Foundress of the Order of Saint Clare or Poor Clares, Clare was born at Assisi of the Offreduccio family, but nothing is known of her early life. She became one of the earliest and most illustrious followers of the Franciscan ideal and vowed to follow St Francis in the practise of poverty and the imitation of Christ. About 1212, moved by the teaching of St Francis, she begged him to help her that she too might live the life of poverty, “after the manner of the holy Gospel.” Francis who at once recognized in Clare one of those chosen ones who would follow his example, promised to assist her. She gave up all her possessions and joined Francis at the Portiuncula.
Her father was furious at her decision and did his utmost to dissuade her from her heroic decision but Clare held her own with firmness and was finally obliged to leave her in peace. Clare was placed by Francis provisionally with the Benedictine nuns until he was able to offer her and her companions a small house adjacent to the church of San Damiano in Assisi which he had restored. Thus was founded the first community of the Order of Poor Clares. There she became Abbess in 1215, a position she held until the end of her life. The community of women wished to live according to the rule and spirit of St Francis and it included among its members Clare’s mother and two sisters. The way of life was one of extreme poverty and austerity, believed to be harder than that of any other nuns of the time. Although many of the daughter houses obtained dispensation from the original ban upon communal property, the community of San Damiano and two others, Perugia and Florence, obtained from Pope Gregory IX a special permission which enabled them to maintain their original state of absolute poverty, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis of 1228. They were to live entirely on alms, renouncing all rents and other common property. Clare resisted any attempt to dilute the ideal of poverty and reportedly told the Pope: “Holy Father, I crave for absolution from my sins, but I desire not to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.” Another attempt to mitigate the rule of poverty was made by Pope Innocent IV and her firmness once again won over the Pope. Finally, two days before her death, Innocent IV, at the reiterated request of the dying Clare, solemnly confirmed the definitive Rule of the Clares and thus secured to them the precious treasure of poverty in imitation of Francis.
She never ever went beyond the boundaries of San Damiano. She was distinguished as one of the great medieval contemplatives devoted to serving here community in great joy, practising Franciscan ideals, including Francis’ love of the world of nature long after his death in 1226. She became a living copy of the poverty and humility of St Francis. For the last twenty-seven years of her life she suffered various illnesses but she was always devoted to her nuns and to the town of Assisi. This was expressed not only in her sewing altar cloths and corporals for its churches but also by prayer and penance on its behalf in times of crisis. She had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist. There are many miracles associated with her love for the Eucharist and that is the reason why St Clare is generally represented in art bearing a ciborium. Clare had the consolation and joy of witnessing the foundation of several houses throughout Europe. She threw around poverty that irresistible charm and became a most efficacious instrument in promoting the spirit of poverty and detachment in the church Not the least important part of Clare’s work was the aid and encouragement she gave to St Francis. It was to her he turned when in doubt, and it was she who urged him to continue his mission to the people at a time when he thought his vocation lay rather in a life of contemplation. She was canonized only two years after death by Alexander IV in 1255. The Poor Clares constitute one of the numerically largest groups of consecrated women in the church.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)