15 Jul Feast of St. Clare 2016: Letter of the Minister General
May the Lord give you peace!
Every year as August approaches, I begin to wonder what our Father Francis wants me to say to you, whom he loved to call the Poor Ladies. He was never eager to preach to you, as you know, because he had confidence in your commitment to the Gospel, as well as in the leadership of St. Clare. This confidence endures and I write simply, sharing what is in my heart and on my mind. I write as a loving brother who also values your commitment, who trusts Clare’s never-failing creative leadership, and who also wants to join you in honoring this great woman. Our Franciscan-Jesuit Pope Francis, in his letter inaugurating the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy [MV], spoke about the continual call to conversion offered by our Father of Mercies. This resonates with Clare’s description of her vocation as enlightenment to do penance after the example and teaching of our most blessed Father Saint Francis. [RegCl 6.1] She was so faithful to this that on her deathbed she could say to Brother Rainaldo that ‘since she had come to know the grace of the Lord, no pain, no penance, no weakness had been hard’ [LegCl 44], and still today the dynamic source of our lives, as followers of Francis and Clare, is our awareness of God’s mercy and grace.
This Year of Mercy also has a special resonance for us because it is the eighth centenary of the great Pardon of Assisi which our Father Francis obtained from Honorius III in 1216. He asked for it because our Lady told him to – no better reason – and because he shared in God’s immense desire to unite everyone with Himself in joy. This desire to share God’s mercy is still alive in the heart of the Church, as the Year of Mercy shows. Nor has anything changed of our own commitment to Francis’ desire that everyone ‘go to heaven’. Pope Francis is summoning us to be missionaries of mercy through a deepening of our vocation, and through our just stewardship of the gifts given us by the Father of Mercies.
“It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. […] we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture, justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will.” [MV 20]
Francis completely understood that abandonment to God’s will is a constituent quality of justice, and in his First Rule he even spoke of alms as ‘justice due to the poor’. [ER, IX, 8] Clare understood this too, and in her search for justice not only gave her inheritance (and half her sister’s) to the poor, but also took radical steps to follow Christ by moving to San Damiano and sharing the impoverishment, vulnerability and powerlessness of the poor. We can be sure that if she were alive now, she would be keenly aware of the contemporary world situation, listening courageously for a word from the Lord.
Dear sisters, how do we live justly today, in abandonment to God’s will, in a world where power and wealth are created at the expense of the poor? What would Clare be saying to you, her beloved daughters, to whom she has entrusted the charism of Gospel living in fraternity and sine proprio? How would she be leading you along the path of living your minority ever more radically, given the reality of our times? How would she be leading us all to that place in the human heart and in the world where the treasure lies hidden? [3Ag7] Our world is deep in crisis, both spiritually and materially. Christians are persecuted in many countries, extremism and fanaticism are openly at work, millions of people are displaced by war, terrorism and oppression. The need for contemplation is more urgent than ever, which is why Clare continues to tell us to ‘gaze, consider, contemplate, longing to imitate’. [2Ag20] Without the grace of contemplation to nurture our world, it would be easy to despair because the problems are so immense and seemingly out of control.
Another great sorrow is that our beautiful planet is suffering greatly. An unprecedented number of species have become extinct in the last fifty years, while others are reduced in number through loss of habitat. The balance of our climate is under stress, causing either floods or drought, while globally there is a shortage of water – essential for life on our planet. All these factors are having a profound effect on plants, birds, insects and animals as well as human beings, the human animal. The need to show mercy to our Sister Mother Earth is greater than any we have ever known. It is just over a year since Pope Francis addressed the world in his letter Laudato si, pointing out that our Mother Sister Earth herself must now be numbered among the poor to whom justice is due – and overdue. He says:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. [LS 2]
Against this background Pope Francis shows us that ‘the ecological crisis is a summons to profound interior conversion’ [LS 217] and he gives us the simple way in which to respond to both these crises:
This is the opportune moment to change our lives! […] All one needs to do is to accept the invitation to conversion and submit oneself to justice during this special time of mercy offered by the Church. [MV 19]
As a model of conversion, the Pope has given us that saint beloved by all Franciscans, St Mary Magdalen, and has raised her celebration to the rank of a feast. We know that almost every early Franciscan friary had a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen because they recognized her as a paradigm of conversion, a true speculum or mirror of one who completely gave herself in love, as the Lord testified. We are told that
she is one who, having received mercy, loved much’ and was able to ‘announce to the apostles what they in turn will announce to the whole world. She was the first witness to Divine Mercy’.
She was a woman of an immense heart, even an imprudent heart, who ‘showed great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ’. The mercy she had been given bore fruit when she witnessed to the resurrection and became the “apostle of the apostles”.
Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living.’[MV 9]
Mary of Magdala was present in Clare’s life on that Palm Sunday night when she joined the brothers. They had been reciting Matins for Monday in Holy Week and reading the passage about Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair – preparing his body for burial, as Jesus said. [Jn 12, 1-8] With the candles of that liturgy still alight, the brothers had cut off Clare’s hair and dedicated her to the Lord, and she set out to join Him outside the camp and share His degradation. [Heb 13,13, LegCl 7] ‘See Him made contemptible for you and follow, being made contemptible for Him’ [2Ag19] she said to Agnes of Prague years later. From the start, Clare’s vocation was marked by her love for the One at whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly wonder, whose love stirs to love, whose contemplation remakes, whose kindliness floods, whose memory glows gently, whose fragrance brings the dead to life again. [4Ag 10-13]
Mary Magdalen’s influence is seen in the beautiful crucifix in Santa Chiara, commissioned by Clare’s successor Sr Benedetta. There Clare, Benedetta, and Francis grieve at the feet of Jesus, like the woman who washed them with her tears, and helped prepare him for burial. Clare and the Church look to us, that we too give ourselves as completely to the service of the Lord, faithful to the end and able to proclaim the truth of the resurrection. Clare encourages you to ‘be strengthened in the service of the poor, Crucified One’ [1Ag13] and to be a ‘pattern to others, for an example and a mirror’. [TestCl 19]
In our distressed world of today, when even Mother Earth is suffering, how do we Poor Sisters and Friars Minor live the values of the Gospel, in a context where one person in every one hundred and thirteen people is a refugee, where ‘the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast’? This is a serious challenge for us today. Suffering humanity, our struggling planet and the whole Franciscan world are asking the daughters of St Clare to help us open our hearts so that we find how to submit ourselves to justice in this time of mercy. ‘It is time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings and even their very lives’. [MV 19] We need the loving contemplative heart of our Franciscan movement to help us hear the cry of the poor and the cry of Mother Earth. Mary Magdalen met the Risen Lord in a garden; the Lord’s true lover Francis wrote his Canticle of Creation in a garden. Most of you have a garden, large or small, and as your brother I would warmly encourage you to go even further in your example of working with creation so that every living being who has a home on your shared land is welcomed with respect as a brother or sister – though I realize that, because of the Fall, gardeners may find it difficult to welcome every creature without exception!
Creation is not there solely for us, but for the glory of God and we humans are but stewards. Help us not to be like the one in the parable who was forgiven much but showed no mercy to others. We need you to continue showing us how true lovers of the Lord live, giving us an example of respect for our Mother Earth instead of exploiting and wounding her for gain or convenience. We are all being called to change and I know I speak for many Franciscans when I say that we look to our Poor Sisters [RegCl 1,1] to help us. Clare ‘feared no poverty, labor, trouble, powerlessness or the scorn of the world’ [RegCl 6,2] but all those things are greatly feared in today’s world. Words spoken about Mary Magdalene really do apply to Clare too:
she belonged to Jesus’ group of followers, she accompanied him to the foot of the cross and, in the garden where she met him at the tomb, she was the first witness of Divine Mercy.
We look to you for that witness just as we look to you for ‘words like burning sparks from the furnace of your hearts’. [LegCl 45]
On behalf of my brothers, I wish you every blessing and grace, and a share in the wise wish of Pope Francis for our sisters of the Protomonastery:
“May He grant you a great humanity, to be persons who know how to grasp human problems, who know how to forgive, who know how to petition the Lord on behalf of people.” [4.10.2013]
I wish you great joy in this celebration of the feast day of our Mother St Clare. Like all the brothers, I keep you in my prayers and beg you to keep me and the whole Order in yours.
Fr. Michael Anthony Perry, ofm
Minister General and servant
Rome, 15 July 2016
The Feast of St. Bonaventure,
Doctor of the Church
Writings of Francis from Sigismund Verheij, OFM, Into the Land of the Living, St Paul’s, Utrecht, India, 2009.
Writings of Clare from Sr Frances Teresa OSC: Saint Clare of Assisi, Vol 1, The Original Writings, Tau Publishing, Phoenix, 2012
1 Letter from Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 3 June 2016 announcing the change in status of her celebration and the reason for it.
2 Letter of Archbishop Roche.
3 cf UNHCR figures at unhcr.org
4 Laudato Si 217 quoting Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry (24 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 710.
5 Letter from Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 3 June 2016 announcing the change in status of her celebration and the reason for it.
Cover Art: Enemies flee from Clare when she confronts them with an ivory pyx containing the body of Christ. Painting on wood panel by Sister Chiara Francesca (Monastery of St. Clare, Cortona, Italy), 2013.