A medieval depiction of Saints Francis and Clare. The open wounds on Francis’ side and hands represent the saint receiving the mystical transference of Christ’s wounds known as the “Stigmata”.
On March 13th, 2013, a man was newly elected as the leader, or Pope, of the Catholic Faith. The Argentinian Cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was not only the first Pope to hail from South America, his choice of Papal name was a first of its kind as well – Francis.
The line of the Papacy can be traced back over two thousand years to its source of St. Peter, the cornerstone, or “rock” of the Church, yet never before had a Pope chosen the name “Francis”. Unlike such Papal powerhouse names as “Gregory” or “Pius”, it wasn’t until the 21st century that a Pope would name himself after a saint who chose a life of total humility and dedication of purpose by serving the poorest of the poor.
The newly elected Pontiff affirmed his choice of name on the saint’s feast day of October 4th, 2013 when Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to his namesake’s source – the village of Assisi.
Nestled within Italy’s central midsection, in the province of Perugia, lies the tiny town of Assisi. Despite being a small Italian hamlet, Assisi, which lies 110 miles away from Rome to the Northeast, and 250 miles away from Venice to the Southwest, is the birthplace of two of the most well-loved and highly venerated saints in Christian history.
Born nearly a millennia ago, these two saintly people not only hailed from the same tiny town in central Italy, each started their own cultural revolution in that quaint yet remote area of the globe, as well. By dedicating themselves to a life of selfless devotion, the mystic who communed with animals, Saint Francis, and the ascetic beauty blessed with the gift of clairvoyance, Saint Clare, were considered extreme radicals for their time.
He came from a family of wealth from Assisi’s upper middle class of merchants. She came from a family of the most extreme wealth, being born into Assisi’s highest echelon of nobility.
Both forsook the security of their family fortunes by choosing the most humble of lifestyles. Both passionately believed the best way a person could honor God was by serving the poorest of the poor. Both his and her deeds of service to the poor drew followers to each of them by the droves. In a short period of time, Francis and Clare attracted so many devotees, the two appealed to the Papacy requesting permission to begin each of their own Orders of religious devotion.
Orders which were the first of their kind. Their followers swore to a life of service to God and their fellow Man by taking Vows of Poverty, where all individual forms of abundance were renounced and re-directed to assisting those who were in the greatest state of need.
Francis and Clare not only hailed from the same remote Italian village, they were the dearest of friends, as well. The friendship between the founding father of Friars and the founding Abbess of Nuns named in her honor is legendary, and quite often the two saints are depicted as if they were lovers.
Born a decade before her in 1182, Francis renounced his family and began preaching amongst the poor of Assisi and to the pilgrims of Rome in his mid 20’s.
Groomed to be a noblewoman of great stature from birth, headstrong and devoutly religious Clare would sneak away from her mother and ladies-in-waiting to hear Francis preach in the street while still in her early teens, becoming his most devout admirer.
Fully aware of the life threatening risk, on the eve before Palm Sunday in 1211, 17 year old Clare informed her family that she would be out gathering palms for Mass the next day….and never returned. Urgently running for her life, Clare fled to the church which housed her mentor. That very evening, Francis cut off all of Clare’s blond waist-length hair, dressed her in a black tunic, and placed a black veil upon her shorn head.
Needless to say, numerous attempts were initially made to end both his and her life by Clare’s father and uncles. The wealthy noblemen felt they not only had a right to kill this most impetuous member of their family, they believed they also had just as equal a right to extinguish the cause of her impetuousness, as well.
St. Francis’ feast day of October 4th is the one day of the year when animals of all kinds are allowed into any given Catholic Church to be blessed in honor of the saint who communed with animals.
Francis and Clare acted as founding parents to each of their Orders and served as sources of counsel and comfort to each other. Being a mystic who had the gift of communing with animals, St. Francis is the patron saint of both Animals and the Environment. Whenever the Friar spoke to an animal, the holy man never addressed the creature as “It”, or in the neutral 3rd person, Francis spoke to every living creature in their proper form as a masculine or feminine being, such as “Brother Wolf” or “Sister Bird”. To his greatest companion Clare, he addressed her as “Sister Moon” to his own “Brother Sun”.
When Francis became ill, Clare tended to him. And when the holy monk left this world at the age of 44, Clare was at his side, holding his hand.
Today, over one and a half million Franciscans live throughout the world in the Orders which Francis and Clare originally founded. Franciscan institutions and the Order of Poor Clares in the 21st century include colleges and universities, hospitals, missions serving the poor and marginalized, and organizations engaging in activities on behalf of peace and for environmental issues, both globally and locally.
On this October 4th, I’d like to share one of my favorite images of these two very special people who dutifully served their faith and those around them to the best of their abilities:
Francis is walking through a meadow. Clare follows him, playfully putting her feet in the footsteps left by Francis. He turns, asking her: “Are you following in my footsteps?”
She replies brightly: “No, much deeper ones.”
Returning full circle to the leadership of the Catholic Church in the present day, the New York Times had this to say about Pope Francis’ visit to Francis and Clare’s hometown of Assisi on October 4th, 2013:
“Francis took the opportunity on Friday to dispense down-to-earth advice. To feuding newlyweds, he said, “Let the flying dishes fly, but don’t go to bed angry,” during a speech to consecrated persons and members of the diocesan pastoral council. He called on the clergy to resist giving “interminable and boring homilies where no one understands anything.” And he fondly recalled the days when parish priests knew the names of all their parishioners, “and even the name of the dog in each family.”
Here’s hoping the Pope who is the first of his kind to choose such a special name will lead his followers into the 21st century with the same dedication of purpose as his namesake did nearly a thousand years ago.
*Brad Kronen’s book “Love in the Stars” published by Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc. is available for purchase at your local book seller or online at amazon.com at the link listed below.