vision and rule of life, the first rule written by a woman for women.
Clare’s openness to the Holy Spirit initiated a new time in the Church. The Franciscan movement within the Church blossomed into the friars, the Poor Clares and the Secular Franciscans. This contributed to a change of Middle Ages’ society. The ridged, stagnant, and distant Church of the Middle Ages began to return to its mission as described by Paul in today’s second reading: light for all. This was possible because Clare had a relationship with God. She was connected to God. People saw Clare’s life with God. Faith in God became visible through her. The vine, the branch, and the fruits suddenly became visible. We see in St. Clare how that relationship proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel today can transform one person’s life and the whole Church and society.
Many aspects of our society and Church continue to seem like life in the Middle Ages. It is easy for us to become stagnant and lazy. It is so easy to let things slide and leave things to others. It is easy to close our ears to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Clare, one young girl, open to the Holy Spirit, attentive to preaching, loyal to her vision, full of youthful joy changed the whole Church and society. How do we in our own personal lives and our life as a local faith community show the vine, the branch, and the fruits of God’s light in our life to those around us?
Image: “Mosaic of St. Clare” by gashwin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.