Madonna Ortolana and Sora Pacifica of Assisi pilgrims in Outremer

The memory of the 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land invites us to place our gaze and attention on the first years of the origins of the Franciscan charism when, after the Chapter of Pentecost of 1217, the small fraternity of the “penitents of Assisi” widened its horizons and felt the need to leave and preach the Gospel in the whole world as it was known at the time. Led by brother Elias of Cortona the first brothers departed also to reach the new Province of Outremer or Syria.

In those times, the journeys “beyond the sea” were reserved for the Crusades or for pilgrims: the first went armed in order to liberate the Holy Places, whereas the second travelled unarmed in order to visit the same Holy Places. Such journeys were not only costly, but very risky. Only a solid faith could motivate one to leave and sustain the risks and hardships of such an adventure.

Only a few know that, before brother Elias and the young Saint Francis himself, from the small town of Assisi in Umbria two “future Poor Clares” went as pilgrims beyond the sea: they were Madonna Ortolana, mother of Saint Clare, and Sora Pacifica di Guelfuccio, both of whom later on entered the newly born community of Poor Ladies.

It is precisely Sora Pacifica who personally narrates this episode, while giving witness during the process of canonisation of Saint Clare in November 1253: “She also said Lady Clare was born of noble stock, of noble father and mother. Her father was a knight, Messer Favarone, whom she had never seen. But she saw her mother, Ortolana. This lady, Ortolana, went beyond the sea for reasons of prayer and devotion. She likewise testified she accompanied her beyond the sea for reasons of prayer and devotion. They also went together to Sant’Angelo and to Rome” (First Witness Process of Canonisation, 4: Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, 137).

Ortolana and Pacifica were therefore accompanied during the pilgrimages, which during the Middle Ages were sought by the faithful in order to reach the Places where they could gain Indulgences. In that period, the only such places were the Tombs of the Apostles in Rome, Saint Michael the Archangel on Monte Gargano or else, but as a great exception, the Sepulchre of Christ. These ladies were not the only ones to depart from the small Piazza of Assisi: the Sources tell us that Bona di Guelfuccio, sister of Pacifica and faithful companion of Clare in her secret meetings with Francis (cf. 17th Witness Proc. Can.: CAED 182), had gone as a pilgrim to Rome “for Lent” when Clare left her paternal house on the night of Palm Sunday.

Regarding Madonna Ortolana, Pope Alexander IV says the following words in the Bulla of Canonisation of Saint Clare, Virgin: “Her mother, named Ortolana, [was] intent upon pious deeds, followed her daughter’s footprints and afterwards accepted this religious way of life. In this excellent garden which had produced such a plant for the Lord, she happily ended her days” (Bull Can., 10: CAED 241).

We have no information regarding the period of the pilgrimage of Madonna Ortolana and Sora Pacifica. With the means of transport available in those times, it certainly lasted many months. It was certainly undertaken before 1211 (or 1212), the year in which Pacifica entered the monastery sometime after Clare and where she became her second companion after Clare’s sister, Saint Agnes “and had served her for the most part almost day and night” during the 42 years of Clare’s illness in the monastery of San Damiano (First Witness Proc. Can., 3: CAED 137). A significant hint regarding the possible date of this pilgrimage is the truce established by al-Malik al-Adil (brother and successor of Saladin): “In September 1204, this truce lasted for six years and offered wide advantages to the Latins both regarding territorial gains, as well as regarding pilgrimages, particularly with the opening of devotional journeys to Jerusalem and to Nazareth” (cf. Sergio Ferdinandi, La Terra Santa e l’arrivo dei Frati Minori, in La Terra Santa, n.4/2017, special number dedicated to the jubilee of 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land).

Did Saint Clare receive any information regarding this pilgrimage? There are no direct testimonies, but we can understand intuitively that Clare’s love for the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption was not only nurtured by the ardent words of Francis. In fact, Madonna Ortolana, who formed her daughters from their infancy in faith and piety (cf. Legend of St. Clare, 1-3: CAED 252-254) must also have shared with them and transmitted to them such a grace and joy. In the official Legend of Saint Clare, it is written: [Madonna Ortolana] devoutly travelled with pilgrims beyond the sea and, after surveying those places which the God-Man had consecrated with His sacred footprints, she afterwards returned home filled with joy” (LegCl 1: CAED 253).

“To follow the footsteps of the Son of God” was for Francis and Clare their form of life (Rule of St. Clare VI: CAED 71-72); it implied seeing and touching the poverty of the Son of God and of his Most Blessed Mother. This love drove Francis to see Jesus alive in Greccio and to experience such a love upon his flesh in an indelible way on La Verna.

An episode which is rather unknown in the experience of Saint Clare is that in which she received the grace “to see Bethlehem” on the night of her last Christmas in 1252, when she had been left alone while the sisters of the community were gathered to pray the Divine Office in church. This fact is recorded by the Franciscan Sources, which state that Clare received the consolation “to hear the organ, responsories and the entire Office of the brothers in the Church of Saint Francis” (Third Witness Proc. Can.: CAED 152). This episode was the reason why, in 1958, Clare merited to be proclaimed by Pope Pius XII as patroness of television. However, the greatest consolation of Clare – as Sora Amata testified – was that, on the night of the Nativity, Clare “also saw the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Sora Amata heard this episode “from Lady Clare” (Fourth Witness Proc. Can.: CAED 156).

Saint Clare did not personally visit the Holy Places like her mother Ortolana or her faithful companion Pacifica, but her faith made her capable to seeing not the stones of 1200 or of today, but “the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and to experience for some moments the Holy Night of Bethlehem in which “the most holy and beloved Child was wrapped in such poor little swaddling clothes and laid in a manger by His most holy Mother” (Rule of St. Clare II,25: CAED 67).

In these 800 years the daughters of Saint Clare in the Holy Land have also woven their little history, which was watered from the very beginning by the martyrdom of 74 Sisters of the Monastery of Saint Clare in Sainte Jean d’Acre in 1291. After six centuries – in 1884 – the charism of St. Clare returned to live in the Holy Land through the communities of the Monasteries of Nazareth and Jerusalem, which to this very day cherish their love for this same mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, in communion with the brothers of the Custody of the Holy Land.

Suor Mariachiara Bosco
Monastère Ste Claire – Jerusalem