About 800 years ago, Jesus spoke to St. Francis of Assisi: “Francis, rebuild my Church, which, as you can see, is in ruins.”
And so he did. At first physically, in the broken down church of San Damiano, and then spiritually, through the Franciscan order, St. Francis began to rebuild a hurting Church.
But he didn’t do it alone. The friendship between St. Francis and St. Clare was crucial to the success of the project. The Franciscan movement started with three men in 1209 and grew to 30,000 men and women by 1250. That growth came from the grace of God. But the friendship between Sts. Francis and Clare was a key human channel of that grace.
In light of the latest revelations of sexual abuse, we hear again the call of Jesus to rebuild the Church. We might ask ourselves: What can we learn from the friendship of Francis and Clare to help us meet the task of our day with some of the grace and fruitfulness with which they met theirs?
One of the classic definitions of friendship is that a friend is another self. But I don’t think Sts. Francis and Clare are a good example of that definition. They were quite different from each other. They were as complementary in the spiritual life as man and woman are in physical life. One commentator said that St. Francis became the poor Christ in action, while St. Clare became the poor Christ in contemplation. Of course, the circumstances of men and women have changed in 800 years, and today you could just as easily have a man in the contemplative life and a woman in the active life. But,in their friendship, Sts. Francis and Clare each had a way of bringing out the best in the other. Part of what the Church needs today is similar friendships in complementarity. For example, priests and lay people aren’t the same, but each can call forth the best in the other.
Another key to the friendship of Sts. Francis and Clare was their radical commitment to the Gospel. St. Francis literally gave everything away. St. Clare cut off her hair. Both left their families. St. Francis cared for lepers. When St. Clare’s city and monastery were being attacked, she went to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the invaders fled. The renewal that they brought to the Church wasn’t rooted in any worldly power. It was rooted in the power of holiness. And their holiness, in turn, was rooted in a simple trust in Jesus.
In the opening scene of “Clare and Francis,” a terrific movie about their life, St. Clare walks behind St. Francis. He turns and asks, playfully: “Are you following in my footsteps?” She replies, with great joy: “No. Much deeper ones.”
Sts. Clare and Francis followed Christ. Each did it in their own way. Each brought out the best in the other. Their friendship bore tremendous fruit for the renewal of the Church. The Church today needs friendships like theirs.
“So, as Francis teaches us what to do, Clare shows us how to be. Both of them made Jesus visible, audible and recognizable through their lives.”