St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi - has long been one of the most popular saints in the Church and has enjoyed a widespread cult even among nonbelievers. He was born in Assisi, Italy in 1181, the son of Pietro and Pica di Bernardone. His father was a member of the new merchant class and made money in the textile trade. As a youth Francis spent money lavishly and partied well.

Serious illness brought him to see the emptiness of his life. His conversion reached a climax when he embraced a leper he met along the road. Soon thereafter he began to care for the sick and gave his money to the poor.

One day, while he was praying in the run-down church of San Damiano, he heard a voice coming from the crucifix that said, "Francis, go and repair my house, for it is nearly falling down. At first, he thought God wanted him to repair the church building. But soon he realized that God wanted him to bring to people the transforming power of the gospel.

Francis committed himself to prayer and to actively preaching the gospel. He really believed what Jesus said, "Announce the kingdom! Don't possess gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff." He was, for a time, considered to be a religious "nut." And he had a falling-out with his father. But, eventually, others became inspired by his example.

While Francis had no idea of founding a religious order, his group of followers became known as Friars Minor-humble brothers. They dedicated themselves to prayer, humility, the preaching of the gospel, and service to the poor (since Christ was poor). This religious order-of small beginnings-is now the largest in the church.

During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44) he was half-blind and seriously ill. Two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side.

He died October 3, 1226 and was canonized two years later. His feastday is October 4.

Because of his love of nature, which he believed was another manifestation of the beauty of God, St. Francis was named by Pope John Paul II as the patron of the environment.

St. Clare of Assisi

St. Clare of Assisi - might be considered the feminine counterpart of St. Francis. They were good friends and both were determined to live the life of Gospel poverty. Clare was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1193 (about twelve years after St. Francis). While Francis was born into the new middle class, Clare was born into the upper-class. As a noblewoman, she was expected to marry well and expand the family wealth.

Under God's guidance, however, Clare made her own choices and created a new path. She took a vow of virginity, for she wanted only "God as her lover." She renounced her privileged position in the nobility, for she believed that having more than she needed denied food and basic necessities to poor people.

When she was 18 Clare heard the preaching of St. Francis and was determined to follow him. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare ran away from her father's home to the Portiuncula, where Francis lived with his little community about a mile outside Assisi. Francis met her in the chapel. There Clare exchanged her fine clothes for a rough woolen habit. Francis cut off her long hair to symbolize her conversion. Her father and uncles stormed in rage to pursue her but to no avail.

Soon other women joined Clare in a life of great poverty, humility, community prayer, and of extending the healing power of Christ to those in need. Today these sisters are known as the Poor Clares.

Clare suffered serious illness for the last 27 years of her life, but it never prevented her from continuing to wait on tables and serve the sick.

At one point, Assisi was invaded by the Saracens. Clare had the Blessed Sacrament placed on the walls of the convent and assured her sisters that they would be protected. The Saracens fled.

Clare led her sisters for 40 years, until her death at age 60 in 1253. She had lived 27 more years than her friend and companion Francis. She was canonized a saint two years after her death. Her feastday is August 11.