Saint Clare of Assisi: An Interview with Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR

Dina Marie Hale, host of the Voice of the Shepherd, recently interviewed Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR, about Saint Clare of Assisi, whose feast day is August 11!

Read a summary of the interview below, or listen to the full episode for more details and the background of other August Franciscan feasts.

Q: Who was Saint Clare? Take us back to her life in the 1100s.

Saint Clare was born in July of 1194 but she lived a rather long life in terms of someone in medieval times, even though she had some terrible health problems. She died in 1253.

Clare was initially what we would call a penitent, living in her home and giving food to the poor. She was a very noble woman, whose family name was Offreduccio. They belonged to the nobility of Assisi and had a lot of money. Initially, Clare was feeding the poor out of the back door of their castle.

Q: When did she come across Saint Francis?

Around 1212, Clare heard Francis preaching at the Cathedral in Assisi. She went to him and asked: Could you help me live the Gospel? Then on Palm Sunday of 1212, Clare left her home and went to the Portiuncula, which was a small church that Francis had at the base of Mount Subasio, just outside of town. She went to Francis to begin to live her life under his care and direction. He cut her hair, dressed her in religious garb, and temporarily entrusted her to a local community of Benedictine sisters, where Clare’s sister Caterina (later called Agnes) also joined her.

Obviously their father didn’t like that, so he sent soldiers to go retrieve them at the Benedictine convent. The soldiers got their hands on Caterina and tried to lift her. As Clare prayed, Caterina suddenly became so heavy that the soldiers couldn’t lift her at all. There was nothing they could do. She was like a lead balloon. The soldiers finally just left out of exasperation.

And that was the beginning. It began with the help of the Lord. Their father was very upset, because at that time people in Assisi thought Francis was crazy.

Q: How did her life with the Poor Clares start to develop? What do we know about how this community of women grew?

Francis was able to secure for them a place to grow, which was the San Damiano Church. It was there that the San Damiano crucifix, which is a very significant crucifix to the Franciscans, had spoke to Francis saying, “Francis, go rebuild my church, which as you see is falling into ruins.” That was the first church that Francis had rebuilt with his own hands.

The Bishop of Assisi permitted Francis to relocate Clare and the sisters to San Damiano, which was just outside the walls of Assisi at that time. They became known as the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. (They didn’t get the name Poor Clares until after Clare’s death.)

That’s when Clare began to accept women that wanted to come to her. They were cloistered that time, because the Church wouldn’t permit women religious communities to be active in apostolates. That was the only way at that time that religious communities of sisters could exist, largely for safety reasons.

But that’s when the order of women began to grow, as Clare began to accept sisters and form them in the religious life.

Q: What do we know about the relationship between Francis and Clare? How did they work together to continue the Franciscan order and mission?

Clare got to know Francis well in the early days because he took personal care of the sisters initially. As he later began to travel and preach more, he still always entrusted particular friars to take care of “The Poor Ladies,” as he would call them.

Clare got to know Francis so well and got to know his soul so well that, when Francis died in 1226, Clare became in a way the guardian of the charism of Francis. She understood it so well, even though she was behind the walls, that the Franciscan brothers would learn from Clare.

Q: What are some of the key lessons that we could learn from the example of Saint Clare?

I think we could learn from Clare that our relationship to created goods is going to end with death. What will be the permanent relationship that will endure death? It is going to be our relationship with Jesus, and also with the Blessed Mother, and the Saints. That’s what Clare really held onto.

Clare also held out for the privilege of poverty for the sisters of San Damiano against the popes of her time, Pope Gregory IX and Pope Honorius III. Usually women entering the religious life at the time had to come with a dowry so that they had money to support themselves in the monastery. But Clare said: no, take that dowry, give all that to the poor, and then come to live here.

The Popes looked at that idea and said: Well, what are you going to live on? But Clare held out for her rule of strict poverty and detachment from this world’s goods. It wasn’t until two days before her death on August 9 that Pope Honorius IV finally granted Clare approval of her rule, in which there was this privilege of poverty. I think she just understood that sense of detachment, you know?

Thank you to Dina Marie and Fr. Dan for bringing us this insight on Saint Clare!

Another great place to learn about Saint Clare is this episode of Your Next Mission From God: