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THE ABBESS AND MOTHER
• The Election • When the chosen one is no longer apt to the service and common welfare of the sisters • How the Mother and Abbess should be like • How St. Clare governed

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CHAPTER IV, 1-14 The sisters are bound to observe the canonical form in the election of the abbess. 2They should quickly arrange to have the general minister or the provincial minister of the Order of Friars Minor present. 3Let him dispose them, through the Word of God, to perfect harmony and the common good in the election that is to be held. 4No one should be elected who is not professed. 5 And if a non-professed is elected or somehow given them, she should not be obeyed until she first professes our form of poverty. 6 At her death the election of another abbess shall take place. 7If at any time it should appear to the entire body of sisters that she is not competent for their service and common welfare, the sisters are bound as quickly as possible to elect another abbess and mother according to the form prescribed above. 8 Whoever is elected should reflect upon the kind of burden she has undertaken and to Whom she must render an account of the flock committed to her(cf. Matthew 12:36). 9She should strive as well to preside over the others more by her virtues and holy behavior than by her office, so that, moved by her example, the sisters may obey her more out of love than out of fear. 10 Let her avoid particular friendships, lest by loving some more than others she cause scandal among all. 11Let her console those who are afflicted. 12Let her also be the last refuge for those who are troubled, lest the sickness of despair overcome the weak should they fail to find in her the remedies for health. 13 Let her preserve common life in everything, especially in whatever pertains to the church, the dormitory, the refectory, infirmary, and clothing. 14Let her vicar be bound to serve in the same way. 88
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The Election
“At the election of the abbess the sisters are bound to keep the canonical form.” Without much ado the Rule soberly refers to the dispositions of the common right on the election of abbesses. The Rule of Innocent IV had declared that the election of the abbess at the monasteries of the San Damiano Order should be carried out freely by the community, without outsiders’ interferences; still the chosen one has to be confirmed by the Minister General, or in his name by the Provincial of the region where the monastery is located. That was the logical consequence of the dependence to the First Order to which the Poor Clares were set under. St. Clare’s Rule makes no mention to such confirmation nor to any interference of juridical character on the part of the Friars Minor. On the other hand, it earnestly insists on the spiritual and fraternal support they are called to lend them in favor of the “union and harmony” so very often threatened at the time of exercising the right of the ballot, when common good may be relegated, and particular interests are made to prevail. The Minister General or Provincial have here an important duty: to help the sisters become imbued, through the Word of God, with the spirit that should enliven them when taking part at the election of the one to be the community’s guide. On the mind of the saintly mother, this(the presence of the General or Provincial Minister) should not only be a ritual exhortation addressed by the chapter’s president but a true prophetic call by a brother who lives up the very same vocation and duly sent to set the sisters in front of the interpolating Word of God till each and all be moved to postpone personal interests and look only after the community’s welfare putting before them the renewal to 89

the embraced Gospel life and spiritual progress. Those communities are very deeply within the Rule’s spirit that usually prepare themselves for an elective Chapter by a special retreat of fraternal reflection getting ready to give way to the Holy Spirit.

When the chosen one is no longer apt to the service and common welfare of the sisters
The Rule forbids electing one who has not professed the life of the poor sisters. In order to understand the meaning of this prohibition we have to go back to St. Clare’s time. It was then of extreme importance. There were at that time monasteries “on commission”, governed from outside, and, above all, cases of daughters of noble families living inside the convents, but without vocation, served as ladies, without making religious profession, the nuns being forced to resign themselves into accepting them as abbesses, with the consequences one can easily guess to regular life and to the interior atmosphere. It is then understandable that the Saint would wish to so forcefully forewarn her sisters against such a pernicious abuse. Were the case ever to happen, they will have to declare themselves rebellious. “And if a non-professed is elected or somehow given them, she should not be obeyed unless she first professes our form of poverty.” Because the treasure she sees in danger is, above all, that of evangelical poverty. According to the Rule, the abbess was to be elected without time limit, just as the General Minister of the Friars Minor. This does not mean that the Office is to be for life by right. The abbess will be substituted at the moment the majority of the sisters gathered in Chapter may judge that 90

she is no longer “competent for their service and common welfare”. Today’s canonical legislation and Constitution set a time limit in office of the person in-charge. It would really be hard finding communities whose members would have reached a sense of responsibility, so mature as to keep in office a Superior as long as she fulfills properly her office, and, on the contrary, would have the courage to remove her from it as soon as they see she does not further any longer the wellness of the community. St. Clare, as St. Francis at the parallel passage in his Rule, would have preferred to trust the righteousness and prudence of the sisters. And she would have possibly been right: were a Superior to know herself and her aptitude exposed everyday to her sisters’ judgment, would she not find therein an incentive to keep herself in a humble attitude of service, aware of her own limitations and therefore more devoted to God through prayer and more continually open to the counsel and cooperation of all.” Today’s Constitution stick to the common canonical norms regarding the elective Chapter. The election of the abbess is done under the presidency of the diocesan bishop or of his delegate, or under the presidency of the regular Superior, as the case may be. She is elected for three years, may be reelected for a second triennium and even for a third one in a row, but on this instance she will need getting two-thirds of the votes. The vicar and the counsellors or discreets are to be elected at the Chapter too. The Offices of mistress of novices, secretary, doorkeeper and accountant are provided for by the choice of the abbess and her counselors after consulting the community; all the rest of the offices are by appointment. The Constitutions insists of course on the righteousness of purpose, awareness of coresponsibility on common good, and the oneness of heart that must prevail at every election. (Gen CC, art. 224-236; Cap CC, 168-170, 172-178). 91

How the Abbess and Mother should be like
At the canonization Process we find a very significant testimony: “Three years after Mother Clare had been in the Order at the urge and request of St. Francis, and almost obliged by him, she accepted the direction and government of the sisters.” (Proc., I, 6) It was at that time that, by imposition of the Holy See, she had to resign herself to be called “abbess” and to its corresponding title “Mother”. How did the San Damiano community govern itself during those first three years? It is suggested by the biographer: Clare had promised obedience to Francis and the magisterium of Francis was the guideline of the Poor Ladies’ life, without any need of setting structures or laws. Clare was just a sister among the sisters, she wished in her humility to be placed under others rather than above them and, among the servants of Christ, to serve more willingly than to be served.” (LCl, 12). On the other hand, faith, nurtured by constant contemplation, “taught them what to do and what to avoid” The title of “abbess”, of monastic coinage was just for external use. Within the cloister, Clare continued to deem herself as “unworthy servant of Christ and of the poor sisters”, and behaving among them as “mother and servant”, as “useless slave”, as “sister and mother of the poor sisters”.1 The picture the Rule offers of that “sister and mother” is a summary of the one Celano puts on Francis’ lips in reference to the General Minister (2Cel 184ff). Let us analyze the qualities of an ideal abbess or mother superior: 1. Pastoral responsibility: “Whoever is elected should reflect upon the kind of burden she has undertaken and to

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whom she must render an account of the flock committed to her.”2 Pastoral care is the first duty of any person on whom the duty of serving the community in the church falls. St. Francis had written in his first Rule: “Let the ministers and servants have in mind what the Lord says: “I have come not to be served but to serve.” (Mt 20, 28), and that the care of the brothers’ souls has been entrusted to them; if any would get lost through their fault, they will have to give an account on the judgment day before our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rnb IV, 6). Pastoral responsibility supposes giving preference, before all else, to the spiritual progress of each one of the sisters and their fidelity to their calling, fostering in them the renewed commitment to faithfulness. The Mother Superior fulfills that duty not only by warning and correcting, but above all by exhorting and teaching, either personally or through priests or other persons who may cause the community to progress on the knowledge of God’s Word, on the love for Christ and his Church, on the ongoing renewal and mutual charity. 2. The Power of Example: “She should strive as well to preside over the others more by her virtues and holy behavior than by her office, so that, moved by her example, the sisters may obey her more out of love than out of fear.”3 There is no exhortation stronger than good example. Few things demoralize a community more than the continuous contradiction between what the leader commands and what he does. When the “mother and servant” goes ahead of all with her example, she does not have to make her authority felt; love renders the hardest demands of obedience bearable, that kind of obedience termed by Francis as ”loving obedience”.

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3. Free From Preferences: “Let her avoid particular friendships, lest by loving some more than others she causes scandal among them.” Is there a single community that has no experience on how sensitive the sister can be about even the likelihood of preferential treatment or partiality on the part of the Mother Superior? In fact, what worried Clare most was not the fact of a sister feeling herself left behind of the Mother’s attention, but the discomfort and disunion that may arise from female peevishness. Among the “appropriations” that St. Francis denounced as opposed to inner poverty was “affective appropriation” – amores privati – i.e. to monopolize the brother’s affection. 4. Motherly Solicitude: “Let her console those who are afflicted. Let her also be the last refuge for those who are troubled, lest the sickness of despair overcome the weak should they fail to find in her the remedies of health.” There is room for just one preferential attention, and it is towards those who are sick in body or spirit, towards the afflicted ones, perhaps under the burden of a crisis of vocation, or under lack of understanding of the sisters, or under the cross of the “state of depression”. That is the reason why the Saint wishes that she “who will be in an office for the sisters “be discerning and attentive to her sisters as a good mother is to her daughters” providing for them according to their needs and being “so kind and available that they may safely reveal their needs and confidently have recourse to her at any hour, as they see fit both for themselves and their sisters”. (T, 63-66). Such a disposal requires on a Mother Superior equilibrium and serenity at highest degree which alone a life of faith and unceasing disappropriation may guarantee. When this self-possession and calm get lost through impolite manners and fits of rage – St. Bonaventure warns – the Superior spoils the good he could do, since he shocks 94

his brothers, makes himself despicable before them and the rest, brings about a reaction in them, causes them to close up to him and dare not to manifest their needs, fills the house with gossip and resentment, drives away the fainthearted, rendering them pusillanimous and no one has the courage to inform him what ought to be prevented.”4 5. Faithful to Common Life: “Let her preserve common life in everything, especially in whatever pertains to the church, the dormitory, refectory, infirmary and clothing.” Here we are again in front of a serious admonition of St. Clare to block the entrance into the poor community the figure of a monastic abbess, with its bearing of a great lady, her separate place at table, seat of honor and prie dien, spacious rooms and distinctive peculiarities of dress. The visitors of the little San Damiano convent can still check up to what degree the Foundress was faithful to the norm of full equality with her sisters by the place she took at the dining room, choir and common bedroom.

How St. Clare Governed
The line drawn by St. Clare at her Rule and Testament is the same she had devised for herself in her service to the sisters. How perfectly she carried it out during the fortythree years of her “holy governance”. The declarations at the Process of canonization speak to us at every turn. It is her grateful daughters who speak: “When she commanded the sisters to do something, she did so with great fear and humility and more often than not she wished to do what she had commanded to others.” (Proc., I, 10). … “she was humble, kind and loving to her sisters” (Proc., I, 12) 95

…”she was so humble she washed the feet of the sisters … used to hand water to the sisters and, at night, covered them from the cold.” (Proc., II, 3) … “she was always rejoicing in the Lord, was never seen disturbed.” (Proc., III, 6) …”her humility was so great that she consistently looked down upon herself and abased herself before the others, making herself less than the other person. (Proc., III, 9) ….”even during the time of her illness she never wanted to depart from anything of the Order. In her holiness, she governed herself and her sisters almost forty-three years.” (Proc., IV, 17; I, 14). … “She was certainly most diligent about encouraging and protecting the sisters showing compassion towards the sick sisters … humbly submitting herself to even the least of the serving sisters.” (VI, 2) What a precious detail! It is an excellent principle of good government to respect and let each one develop the responsibility of her office. ….”She was very diligent and solicitous in prayer, contemplation and exhorting the sisters. She had committed herself to this.” (VII, 3) … “In so far as she could she tried to please God and to teach her sisters in the love of God. She had great compassion for the sisters, both for their body and soul.” (Proc., VIII, 3) … “She was thoughtful and discreet in her direction of the monastery and the sisters, far more than may be said.” (XI, 5). … “She loved her sisters as herself. If she sometimes heard something that was not pleasing to God, she would try to correct it with great compassion and without delay…. The sisters believed the Holy Mother who so prudently, kindly and vigilantly protected them, the Religion and their promise of poverty on earth was in heaven praying to God for them.” (XIII, 3). 96

“The sisters who were lucky enough to live under her, acknowledge to have experienced deeply her “spiritual magisterium”. She was a guide to all along the way to God, endowed with exquisite wisdom, tact, and sense of adaptation to the different personal situations of every one. “Sister Benvenuta said that Lady Clare had taught her to love God above all else; secondly, she taught her to totally and frequently confess her sins; thirdly, instructed her to always have the Lord’s Passion in her memory.” (XI, 2). An outsider witness, perhaps a former suitor of Clare in her youth, declared that “when Lady Clare went to stay in San Damiano, since she was holy, she thus taught her sisters to serve God in holiness as is seen today in her daughters.” (XVIII, 5). At the Bull of canonization, Pope Alexander IV summarizes in these terms Clare’s style of government: “This woman, the first of the poor, the leader of the humble, the teacher of the continent, the abbess of the penitents, governed the monastery and the family entrusted to her within it with solicitude and prudence, in the fear and service of the Lord, with full observance of the Order: vigilant in care, eager in ministering, intent on exhortation, diligent in reminding, constant in compassion, discreet in silence, mature in speech, and skillful in all things concerning perfect government, wanting to serve rather than to command, to honor than to be extolled. Her life was an instruction and a lesson to others.”5

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Footnotes to Chapter 6:
1. Testament, 37, 79; heading at her letters to St. Agnes of Prague; Blessing. St. Benedict had written in his Rule: “Once elected, let the Abbot bear in mind how great a burden he has taken upon himself and to whom he must give an account of his stewardship and let him be convinced that it is better to serve than to rule.” St. Clare on the other hand, gets her inspiration from Hebrews 13: 17. Testament, St. Clare had said: …”They obey her not so much because of her office as because of love.” (T, 62); it is possible that at the chancery of Cardinal Reginald, where the text of the Rule was revised, would have seemed more usual the expression “because of dread”, but Clare’s is a lot finer. St. Benedict exhorted in his Rule: (to the Abbot) “Aim to be loved rather than feared.” (64, 15) “De sex alis Seraphim”, IV, 5; “Opera Omnia”, VIII, 139. I. Omaecheverria, “Escritos”, p. 121 f.; LCl, 12)

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4. 5.

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