Francis' Right-Hand Woman

By Rachel Malinowski 8-11-2016 | Series:
By Simone Martini - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain

Editor’s Note: The feast day of St. Clare of Assisi is celebrated on Aug. 11 in the Roman Catholic Church.

Until my confirmation, I had never heard of Clare of Assisi, Francis’ right-hand woman. But looking back at the faith of my teenage years, it makes perfect sense that I chose her to be my confirmation saint.

As a teenager, my Catholic faith was shaped almost exclusively by women, including my laywomen religion teachers and the women religious who founded and worked at my small, all-girls’ Catholic high school. My high school was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and while only one Sister of Charity still taught there when I was a student, I was lucky to know several of the sisters who were on our board of directors, and to be steeped in their charism of service to those living in poverty, especially women, worldwide. These women, in addition to our principal, who was a sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph, had an enormous impact on my faith.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has known Catholic women religious that the sisters were some of the sharpest women I had ever met. They managed ministries that ranged from an all-girls’ high school in suburban Massachusetts to a school for orphaned girls in India. They were businesswomen, administrators, teachers, and deeply spiritual women. These women gave me my first glimpse into the incredible work that Catholic women religious have done — and continue to do — throughout the world.

But these women also taught me another very important lesson: that being a woman who faithfully serves God is not incompatible with being a strong leader or with being good at what you do.

This was an incredible epiphany for me, as a young woman who at the time had dreams of becoming a lawyer. Until I became acquainted with the sisters at my high school, I had a very narrow idea of what a faithful woman looked like — she looked like Mary as a quiet, shrinking violet, who said yes to God without hesitation or questioning. The sisters who shaped my faith in high school helped me begin to see that my notion of faithful womanhood — and of Mary — was too narrow.

It was in this context that I also came to know another amazing sister and saint: Clare of Assisi. When I set out to choose my confirmation name, there was no obvious candidate for me — I never had devotions to any particular saint. Though my teachers and catechists had always insisted that the saints were supposed to be like “friends” who we could lean on for support, they always felt like distant, unattainable models of holiness. But when I started reading about Clare, I saw something in her that I recognized: the tenacity and strength of the sisters I had come to know and love.

Clare was born into a wealthy family at the end of the 12th century. Upon hearing St. Francis’ preaching, Clare became inspired to renounce her comfortable life and take up his charism of total poverty. She sought out Francis, and he promised to help her live under his rule. On Palm Sunday of 1212, Clare snuck out of her father’s house and met Francis and his brothers at the Porziuncola chapel, where she cut her hair off, exchanged her fine clothes for sackcloth, and took a vow of total poverty.

For a time, Clare went to live with Benedictine sisters before founding her own order, the Poor Clares. Her order was based on the Rule of St. Francis and was characterized by the vow of total poverty that was characteristic of Franciscans. After living under the rule for a few years, Pope Gregory IX approved a revised rule that did not allow for the Poor Clares to take vows of total poverty, as he believed such a vow was unsuitable for an order of women. Clare contested this revision and successfully defended the Clares’ vow of total poverty not only to Gregory but also later, to Pope Innocent IV, who approved the Rule of the Poor Clares once and for all.

Clare’s deep commitment to the Franciscan vow of total poverty and her bold defense of a rule that allowed for such a vow — a rule that she likely had a hand in writing — is remarkable. It is important to emphasize, though, that her admiration for Francis and his spirituality was not one-sided. Francis respected Clare and leaned on her in his own times of spiritual doubt or struggle. Clare did not simply carve out a space for women in Francis’ mission. She became a spiritual leader in her own right, inspiring Francis in his faith and ministry.

St. Clare and the women religious who formed my faith taught me that there are as many ways to be a faithful woman as there are women on the earth. They taught me that you can serve God while being strong, outspoken, and good at what you do. Even more significantly, they taught me the importance of sharing stories about the many and varied ways that women serve God and their fellow humans.

It’s wrong that it took me until I was a teenager to realize that women didn’t need to be meek in order to serve God. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about Clare when I was growing up? Why did we only talk about Francis?

I look around me at the many women of faith I know and they are each so different — in their gifts, in their vocations, and in what about their faith gives them energy. This variety is what makes the Body of Christ so rich, and it’s important that girls grow up knowing that. We must share stories of women of faith in all their varieties, both in our personal lives and in our faith communities, so that girls grow up hearing just as much about Clare as they do about Francis.

St. Clare of Assisi, pray for us.

Rachel Malinowski works for a Catholic non-profit based in Baltimore, Md. 

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