Two extraordinary people who still influence us today Saint Francis and Saint Clare

About Saint Francis

Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica. He was baptized Giovanni (John) but soon gained the nickname Francesco, because of his father’s close trading links with France.

Francis’ early years were not especially religious. He was a leader among the young men of Assisi, enjoying a good social life, singing and partying. He didn’t want to follow his father into the cloth trade; he wanted to be a knight. So at the age of twenty he joined the forces of Assisi in a minor skirmish with the neighbouring city of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in a Perugian jail, until his father ransomed him. This became the first of a series of experiences through which God called Francis to the life which he finally embraced.

One of these experiences, at San Damiano, led to a rift with his father. Francis, in response to a voice from the crucifx in this tiny ruined church, began to rebuild churches; when he ran out of money he took cloth from his father’s shop and sold it. His father disowned him before the bishop of Assisi, and Francis in his turn stripped off his clothes, returning to his father everything he had received from him, and promising that in future he would call only God his Father.

Francis spent most of his life on the move, though he interspersed his preaching with periods of withdrawal for prayer. It was during one of these times of retreat that he received the Stigmata – the marks of the crucified Christ in his own body. For the final two years of his life he suffered constant pain. He died in 1226, and as he died blessed his beloved city of Assisi. He was buried in what became the great Basilica of St Francis, and declared a saint by the church in 1228.

About Saint Clare

Clare was born in 1193 or 1194, the daughter of a nobleman in Assisi. When Francis began to preach in the squares of Assisi in 1210 she was 16 years old, 11 years younger than him. She had always been a serious child, and used to share her food with the poor and needy people of the town. She had already refused several offers of marriage. Now she was captivated by Francis’ preaching of a simple gospel life, and especially his emphasis on poverty. She had several secret meetings with him, accompanied only by a friend, Bona, and made up her mind to join him.

On Palm Sunday 1212 she left her parents’ house secretly. She had already sold her dowry and given the money to the poor. At the little church of St Mary of the Angels, just below Assisi she met Francis and a few of his brothers. She changed her dress for a simple habit, and took off her jewellery. Francis cut her hair, and she made a vow of obedience to him. At first she lived with a Benedictine community of nuns, doing simple menial tasks. Her family were appalled at her choice and sent armed men to bring her back. But they were unsuccessful. When Clare’s younger sister, Catherine, followed her only a fortnight later, the family made even more violent attempts to force her to return home. They were in fact carrying her off physically, but Clare prayed, and Catherine became so heavy that they could not lift her. Defeated, they returned home.

Francis received Catherine too as a sister, and gave her the name Agnes. Then Clare and Agnes moved to San Damiano, the church where Francis had heard the crucifix speak to him. Here the first community of Poor Clares came into being. It grew rapidly, and in 1215, very much against her will, Clare was made Abbess. She held this position until her death in 1253. Two years after she was declared a saint by the church.