Benedict XVI's message to the Bishop of Assisi regarding the year of St. Clare
2 April 2012
To our Venerable Brother Domenico Sorrentino, Bishop of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino
With joy I learned that, in this diocese, as also among the Franciscans and Poor Clares of the whole world, St. Clare is being remembered with a Year of St. Clare (Anno Clariano), on the eighth centenary of her 'conversion' and consecration. This event, whose dating varies between 1211 and 1212, completes 'in a feminine way,' so to speak, the grace that had arrived in the community a few years earlier with the conversion of the son of Pietro di Bernardone. And, just as it happened with Francis, so also there was hidden in Clare’s decision the budding of a new sisterhood, the Order of St. Clare which, having grown into a healthy tree, continues in the silence of the cloisters to sow the good seed of the Gospel and to serve the cause of the Kingdom of God.
This happy circumstance compels me to return in spirit to Assisi, to reflect with you, dear brother, and the community entrusted to you, and, equally, with the sons of St. Francis and the daughters of St. Clare, on the meaning of that event.
It speaks also to our generation, and is alluring above all to young people, to whom my affectionate thoughts turn on the occasion of World Youth Day, celebrated this year, according to custom, in the particular Churches on this precise day of Palm Sunday.
The saint herself speaks of her radical choice for Christ in terms of “conversion” in her Testament. I would like to begin from this aspect, in one sense, almost taking up again the thread of the speech I gave on June 17, 2007 about Francis’ conversion when I had the joy to visit this diocese. The story of Clare’s conversion centers on the liturgical feast of Palm Sunday. In fact it says in her biography:
The solemnity of Palm Sunday was at hand, and with great fervor of heart the maiden betook herself to the man of God for counsel on her conversion, as to what was to be done and how she was to do it. The holy Father Francis commanded that on the feastday she should dress and adorn herself in her finery and go with the rest of the people to the blessing of the palms. Then, on the following night, she should "go forth outside the camp" (Hebr. 13, 13) and "turn"her worldly "joy into mourning" (Jas. 4, 9) for the Passion of the Lord.
When Sunday came, Clare, radiant in festive splendor among the crowd of women, entered the church with the others. There a significant omen occurred. While the others went forward to receive the palms, Clare out of modesty remained in her place without moving. Then the Bishop went down the steps
and came to her and laid the palm in her hand. (Legenda Sanctae Clarae virginis, 7:).
About six years had passed since Francis set out on the path of holiness. In the words of the crucifix of San Damiano – “Go, Francis, repair my house” – and in the embrace of the lepers, the suffering face of Christ, he found his vocation. It manifested itself in the liberating gesture of divesting himself of his clothes in the presence of Bishop Guido. Faced with the choice between the idol of money proposed by his earthly father and God’s love that promised to fill his heart, he had no doubts, and with great spirit exclaimed: “From now on I can freely say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’ not my father, Pietro di Bernardone!” (Vita Seconda, 12:). Francis’ decision disconcerted the city. The first years of his new life were marked by hardship, bitterness and incomprehension. But many began to think. The young Clare, an adolescent at the time, was moved by that witness. Gifted with a strong religious sense, she was conquered by the existential “turn” of the man who had been the “king of the parties.” She found a way to meet him and she let herself be caught up in his ardor for Christ. The biographer sketches the young convert instructing his new disciple: “The father Francis exhorted her to despise the world, demonstrating, with lively speech, that hope directed to this world is arid and leads to disappointment, and he put into her ears the sweet union with Christ” (Vita Sanctae Clarae Virginis, 5: FF 3164).
According to the Testament of St. Clare, even before receiving his other companions, Francis prophesied the journey of his first spiritual daughter and her sisters. In fact, while he was restoring the church of San Damiano, where the crucifix spoke to him, he announced that holy women women would again dwell there who would glorify God by their holy way of life (Vita seconda, 13). The original crucifix is now found in the Basilica of St. Clare. Those large eyes of Christ that fascinated Francis would become Clare’s “mirror.” It is not by chance that the mirror theme would become so dear to Clare and, in the fourth letter to Agnes of Prague, she would write: “Look into this mirror every day, O queen and bride of Jesus Christ, and continuously gaze upon your face therein” (II Letter of St Clare to St Agnes of Prague ).
In the years in which she met with Francis to learn from him about the path to God, Clare was a lovely girl. The Poverello of Assisi showed to her a higher beauty, which cannot be measured by the mirror of vanity, but that develops into an authentic life, following in the footsteps of Christ crucified. God is the true beauty! Clare’s heart was illumined by this splendor, and this gave her the courage to let her hair be cut off and to begin a penitential life. For her, as for Francis, this decision was marked by much difficulty. If some of her family understood her immediately - indeed her mother Ortolana and two of her sisters followed her in her choice of life - others reacted violently.
Her flight from her house on the night between Palm Sunday and Monday of Holy Week was adventurous. In the succeeding days she was followed into the places that Francis had prepared for her and there were attempts, even violent ones, to make her go back on her decision.
Clare was prepared for this fight. And if Francis was her guide, as a paternal support she was also helped by Bishop Guido, as more than one clue suggests. This is how we can explain the prelate’s gesture when he offered her the palm, as if to bless her courageous decision. Without the bishop’s support it would have been hard for her to follow the plan devised by Francis that she put into action, whether her consecration in the Chapel of the Portiuncula in the presence of Francis and his friars, or in the hospitality that she received in the following days in the monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse and in the community of Sant’Angelo in Panzo, before her final arrival at San Damiano. The events of Clare’s life, like those of Francis’, manifest a particular ecclesial trait. In these events there is an encounter between an enlightened shepherd and a son and daughter of the Church who entrust themselves to his judgment. Institution and charism and interact powerfully. Love and obedience to the Church, so marked in Franciscan-Clarian spirituality, sink their roots into the beautiful experience of the Christian community of Assisi, which not only gave birth to the faith of Francis and his 'plantula', but also accompanied them along the path of holiness.
Francis well understood the reason for suggesting to Clare that she leave her house at the beginning of Holy Week. The whole of Christian life, and therefore the life of special consecration, are a fruit of the paschal mystery and a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Sadness and glory are interwoven in the liturgy of Palm Sunday like theme that will be further developed in the days that follow, through the darkness of the Passion to the light of Easter. Clare, with her decision, relives this mystery. She gets the plan, so to speak, on Palm Sunday. She then enters into the drama of the Passion, and as she is shorn of her hair gives up along with it her entire self to be the bride of Christ in humility and in poverty. Francis and his companions are now her family. Soon her sisters will arrive, even from far away, but the first shoots, as in the case of Francis, will break from the earth in Assisi. And Clare would always remain linked to her city, especially showing her commitment even in difficult circumstances, when her prayers saved Assisi from violence and devastation. She said at that time to her sisters: “Every day we have received from this city many good things, dear sisters; we cannot now abandon it in this time of need” (Legenda Sanctae Clarae Virginis 23).
In its profound meaning, Clare’s 'conversion' is a conversion to love. No more for her, the refined habits of the Assisi nobility, but the elegance of a soul that spends itself in the praise of God and gift of self. In the little space of the monastery of San Damiano, in the school of Jesus contemplated with spousal affection in the Eucharist, the features of a community ruled by love for God and by prayer, by care and by service now emerge. It is in this context of profound faith and of great humanity that Clare is formed into the sure interpreter of the Franciscan ideal, imploring that 'privilege' of poverty, that is, the renunciation of possessing even communal goods, which for a long time left the sovereign pontiff himself perplexed, although in the end he recognized the heroism of her sanctity.
How can we not propose Clare, and Francis, to young people today? The time that separates us from the emergence of these two saints has not diminished their power of attraction. On the contrary, we can see their relevance in the face of the illusions and delusions that mark the contemporary condition of young people. Never before has a time inspired so much dreaming among the youth, with the thousand attractions of a life in which everything seems possible and licit. And yet, how much dissatisfaction is present, how often the pursuit of happiness ends up on roads that lead to false paradises, such as those of drugs and unbridled sexuality! The current situation of difficulty in finding dignified work and of forming a unified and happy family, also adds clouds to the horizon. There is no lack, however, of young people, in our times too, who accept the invitation to give themselves to Christ and to face the journey of life with courage, responsibility and hope, even making the choice to leave everything to follow him in total service to him and to our brothers. The story of Clare, together with that of Francis, is an invitation to reflect on the meaning of existence and to seek in God the secret of true joy. It is a concrete proof that those who do the Lord’s will and confide in him not alone do not lose anything, but find the real treasure that is able to confer meaning on everything.
To you, venerable brother, to this Church that had the honor of giving birth to Francis and Clare, and to the Poor Clares, who daily show forth the beauty and fecundity of the contemplative life, in support of the journey of the People of God, and to the Franciscans all over the world, to many young people who are seeking and in need of light, I offer this brief reflection. I hope that it will contribute to an ever new rediscovery of these two shining figures in the firmament of the Church. With a particular thought for the daughters of St. Clare of the Protomonastery, of the other monasteries of Assisi and around the world, from my heart I impart to all my apostolic blessing.
From the Vatican, April 1, 2012, Palm Sunday
BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
From the Homily for Palm Sunday, April 1 2012
Dear young people, present here today, this, in a particular way, is your Day, wherever the Church is present throughout the world. So I greet you with great affection! May Palm Sunday be a day of decision for you, the decision to say yes to the Lord and to follow him all the way, the decision to make his Passover, his death and resurrection, the very focus of your Christian lives. It is the decision that leads to true joy, as I reminded you in this year’s World Youth Day Message – “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). So it was for Saint Clare of Assisi when, on Palm Sunday 800 years ago, inspired by the example of Saint Francis and his first companions, she left her father’s house to consecrate herself totally to the Lord. She was eighteen years old and she had the courage of faith and love to decide for Christ, finding in him true joy and peace.