Our Spiritual Heritage

 

Francis of Assisi

 
In a small village above the Umbrian Valley in northern Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in either 1181/1182.  

 

Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man. He dreamed of knighthood and loved the songs of the minstrels and bards he encountered when traveling with his father through France. As a young man, he became a soldier for Assisi. While going off to war in 1204, Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi where he seemed to have lost his taste for the things of worldly life. Francis prayed in caves and wandered the hillside, searching for something that he could not grasp.
 

Once on a pilgrimage to Rome, he begged with the beggars at St. Peter's. The experience touched his heart. In Assisi, he watched the poor and often attempted to give them alms. As he wandered outside the walls of Assisi one day, he encountered a leper. Though he was disgusted with all that indicated leprosy, something caused him to dismount his horse and embrace the leper, whom it is said vanished at that moment. This and many other stirrings in his heart caused Francis to choose to live in simplicity and poverty.


Sometime in the days of his wandering, Francis found himself in the rundown church of San Damiano before a magnificent Byzantine cross. As he prayed, he heard in his heart the voice of Christ saying, “Francis, repair my church which as you see is falling into ruins.” Looking around, young Francis believed he had found his vocation and began to physically rebuild that chapel and a number of others around Assisi.

 

Realizing that the voice of Christ was inviting more than a physical building project, Francis soon began to preach in the streets. Before he knew it, others joined him. Unsure of what God was asking, he and his first followers went to Rome. There, his new order was endorsed by Pope Innocent III in 1210.

 

When Clare, a young woman also from Assisi, began to come to him for counsel, with the blessing of the Bishop of Assisi, he founded the Order of Poor Clares which was an enclosed order for women. Later, he began what has become known as the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance.

 

Desiring to convert all to the joy of his new-found faith, in 1219, he journeyed to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Sultan. By this point, the Franciscan Order had grown to such an extent that its primitive organizational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to Italy to organize the order. Once his organization was approved by the Pope, Francis withdrew increasingly for prayer. 

 

Francis had a deep love for Jesus, God become man. It was in 1223 with the help of the local people of Greccio, Francis arranged for the first Christmas manger scene on the hills outside the town located near Assisi.

 

Devotion to the cross and Christ, the poor Crucified One, led Francis to ever deeper prayer until in 1224, he received the stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ. He was the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ's Passion.

 

Awareness of the depth of love that caused Christ to remain with the Church in the Eucharist also characterized the spirituality of Francis.

 

He died welcoming “Sister Death” on October 3, 1226 while singing Psalm 141.

 

On July 16, 1228, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Gregory IX. He is known as the patron saint of animals, the environment and one of the two patrons of Italy (with Catherine of Siena), His feast day is celebrated on October 4th each year.

 

Clare of Assisi

 

Clare of Assisi was born Chiara Offreduccio on July 16, 1194. She was the first female follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. With him, she founded the Order of Poor Ladies, a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition and wrote their Rule of Life, the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman. Her order is commonly referred to today as the Poor Clares.

 

Clare was devoted to prayer and the poor even as a child. Her parents wanted her to marry a young and wealthy man. However, when she heard Francis' preaching, his spirit and words inspired in her a fervor that changed her life. On Palm Sunday of ____, with the blessing of the local bishop, Clare left her home to follow Francis. Her hair was cut, and she was dressed in a black tunic and veil and placed with the Benedictine nuns near Bastia. Clare’s sister, Agnes, soon joined her and they moved to the church of San Damiano which Francis himself had rebuilt. Other women joined them there, and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano became known for their radical lifestyle.


Unlike the Franciscan Friars, whose members moved around the country to preach, Saint Clare's Sisters lived in enclosure that welcomed visitors and offered them healing and prayer. Life at San Damiano consisted of prayer, community living, gardening, sewing and other manual labor.

 

For a short period of time, the order was directed by Francis himself. In 1216, Clare accepted the role of abbess of San Damiano. As abbess, she had the authority to lead the order. Clare defended her order from the attempts to impose a rule on them that more closely resembled the Rule of St. Benedict than Francis' stricter way. Clare sought to imitate Francis' virtues and way of life so much so that she was sometimes called an alter Franciscus, another Francis. She played a significant role in encouraging and aiding Francis whom she saw as a spiritual father figure, and she took care of him during his illnesses at the end of his life until his death in 1226.

 

After Francis' death, Clare continued to promote the values of her order, writing letters to abbesses in other parts of Europe and thwarting every attempt by each successive pope to impose a Rule on her order which watered down the radical commitment to the privilege of poverty she had originally embraced. She did this despite the fact that she had endured a long period of poor health until her death. Clare's Franciscan theology of joyous poverty in imitation of Christ is evident in the Rule she wrote for her community and in her four letters to Agnes of Prague.

 

After a long illness and with the approval of her rule finally obtained, Clare passed into eternity on August 11, 1253.

 

On August 15, 1255, Pope Alexander IV canonized Clare as Saint Clare of Assisi. Construction of the Basilica of Saint Clare was completed in 1260, and on October 3rd of that year, Clare's remains were transferred to the newly completed basilica where they were buried beneath the high altar. In further recognition of the saint, Pope Urban IV officially changed the name of the Order of Poor Ladies to the Order of Saint Clare in 1263.

 

Her feast day is celebrate annually on August 11.