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THE SISTERS THAT THE LORD GIVES US

God’s Initiative in the Calling

• God Gave Me Sisters • Vocation and Proselytism

Requirements of Suitability a) Orthodox Faith and Christian Life b) Freedom from Marriage Commitment c) Contraindications

• Following Christ in Poverty

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Chapter II, 1-11 If, by divine inspiration, someone comes to us desiring to accept this life, the Abbess is bound to seek the consent of all the sisters; 2 and if the majority has agreed, she may receive her, after having obtained the permission of the Lord Cardinal Protector. 3If she sees that the candidate is acceptable, let the Abbess diligently examine her or have her examined concerning the Catholic faith and the Sacraments of the Church. 4And if she believes all these things and is willing to profess them faithfully, and to observe them steadfastly to the end; 5and if she has no husband, or if she has a husband who has already entered religious life with the authority of the Bishop of the diocese and has already made a vow of continence; 6 and if there is no impediment to her observance of this life, such as advanced age or ill-health or mental weakness, 7 let the tenor of our life be thoroughly explained to her. 8 If she is suitable, let the words of the Holy Gospel (cf Mt. 19, 21) be addressed to her that she should go and sell all that she has and take care to distribute the proceeds to the poor. 9If she cannot do this, her good will shall suffice. 10Let the Abbess and sisters take care not to be concerned about her temporal affairs, so that she may freely dispose of her possessions as the Lord may inspire her. 11However, if some council is required, let them send her to some discerning and God-fearing men, according to whose advice her goods may be distributed to the poor
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God’s Initiative in the Calling
In its theological sense, vocation is a choice and a call on God’s side and a free response on man. Christ, through the Church constantly calls to His following those the Father has associated as co-workers of His task of salvation. God always takes the initiative by loving and choosing. Each vocation to the Kingdom is, then, of “divine inspiration”. This idea of vocation that Clare has in mind in her Rule is what St. Francis had already formulated in his first Rule as an answer to the experience he had at the origin of his Gospel life, when he started to do penance (Testament). Clare, at the beginning of her Testament, admits likewise to have received her vocation as a great benefit, bestowed on her through St. Francis, and exhorts the sisters to esteem it as it is due: “Among the other gifts that we have received and do daily receive from our benefactor, the Father of Mercies, (2Cor 1:3) and for which we must express the deepest thanks to the glorious Father of Christ, there is our vocation. ….We must consider the immense gifts that God has bestowed on us, specially those that he has seen fit to work in us through his beloved servant, our blessed Father Francis.” Every call to an evangelical life of poverty and humility needs an attitude of conversion. Both Francis and Clare speak of their own calling as a process of coming back to God and as the beginning of a “life of penance”. “After the Most High heavenly Father saw fit in his mercy and grace to enlighten my heart that I should do penance according to the example and teaching of our most Blessed Father Francis, a 32

short while after his conversion, I, together with a few sisters whom the Lord had given me after my conversion, willingly promised him obedience, as the Lord gave us the light of his grace through his wonderful life and teaching” (Testament 24- 26). According to this true theology of vocation, the initiative comes totally from God, “The Father of mercies” and giver of all goodness. When communicating to his beloved his design of loving preference, God illumines “the heart”, a very biblical concept: “Love the lord and your heart will be illumined.”(Sir 2:10); “May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you.”(Eph 1:18) That is how St. Francis was praying before the St. Damian crucifix at the start of his conversion” “Oh most high and glorious God, illumine the darkness of my heart.” What matters most at the time of conversion is not actually that the mind be illumined, but that we allow God to illumine our heart. Human mediation is normal in divine calling. In the case of Clare, Francis was the instrument God made use of - the example of his life and the effectiveness of his teachings. “Conversion” to the Lord does not mean in the Franciscan vocabulary, to come out of sin, but to give a full turning about of our life, placing God and his interest at the centre, and courageously disregarding all the difficulties and obstacles. Thus did Clare respond when her moment came to take the decisive step on that night between March 18 and 19, 1212. She secretly abandoned her home, pushing aside the reserved door strongly barred with stones and wood, a symbol of the many hardships she would continue to overcome in following the Poor and Crucified Christ, as when she was furiously harassed by her relatives who tried to force to take her back home with them. She 33

stood her ground and stayed unconquerably firm.1 Agnes, her younger sister, would imitate her fortitude a little later.

God Gave Me Sisters
This coincidence of Clare with some deep nuances of Francis is noteworthy as it happens so often: “…with the sisters God has given me”. Francis said so exactly: “after the Lord gave me brothers…”. (Test.) This seems o have been a usual expression of the Seraphic Foundress, as it shows at the depositions of sisters during the canonization process: At St. Damian, the Lord “gave her” more sisters to guide.2 The charism of the foundress flows down into their followers not only as a spiritual inheritance, but as an impulse that the Holy Spirit infuses into everyone called to the same ideal. When a young one, moved by a true vocation knocks at the door of a monastery, the sisters are to welcome her as a “gift from God”. Each new vocation is a proof that St. Clare’s daughters continue being actual in the Church, and ought to be received as an invitation of the spirit to the sister’s own renewal. The community should not only think of what they may offer to the new sister, but of what she will offer to the group. She is like a new life – hot in the arm that guarantees the harmony with the people of every time, the link between the life and the Gospel that may never be missing in the Franciscan family, Every new postulant should awaken in the receiving community a renewing restlessness, a certain uneasiness causing them to revive the authenticity of its form of life and the image it holds out to the fresh arrival. To disappoint her would tantamount to hurting her, but it would be most of all, to jeopardize and waste God’s design, 34

who counted on her. The Rule wants to sensitize that responsibility weighing on the whole community by requiring that “all the sisters” be counted on when admitting the postulant to the year of trial.

Vocation and Proselytism
It is God who chooses and calls, but He uses human signs and instruments to convey to each chosen one His own design. Vocational propaganda – after the teaching of Vatican II (PC,24) – is perfectly valid. Nothing can be better than trying to share with others the wellness we ourselves have found in the consecrated life. The Council adds: “Religious should remember that the example of their own lives is the best recommendation of their institutes and is an invitation for others to take on the religious life.” What will cause young modern candidates to discover the divine call will be the radiation itself of the wealth of spiritual experience at prayer, selfrenunciation and fraternal union which shines forth from the silence of the monastic life. Both Francis and Clare resorted to a noble and efficient proselytism. Were the Seraphic Fathers to meet anyone who they thought apt to the evangelical life, they soon devised a plan to work on to win him over, thus cooperating with the divine plan. Clare herself was the conquest of this active zeal. Along with clandestine meetings with her, together with Brother Philip, he was progressively hemming her in “by exhorting her to give up herself totally to Jesus Christ”.3 until he finally succeeded in hurling her bravely towards the following of Christ by the way of poverty and contempt of the world. The cloistered San Damiano community soon got to exercise a great power of attraction. Clare was an expert at the art of discovering and winning over new vocations. A 35

great majority of the sisters composing her community had forsaken the world persuaded by her through fervent parlor conversations. Sr. Fellipa disclosed to have entered because the Saint “made her meditate on how our Lord Jesus Christ had suffered His Passion and death on the cross for the salvation of mankind”. Sr. Amatta, a full niece of Clare, stated to have done so “by the advice and exhortation of the Saint”. Clare used to tell her how she had asked God’s grace for her so that she would not allow her to be deceived by the world ….and so did Sr. Cecilia and the others. (Proc. IV,1). The Poor Ladies benefited too from the kindly propaganda the Brothers of the First Order made for them., Francis at the head of them. The Saint sent to Clare five candidates at one time and, out of them, she soon found one not apt for that kind of life. (Proc. VI, 15). In Europe, a great part of the contemplative communities find themselves affected by a general vocation crisis. And they regret it much! What might be the cause? We are not to deem that “divine inspiration” has ceased inviting to follow Christ in total self-giving. To say that today’s youth does not offer to take hold of God’s call is just a comfortable excuse. The same was being said at the time of St. Francis about the youth in Italian municipalities. The bare truth is that our youth nowadays possess nowadays a high degree of authenticity, and demand verifying whatever they are offered. They wish to see the ideal embodied in a clear and sincere experience and know how to discern where spiritual depth exists, where fraternal love is lived, where the Gospel is the form of life, as they capture too, on the contrary, where a senseless, empty conventionalism is prevalent.

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Requirements of Suitability
An essential condition to discern whether one is called by God is the aptitude for the life intended to embrace. The first sign required by the Rule is orthodoxy of faith and willingness to live up in conformity with that faith. The second is freedom from marriage commitments, i.e. availability to give oneself to God and his interests with an undivided heart, as St. Paul defines voluntary virginity (Cor 7:32-35). The third is the absence of contraindications to the observance of the Rule and fraternal communion, i.e. advanced age, illness or mental abnormality. a) Orthodox Faith and Christian Life By the time of Francis and Clare, there were a lot of religious movements and tainted by heresy. A great deal of vigilance was needed to avoid some of these elements becoming part of the Order, who might later perturb the uprightness of faith in the community or make it suspicious to outsiders. This requirement of the purity of the Catholic faith on the part of those asking to embrace consecrated life is still valid at present. Faith free from error is not enough though. The Rule exacts that the candidate be willing to faithfully confess the contents of her faith by word and deed, i.e. she must give proof that the professed faith really guides and informs her life. She alone who has taken seriously her Christian commitment and the promises at baptism is on a good shape to step along the same life of fidelity to the Gospel by fully consecrating her life to Christ. Religious vocation presupposes the full awareness of the “Christian calling”. Francis liked to remind his brothers about their condition as “Christians”.4 A very significant detail indeed

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- when he talked about Clare, he did not refer to her by her name, but simply called her “the Christian”.5 b) Freedom from Marriage Commitment This condition was also a requisite of Canon Law at that time. Vocation to the state of virginity “for the kingdom of heaven” consists normally on renunciation to marry, but Christian tradition recognizes too the profession of chastity on the common widows (1Cor7:8). The Rule does not set the condition of being “single” but of “having no husband”. St. Clare applied this norm to her own mother Ortolana, who, on entering St. Damian, became the spiritual daughter of her own natural daughter. The case is also foreseen of a married woman whose husband has professed continence. Were she to feel the call, she would be free to consecrate herself in religious life.6 Today’s Canon Law declares invalid the admission of a consort while marriage is still lasting. (Can. 643) c) Contraindications on the Rule and Fraternal Communion The first of them is “advanced age”. The Rule does not set an age limit but simply gives the criterion. It is well know that there comes a time when the capability of adaptation gets lost in front of a new human environment, no matter how good the will may be. The best age for an active adaptation in a woman is from age eighteen up to twenty five. Up to forties, there is a greater or lesser disposition to get involved in a new setting. After that age, the only exemption to be made ought to be on well educated candidates or on those used to lavish themselves out of love for the sake of others. Besides that, lack of flexibility by reason of age and chronic illness may also bring some difficulties to fraternal communion and the commitment to religious life, much more so with mental deficiency. Clare calls it “fatuidad” 38

(foolishness) including under this concept, affective and psychological immaturity. These contraindications are not found in St. Francis Rule. St. Clare has added them up having no doubt in mind that, at a cloistered life, a special degree of mental equilibrium is required, and also to avoid that the convent get to become a refuge of beings in a state of human frustration.7

Following Christ in Poverty
“If she is suitable, let the words of the Holy Gospel be addressed to her, that she should go and sell all that she has and take care to distribute the money to the poor.” Francis and Clare took as a pattern the very disposition required by Jesus in the Gospel to whoever wished to follow him in total commitment among his immediate co-workers’ group: absolute detachment from everything worldly, and without a secure means of life for the kingdom’s sake. Jesus did not like the group close to him to benefit from the personal renunciation of others. Even as a group, they were to live the risk of voluntary poverty under the provident love of the heavenly Father, entrusting themselves fully to men’s good will. Both Francis and Clare followed this pattern with their first followers. The depositions at the process of canonization are in agreement, stating that Clare, on embracing her new life, “caused her property to be sold and its proceeds distributed among the poor”. One of the sisters who witnessed at the process added that “Clare’s parents tried avoiding the dispersal of the patrimony by offering a bigger price than any other bidder, but she refused to sell it to them so that the poor would not be defrauded.”8 The Rule foresees that not all the candidates will be able to fulfill the latter part for multiple reasons. That is 39

why it only says “let her take care to distribute it among the poor”, in any case, were she not able to integrally follow the Gospel advice, “let her good will suffice”. In order to run courageously the adventure of a life in poverty, without possessions or fixed income, St. Clare begins by not allowing the community to receive anything at all as a consequence of the new sister’s detachment.. Abbess and sisters must give example of disappropriation by not interfering in the fate she will decide, giving to whatever she leaves behind, “so that she may freely dispose of her possessions as the Lord may inspire her”. At most, she might be referred to persons who could advice her on the distribution to the poor. This external renunciation however, is nothing else but a way to reach the inner one, which alone renders us free to love. “St. Francis instructed those coming to the Order that they should first of all outwardly renounce the world by offering to God, in the poor, their possessions, and afterwards interiorly, their own persons. He would not admit into the Order those who did not give up everything, without keeping anything for themselves, thus fulfilling the Holy Gospel, and so that the attachment to wealth would not prove later on an obstacle to them.”9 It is indeed such a disposition of spirit that should be above all stressed to the postulant, when “explaining to her thoroughly the tenor of our way of life”, as the Rule wishes. The previous Rules of Hugolinus and Innocent IV had stated, after the old monastic pedagogy: “The hard and austere realities through which one is led to God and which must necessarily be observed, must be explained to all who wish to enter this religion before they actually enter.” Through her humane and Franciscan style, St. Clare asks that the tenor of our life “be simply presented to the postulant”.

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The Rule of St. Clare does not make mention of the “dowry”. It would have been in frontal opposition to her ideal of evangelical insecurity. As a matter of fact, the candidates’ economic contribution, corresponding to the marriage dowry, was not introduced among the Poor Clares up to the well advanced fourteenth century, contemporarily with the distinction between “choir” and “extern” sisters. It became a universal prescription of Canon Law only at the Sixteenth century, after the Council of Trent. In virtue of the Constitution of Clement XIII (1759), the Apostolic See alone, or the diocesan bishop in particular cases, could dispense the “choir” sisters from the dowry. St. Colette allowed, at the most, a little entirely free contribution by way of alms “as to the rest of the poor”, but never and in no way as a condition for admission. The Capuchinesses reform did away too with the dowry, though by demand of the ecclesiastic authorities, most of the monasteries had to get later used to the general canonical norm. Nowadays, due to the radical changes in the family’s economy, the tradition of the dowry has lost its meaning, specially so as it has become a source of discrimination among the sisters. What really matters is the cultural preparation of the young candidate, which no longer depends on the economic condition of the family; and above all, the purity of her motivation. The dowry has disappeared in the new canon law. The daughters of St. Clare then, have been able to back to this point in their own Rule by establishing it: “It is not permitted to demand or accept any dowry at all from the postulants.” (Gen CC, art. 187,2) “In accordance with the spirit of our Rule, no form of dowry will be accepted from the candidate. But if she would bring any money along with the idea of helping with expenses, it should be carefully noted. So that it may be returned, together with her clothing and other personal 41

property, if she ever decides for any reason to leave religious life.” (Cap CC,16) In fact, Christ demanded from his immediate followers the surrendering of their persons and giving up all their previous possessions. Nothing could be more antievangelical than creating a hierarchy of classes inside the monastery on account of economic or social family status.

Footnotes to Chapter 2: 1. Proc. XIII.1; XVIII.3. Interesting deposition of Lord Rainieri
di Bernardo, one of the witnesses, who might have been a former suitor of Clare as a young girl: to his wooing, “she preached to him of despising the world” (Proc XVIII.2) Deposition of Sr. Beatrice, sister of St. Clare, Proc. XII.5. Proc. XII.2; XVII.3. Rnb, XVI,6; Lt.Min, 7. According to the testimony of Brother Stephen, as quoted by Tomas of Pavia, Hist. Arch. 5, 1912, 419. This canonical norm came from a decree of Innocent III promulgated on 1198. This requirement came from the “Form of Life” by Hugolinus: “One should not be received who proves to be less than sufficiently fit for the observance of this life because of advanced age, sickness, or mental deficiency. I. Omaechevarria, Escritos, p. 220ff. Proc. I,13; II,22 III,31; XII,3; XII,11 XIX,2. 2Cel, n.80.

2. 3. 4.

5. 6. 7.

8. 9.

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