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• Life of Penance • Works of Penance
• •

The Perpetual Fast Today The Sacrament of Penance

• The Sacrament of the Eucharist


CHAPTER III, 8-15 8 The sisters shall fast at all times. 9They may eat twice on Christmas, however, no matter on what day it happens to fall. 10 The younger sister, those who are weak, and those who are serving outside the monastery may be mercifully dispensed as the abbess sees fit. 11But the sisters are not bound to corporal fasting in time of manifest necessity. 12 They shall go to confession, with the permission of the abbess, at least twelve times a year. 13 They shall take care not to introduce other talk unless it pertains to the confession and the salvation of souls. 14 They should receive communion seven times [a year], that is, on Christmas, Thursday of the Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the Feast of Saint Francis, and the Feast of All Saints. 15 The chaplain may celebrate inside [the enclosure] in order to give Communion to the sisters who are in good health or to those who are ill.

Life of Penance
“To do penance” is the expression employed by St. Francis and St. Clare to denote the sort of life according to the Gospel embraced as a result of their “conversion”. And it is precisely that state of permanent conversion where “what is sweet becomes bitter and what is bitter becomes sweet” that constitutes the essence of a “life of penance”. This is otherwise known to be the biblical meaning of penance. Bodily beatings makes no sense to a Christian unless they be an answer to that demand of ongoing turning back to God, adherence to Christ, faithfulness to the Spirit, 75

crucifying little by little our sinful tendencies so as to reach freedom in the life of the “new man” created in holiness of truth (Eph 4, 24) and thus fulfilling in our body all the hardship that still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (Col 1, 24). Clare lived fully up to the end of her life, in imitation of Francis, that spirit of conversion that is a requirement of purification. In the Testament she encourages her sisters to not faint away along the “narrow path that leads to life”, lest we stray away from it “through our fault, negligence, or ignorance.

Works of Penance
The evangelical spirit of penance, that is certainly real, demands the practice of penance and is expressed in the works of penance. Whoever feels called to seriously follow the Crucified Redeemer by cooperating with Him in the work of personal salvation and that of all men, experiences then the urgency to getting united to Him at renunciation and even at afflicted pain, willingly looked/sought for, i.e. mortification. At the beginning of her surrender to the Lord with youthful generosity Clare opened herself to that longing for bodily sacrifice which surpassed sometimes the limits of prudence. She abstained from all food three times a week, and most of the days and on Lent she fasted on bread and water. She wore on her skin a very rough cilice and slept on a couch of vine twigs with a log for a pillow. “The sisters wondered how her body could hold itself up.”1 And that is the way she continued till her body undermined in the prime of her life. Francis ordered her to restrain her fast and to sleep on a straw mattress.2 76

Hard on herself, she was on the contrary gentle and thoughtful with the sisters regarding bodily penance3 not imposing on others what was her own personal vocation nor subjecting outer maceration to a uniform regulation. She allowed ample margin to the initiative and capabilities of each one. In fact, the practice of fasting and abstinence was extremely rigorous at San Damiano and Francis was forced to temper them. The most authentic testimony is the answer given by St. Clare to the consultation of St. Agnes of Prague: “Except for the weak and the sick, for whom St. Francis advised and admonished us to show every possible discernment in matters of food, none of us who are healthy and strong should eat anything other than Lenten fare, either on ferial days or on feast days. Thus, we must fast everyday except Sundays and the Nativity of the Lord…. And on ordinary Thursdays everyone may do as she wishes, so that she who does not wish to fast is not obliged. However, we who are well should fast everyday except on Sundays and Christmas. During the entire Easter week 4 as the writing of Francis tells us, and on the feasts of the blessed Virgin Mary and of the holy Apostles, we are not obliged to fast, unless these feasts occur on a Friday.” (3LAg, 3136). Such was the norm at San Damiano circa 1238, when Clare was writing this letter. Immediately afterwards though, a tone that best shows us the mildness of her dealing with others, she tells Agnes: “But our flesh is not bronze nor is our strength that of stone. No, we are frail and inclined to every bodily weakness! I beg you, therefore, dearly beloved, to refrain wisely and prudently from an 77

indiscreet and impossible austerity in the fasting you have undertaken. And I beg you in the Lord to praise the Lord by your very life, to offer the Lord your reasonable service and your sacrifice always seasoned with salt. (3LAg, 38-41). We ought to read the “letter” of this precept of the Rule in the light of this recommendation. No mention at all is made about penance as such. Perpetual fasting is kept but with the charitable flexibility the Saint understood it. It is left up to the abbess’ prudence exempting from the common law three kinds of sisters: the “young ones” for being at the age of growth; the “weak ones” needing better food or on account of sickness or of work to be done; the “extern sisters” by reason of greater fatigue.5

Perpetual Fasting Today
The “letter” of the Rule admits no ambiguity: “Let the sisters fast at all times.”6 St. Clare borrows from St. Francis’ Rule this statement: “But the sisters are not bound to corporal fasting in time of manifest necessity.” We are to see this statement not only as a criterion of natural right but also one of an amplitude on the lookout for future situations that might arise. When trying to apply this important point of the Rule to our times according to the right criterion of adaptation, an unavoidable question presents itself: is it still enforced, in its literal sense? Regarding abstinence, the answer is not difficult. Abstinence is no longer attached to fasting at today’s Church legislation and since the Rule makes no mention of it, there is no room therefore for a sound adaptation of that practice to times and places. 78

The motu proprio “Ecclesiae Sanctae” (n.22) says that the special penitential practices of institutes should be revised “so that the members may in practice be able to observe them, adapting new forms also drawn from modern conditions of life.” In effect, trying stubbornly to maintain in the legislation the rigorous practice of fasting, knowing beforehand that the majority of the sisters would be unable to keep it, is empty formalism and pharisaic vainglory. The matter of perpetual fasting should be seen in the light of the Constitution Paenitemini of Paul VI and of later Church discipline that have in mind the different trends of modern life, so different from those of the past (kind of nourishment, traveling, forms and schedule of labor) and propose for today other ways of penance not less efficacious and more consonant with the longings of modern society. (In the Middle Ages, there were hardly any other pleasures but that at table.) We should furthermore think over the physical frame of the body, poorer nowadays, and above all the more rationalized and sustained labor at the monasteries. In addition to that, St. Clare’s daughters are now spread throughout the continents and have to adjust and adapt their life to new climates, customs and to different forms of nourishment. It is not yet so easy giving an answer to the question: What attitude would have Clare adapted today? Let us see how this point of the Rule became actualized in the revised Constitutions. It begins by affirming the concept and the need of the “spirit of penance” in a Gospel sense, i.e. as an attitude of conversion and ongoing renewal without which the works of penance would be meaningless. The first means of penance of the religious is “the very Gospel life we embraced” with its manifold self-denials attached to it”: separation from the world, the wants of poverty, the 79

humiliation of our frailty, the hardship inherent in work faithfully done, fraternal communion, and the patient bearing of the trials of earthly life. And all of this in union with the sufferings of Christ “for the sake of his body, the Church.” (Col 1, 24). A distinction is to be made between the “penitential times” of the entire Church and those of the Franciscan tradition: the so called St. Martin’s Lent, Advent, the main Lent, and all the Fridays of the year. As regards “fasting”, the Constitutions quotes the Rule’s prescription: “Let the sisters fast at all times” except on Sundays and solemnities. The General Constitutions adds: “If it could not be kept somehow for a just reason, it belongs to the monastery Chapter to determine the days and mode of fasting”. And that of the Capuchins’: “Let the monastery Chapter determine the manner of fasting according to the custom of each region.” As regards “abstinence”, the first one decrees: “In addition to the prescription of the universal or local Church, let the Order’s tradition be kept.” And for the Capuchins’: “It is up to the monastery Chapter to determine the days of abstinence from meat or from other food, in addition to those prescribed in the universal Church.” (Can. 1251). It is left to the monastery Chapter to appoint the other exercises of bodily penance and mortification that are to be practiced in common according to existing customs. (Gen CC, art. 83-87; Cap CC, 88-93).

The Sacrament of Penance
Penitential life has its sacrament that obtains for us God’s mercy, reconciles us with the Church, purifies us from evil and strengthens us in goodness. Within the 80

practice at that time, The Rule bids the sisters to confess “at least twice a year”. We know however, that the Saint was not pleased with that minimum but that she went often to confession, forming the young sisters too in the esteem of frequent and sincere confession. The Rule adds a serious summon to the responsibility of each sister: “they should take care not to introduce other talk unless it pertains to confession and salvation of souls”. It would seem that there were by then sisters who found in the secret dialogue with the confessor a sort of compensation for the want of communication taken on while binding themselves to cloistered life. The warning has not lost force at present, since one may fall even today into the weakness of taking the opportunity of confession as an escape valve either to be in touch with the outside world or to fill up the confessor’s ears with the internal miseries of the community. There are two objectives that the Rule grants as good: accusation of ones sins and spiritual direction. In fact, “to treat the wellness of her soul” with a director is the right of every sister acknowledged by the Rule. Anything else is foreign to the confessor’s mission. For a long time, a rigid discipline has been vigorously enforced in order to prevent possible abuses; canon norms speaks about ordinary, extraordinary, and occasional confessors. In the occasion of the Council everything has been simplified in favor of a greater trust in the uprightness and responsibility of both the sisters and the confessors. Even the rigidity of the norm of weekly confession has lost ground as it could have easily deduced into a routinely practice of little penitential effectiveness. The current Constitutions emphasize the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation not only as a means to obtain God’s forgiveness but also of purification and, individual as well as community renewal. A minimum frequency of twice a month is suggested, though making it 81

easy to those who would want to benefit from the grace of this sacrament more often. Each monastery will have an ordinary confessor but the sisters will not be obliged to present themselves to him according to the reigning principle that everyone’s freedom should be fully honored regarding confession and spiritual direction. For the appointment and confirmation of the ordinary confessor, the whole community will be consulted, novices and postulants included. The sisters may confess to any confessor duly approved, setting aside the discipline of cloistered life. The ordinary confessor as much as possible should belong to the Franciscan family. (Gen CC, art. 6870; Cap CC, 87).

The Sacrament of the Eucharist
The Rule does not speak about the Eucharistic celebration. It was an element of the daily liturgical life that did not need any rules. Neither did Francis mention it in his Rule. Nevertheless, we know how much he wished to see the brothers gathered together everyday for the only mass of the fraternity at every place they were.7 We also know with what veneration and love St. Clare used to take part at the celebration and how intensely she held the Eucharistic life. The depositions at the canonization Process speak about the skill with which, during her illness, she used to prepare the corporals that she had distributed among the poor churches of the region, and described her emotions and her physical appearance, at approaching the sacred table.8 Holy Communion was administered through a little window (1Cel 117) under both species, according to the usage that exist then, since Urban IV’s rule disposed: “At 82

the middle of the grille, let there be a little window through which the chalice may be introduced at the moment of communion so that by his hand the priest could administer the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body.” We are accustomed to see the Saint represented as clasping in her hands the ciborium with the Sacrament 9 in memory of the miracle worked at the Saracen’s assault. It is really more than fancy. It expresses the place that Christ’s Eucharistic presence is held in her spirituality. The Rule’s prescription about receiving communion “seven times a year” may seem nowadays inconceivable to us. At that time, it was a lot, since the frequency of the Eucharistic food had been reduced to a minimum. The Lateran II Council, held in 1215, had to confine itself to bind the faithful to confess and receive communion at least once a year in view of the progressive withdrawal from the Eucharistic table. Fervent Christians received communion thrice a year. But those seven communion feasts were dates looked forward to with spiritual eagerness at San Damiano. The chaplain entered the cloister and the mass was celebrated with the intimacy of a family “for the sound and the sick”. The Rule so disposes. The frequency of Eucharistic communion has altered a lot from the time of St. Clare. It has been going on progressively recovering the ecclesial conscience of the primary objective of the institution of the Sacrament through which Christ gives himself as living nourishment to the faithful. By the time of St. Bonaventure it was already normal that the novices would receive communion every Sunday. In the fourteenth century, the Constitutions of the Franciscans established that the brothers who are not priests would do it every fifteen days, a norm that was followed too at the Poor Clares monasteries. In the fifteenth century, the Constitutions of St. Colette prescribed that the sisters would go to confession every fifteen days “so as to enjoy a greater purity of soul and body, and their 83

fervor and love to the Most Holy Body of the Lord may grow”. They were to receive communion every Sunday besides the seven solemnities pointed out by the Rule.10 In the sixteenth century, it became frequent practice to receive communion during the week, and even daily with the confessor’s license. From the pontificate of St. Pius X, as it is well known, daily communion has become normal. Vatican II teaches that partaking at Holy Mass is not full without Eucharistic communion, and thereby recommends that the faithful attending the holy sacrifice receive too the Lord’s Body. (SC, 55) No wonder then that the Constitutions take for granted the daily mass attendance and communion therein. They are rather concerned about the spirit the sisters partake with at the Eucharistic celebration and the role that the mystery of faith and love should play on the daily life of each sister and on the community through a sedulous Eucharistic cult., in a particular way at those monasteries that, either by founding or by grant, enjoy the practice of the Eucharistic adoration. (Gen CC, art. 60-63; Cap CC 66-700. In addition to the numerous monasteries that maintain the commitment of “perpetual adoration”, there are at present several groups of Poor Clare communities with that specific mission: “Sacramentine Poor Clares” (10 monasteries in Ireland, Italy, Mexico and Portugal); “Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration” (26 monasteries in Europe, Asia and USA); “Capuchin Poor Clares Sacramentarias” (14 monasteries in Mexico, Philippines and Europe).11


Footnotes to Chapter 5: 1. Proc., I,7; II, 5-8; III, 4ff; IV, 5ff; VII, 4; VIII, 3; X, 4,7;
XIII,4. What the Saint really did was to take seriously the rigor of Hugolinus’ Rule regarding fasting: “The sisters are held to the following observance of fasting: they should fast daily at all times, abstaining likewise on Wednesday and Fridays, outside of Lent, from fruit or vegetables and wine, unless a principal feast of some saint occurs and should be celebrated on those days. If fruit or fresh vegetables are available on these Wednesdays and Fridays, they should be served to sustain the sisters. But they should fast on bread and water for four days a week during the greater Lent, and for three days a week during the lent of St. Martin. They may also do this of their own free will on all solemn vigils.” (Rule of Hugolinus, 7) Proc., I,8; II,8; IV,5; X,7. Proc., II,6; IV,5. That is the translation from the Latin expression, “in omni Pascha” F. Godet at “Claire d’ Assise: Escrits”, Paris 1985, p. 109. Omaechevarria translates “at all Paschs”, based on the “Glossariuim” of Du Cange; according to him, the term “Pasch” was used in Italy for all major festivities. The evangelical flexibility already existed at Hugolinus Rule: “The very young sisters or the old and those who are altogether debilitated physically or mentally should not be permitted to observe the law of fast and abstinence. They should be mercifully dispensed in regard to food and fasting according to their weakness.” Hugolinus’ Rule, 7) For a right interpretation of this norm, a little detail may serve. From the previous text of Hugolinus’ Rule “They should fast daily at all times”, she drops the adverb “daily”.
Lt Ord., 30-33

2. 3.





Proc., I,11; II,11ff; III,7; IV,14; IX,9) “ostentation” that was not being practiced at that time. Besides, it did not answer to the historical event as the sisters described it at the Process. The Saracens had already entered the cloister, and the frightened community had sought shelter at the dining room; Clare requested the little case containing

9. It is anachronistic to set at the hand of the Saint the


10. 11.

the Blessed Sacrament be brought and prayed with full confidence. At this point she heard an inner voice reassuring her of divine assistance, and so she encouraged the sisters. They realized then that the hideous guests were gone. (Proc, II,20; III,18; IV, 14; VII,6; IX,2; X,9; XII,8; XIII,9; XIV,3.) “Constitutions of St. Colette”, chap. 5,1; ed. “Seraphicae legislationis textus originales”, Quaracchi 1897, 122 ff. Cf. “Elenco dei Monasteri. Monache Francescane di vita contemplative”, Assisi, 1984; “Monasteria Monialium Ordinis FF.MM. Capuccinorum spiritualiter consociatarum”, Roma, 1990.



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