Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Clare of Offreduccio, a noble maiden of Assisi, was attracted to the poor life of Francis of Assisi, a member of the town's merchant class who divested himself of all material goods to live in imitation of Christ.

Like Saint Francis, Saint Clare attracted followers. In those days, there were no "sisters" as we know them today; women who forsake marriage in order to live in community, pray and do all kinds of ministry : to teach, attend to the sick, shelter orphans and so on. That kind of sisterhood came later. In Clare's day, only one kind of female religious life was possible : the monastery. Behind the monastic walls, nuns were to pray; for their own spiritual life, for the needs of the Church and the world.

So Saint Clare and her religious sisters did so. From Assisi, numerous monasteries following Clare and Francis opened all over Europe. Her own blood sister Agnes was sent to lead the monastery in Prague, in the present-day Czech Republic.

There had been monastic nuns in the Church for hundreds of years. Why would Saint Clare's nuns run into trouble?

They ran into trouble with Rome because Saint Clare's nuns were different.

Every other monastery of nuns that came before Saint Clare lived on endowments. Many of the women becoming nuns came from wealthy families. Ordinarily, if one of their daughters married, her family gave the groom a dowry, a sum of wealth for the upkeep of the bride after marriage.

With the daughters entering convents, that dowry went to the monastery. Thus, the nuns could focus on their religious life and not worry about paying the bills. When the more recent development of working sisters came along, their livelihood was supported by the income of their work running schools, hospitals and so on.

Following the ideals of Saint Francis, Saint Clare refused to accept dowries from her nuns. They were to live on charity alone. Of course, this was a risk! What if donations were meager! How could the nuns farm or do other work to earn income? Doing this would jeopardize their focus on prayer and the hidden life, separate from the world. Bishops were afraid that they would end up having to look for food and other necessities for hungry nuns. These were the days of widespread epidemics and periodic droughts and pestilence. Wars, also, interfered with agriculture as armies marched through the countryside. A ready supply of food was not always reliable in those days. When the farmers themselves were poor, who would feed the nuns?

Thus Rome insisted that the Poor Clares, as they came to be called, accept dowries. This would provide financial security to the nuns, and neither Rome nor the local bishop, nor the area farmers would have to worry about providing for the nuns.

Saint Clare struggled for many years against this. It was completely contrary to the ideals of Saint Francis, whose Rule of Life had been approved by Rome. Approved for the friars, who went among the people and who were able to live on charity as well as their own work, but not for the nuns, who lived in the cloister and who could not work or go among the people. Rome said it had never been done before, that nuns should live off charity. Saint Clare thus termed it the "Privilege of Poverty;" the privilege of being the only nuns in the Church who would decline dowries and live off people's generosity, even at the risk of lean times when people could be less generous.

Clare and her sister Agnes even resorted to worldly politics to help them get what they needed from Rome. The Pope at the time was also a political ruler, owning a large part of central Italy directly under his secular rule called the Papal States. Thus, the Pope needed political alliances with different kingdoms against other rulers who had plans on conquering the Papal States. Rome needed an alliance with Prague, and Saint Agnes in Prague did her best to open doors for that to come true.

Finally, only two days before her death, Rome gave Saint Clare what she always wanted. Rome approved a Rule just for the Poor Clares, and this Rule had poverty at its very core. From then on, the Poor Clares were granted the Privilege of Poverty.

The story shows that Rome doesn't always understand right away nor moves at the speed we would like. Clare obeyed Rome; but continuing to ask for what one has been denied is not disobedience. We need to persist and never give up in asking, just as Saint Clare did. In the end, God's will is done. Even if it happens just two days before we die.

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