Benedict Sinigardi was born to a wealthy and noble family in Arezzo. In 1211, he heard St. Francis preach in his town, and his heart was immediately won. Abandoning his life of luxury, he was welcomed into the Order of Friars Minor, receiving his habit from St. Francis himself. At twenty-seven, he was appointed provincial of the Marche region. Afterward, he was sent on a missionary journey that took him to Greece, Romania, and Turkey. He built the first Franciscan monastery in Constantinople and then went on to the Holy Land, where he served as provincial for sixteen years. In his old age, he returned to Arezzo, where he died in 1282.
There are no surviving writings by Blessed Benedict, but he is credited with estab- lishing the Angelus Prayer, a commemoration of the Incarnation, which became one of the most popular devotions in Christendom. Deriving its name from the first words, “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,” the prayer consists of the recital of three verses from Scripture with an accompanying response, interspersed by a Hail Mary. It was traditionally recited three times a day, and in many towns in Europe it is still signaled by the ringing of church bells at noon.
The story of St. Clare of Assisi is inevitably linked with St. Francis, the one she called her Father, Planter, and Helper in the Service of Christ. It was Francis who gave her a vision and enabled her to define a way of life apart from the options of- fered her by society. But her goal in life was not to be a reflection of Francis but to be, like him, a reflection of Christ. “Christ is the way,” she said, “and Francis showed it to me.”
Like Francis, Clare belonged to one of the wealthy families of Assisi. Like every- one else in the town, she was aware of the remarkable spectacle that Francis had made in abandoning his respectable family and assuming the poverty of a beggar. Doubtless there were those in Assisi who respected Francis as a faithful Christian, just as there were others who believed he was a misguided fool. It was bad enough that a man of his background was tramping about the countryside, repairing aban- doned churches with his bare hands and ministering to the poor and sick. But within a few years, he had begun attracting some of the most distinguished young men of the town to follow him in his brotherhood.
She crept out a back door, slipped through the gates of Assisi, and made her way through the dark fields and olive groves…
What Clare’s family thought of all this is not known. But we know what impact it had on Clare. She heard Francis deliver a series of Lenten sermons in 1212, when she was eighteen. She arranged in stealth to meet with Francis and asked his help that she too might live “after the manner of the holy Gospel.” On the evening of Palm Sunday, while her family and all the town slept, she crept out a back door, slipped through the gates of Assisi, and made her way through the dark fields and olive groves to a rendezvous with Francis and his brothers at the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, Before the altar, she put off her fine clothes and assumed a penitential habit, while Francis sheared off her long hair as a sign of her espousal to Christ.
It is tempting to read into this episode the romance of a spiritual elopement. To understand Clare, however we must realize that it was not Francis whom she rushed to meet in the night. He provided the meeting place, but her assignation was with Christ. Yet after Clare had taken the plunge of rejecting her family and her social station, it was not clear what the next step should be. Apparently neither Clare nor Francis had considered that far ahead. Although she wished to identify with Francis’s community, it was not seemly that she should live with the brothers. Francis arranged for her to spend the night in a nearby Benedictine convent.
Her family and a company of angry suitors tracked her down some days later in Holy Week. When pleading proved fruitless, they laid hands on her and tried to drag her out by force. She finally stopped them short by tearing off her veil and revealing her shorn head. They were too late. She was already “one of them.”
Francis had long intended that a community of women, corresponding to his fraternity, should be established. In Clare he had found the partner he was seeking. She was easily persuaded to found a women’s community, which was established at San Damiano. It required considerably more effort by Francis to persuade her to serve as abbess. Nevertheless, Clare quickly attracted other women. Over time, these included a number of her personal relatives, including her sister Catherine and even her widowed mother. Within her lifetime, additional communities were established elsewhere in Italy, France, and Germany. Among her surviving writings are a series of moving letters to St. Agnes of Prague, a young princess who joined the movement and became one of Clare’s most beloved daughters.
Unlike the friars, the Poor Ladies, as they were originally known, lived within an enclosure. But Clare shared Francis’s passionate commitment to “Lady Poverty.” For her this meant literal poverty and insecurity—not the luxurious “spiritual poverty” enjoyed by so many other convents, richly supported by gifts and endow- ments. To defend this “privilege of poverty,” Clare waged a continuous struggle against solicitous prelates who tried to mitigate her austerity. This was the center- piece of the rule she devised for her community. When the pope offered to absolve her from her rigorous vow of poverty, she answered, “Absolve me from my sins, Holy Father, but not from my wish to follow Christ.” Two days before her death in 1253, she enjoyed the grace of receiving from Rome a copy of her rule embellished with the approving seal of Pope Innocent IV. A notation on the original document notes that Clare, in tearful joy, covered the parchment with kisses.
It was Clare who urged him to go into the world: “God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.
It has been said that of all the followers of Francis, Clare was the most faithful. Many stories reflect the loving bonds of friendship between them and the trust that Francis placed in her wisdom and counsel. According to one story, Francis put the question to Clare whether he should preach or devote himself to prayer. It was Clare who urged him to go into the world: “God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.” When Francis received the stigmata, Clare thoughtfully made him soft slippers to cover his wounded feet. During a period of dejection, Francis camped out in a hut outside the convent at San Damiano. It was there that he composed the “Canticle of the Creatures,” his exultant hymn to the universe.
Finally, as Francis felt the approach of Sister Death, Clare too became seriously ill. She suffered terribly at the thought that they would not meet again in this life. Francis sent word that she should put aside all grief for she would surely see him again before her death. And so the promise was fulfilled, though not as she had wished. After Francis’s death, the brothers carried his body to San Damiano for the sisters to say their goodbyes. Thomas of Celano records that at the sight of Fran- cis’s poor and lifeless body, Clare was “filled with grief and wept aloud.”
Francis was canonized a mere two years later. Clare lived on for another twenty- seven years. In her own final “Testament,” written near the end of her life, Clare makes only a discrete reference to the pain of their separation and what it meant to her: “We take note…of the frailty which we feared in ourselves after the death of our holy Father Francis. He was our pillar of strength and, after God, our one conso- lation and support. Thus time and again, we bound ourselves to our Lady, most Holy Poverty.”
As she lay dying at San Damiano, Clare offered her final blessing to the daughters gathered beside her: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He show his face to you and be merciful to you. May He turn his countenance to you and give you peace.”
St. Clare died on August 11, 1253. She was canonized in 1255.
St. Elizabeth, the daughter of Hungarian royalty, was betrothed at the age of four to Ludwig, the nine-year-old prince of Thuringia in southern Germany. Despite the arrangement, in which they had no say, the two children established a close friend- ship that eventually blossomed into a loving marriage. Elizabeth bore three children. But Ludwig’s family disapproved of her piety and especially her “inordinate” charity toward the poor and sick. The young princess, it was said, dressed too simply; she was too profligate in her almsgiving. After Elizabeth established several hospitals she aroused scandal by nursing the sick, even lepers, with her own hands.
Nevertheless, her instinctive spirit of poverty was only magnified upon the arrival of the first Franciscan missionaries in Germany. Elizabeth was captivated by the story of Clare and Francis (from whom she received the gift of his cloak), and she eventually embraced the rule of a Franciscan tertiary. During a time of famine, while Ludwig was away, she opened the royal granaries, thus winning the people’s devotion. Such generosity, however, only increased the scorn of elite members of the court.
She who had embraced the spirit of poverty now found herself happy to accept shelter in a pig shed.
In 1227, Ludwig died on his way home from a crusade. In a paroxysm of grief, Elizabeth cried out, “The world is dead to me, and all that was joyous in the world.” Without her husband’s protection, she was at the mercy of her in-laws. They banished her from the court, forcing her to leave the palace on a wintry night, carrying nothing but her newborn child. She who had embraced the spirit of poverty now found herself happy to accept shelter in a pig shed.
Eventually, to avoid scandal, she was provided with a simple cottage, where she supported herself by spinning and fishing. She continued to visit the sick in their homes or in the hospices she had endowed. Over time, her reputation for holiness spread, and she earned the grudging respect of those who had persecuted her. In 1231, she fell ill and announced calmly that she would not recover. She died on November 17 at the age of twenty-four. She was canonized less than four years later.
Known as “the St. Jerome of China”, Fr. Gabriele was born Dec. 26, 1907 in a village in the province of Catania, Sicily, and entered the Order as a youth of 16. While he was studying theology at St. Anthony’s College in Rome, an academic conference was held there on the work of Giovanni of Montecorvino, a Franciscan who journeyed to China in the late 13th century.
Inspired by Giovanni’s attempts to communicate Christianity to the Chinese people, Gabriel sailed to Hunan Province shortly after his ordination in 1930, and as soon as he gained knowledge of the language, began translating the Bible into Chinese. This was a task that would consume the next 40 years of his life: facing many obstacles, he persevered, establishing the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Beijing in 1945. Forced to move to Hong Kong in 1948, he and his friar collaborators completed the translation of the Bible into Chinese with full commentary in 1968. He died in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 1976.
Although known primarily as a biblical scholar, Fr. Gabriele was well-read in other areas of theology, becoming an expert on the thought of John Duns Scotus and a friend of the Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. He also carved out time to help the poor, victims of war, and the sick, especially a leper colony in Macau, where he often spent his holidays. Perhaps Blessed Gabriele might be venerated as the patron of workaholics. He was fond of saying: “The most enviable fate for a Franciscan who does not obtain the grace of martyrdom is to die while he is working. . . . Everyone thinks I’m sick! I can still work — so let’s go on!”
Jacoba of Settesoli was a young widow living in Rome. From the moment she first learned about Francis of Assisi, she longed to meet him. That opportunity arose when Francis and his companions traveled to Rome to seek the pope’s approval for their new order. After hearing the saint preach, Jacoba approached and asked how she might also follow in his path. Because she still had children to raise, Francis advised her not to give up her home. “A perfect life can be lived anywhere,” he said. “Poverty is everywhere. Charity is everywhere.”
As Francis was nearing death, he sent Jacoba a message, urging her to come quickly and to bring a shroud for his body and wax candles for his burial.
Following this counsel, Jacoba joined the Third Order of St. Francis, turned over administration of her property to her sons, and devoted herself to prayer and charitable works. She nevertheless remained close to Francis. He gave her a pet lamb, which used to follow her about. As Francis was nearing death, he sent Jacoba a message, urging her to come quickly and to bring a shroud for his body and wax candles for his burial.
She hastened to Assisi, doing as he had asked. She also brought with her a batch of his favorite almond cookies. At first there was consternation among the brothers about allowing a woman into the friary, but Francis interceded and welcomed her as “Brother Jacoba.” Thus, she was admitted and so she remained beside him until his death. Afterward he was buried in her shroud.
Jacoba remained in Assisi until her own death on February 8, 1273. She was buried near the tomb of St. Francis.