09 March 2010

Saint Frances of Rome

9 MARCH 2010. Today the Church remembers the feast day (optional observation) of Saint Frances of Rome, a woman revered as a saint for her life as a wife and her life as a member of a religious order.

Francesca was born to wealthy parents in Rome in A.D. 1384. At the age of eleven, a pious and serious child, Francesca decided to become a nun, but before her thirteenth birthday (not unusual for a girl of her age at that time) her parents married her off to Lorenzo Ponziani, a commander of the papal troops of Rome.

Francesca's marriage to Lorenzo, though arranged, was a happy one that lasted for forty years. While her husband was frequently away on military campaigns, Saint Frances and her sister, Vannozza, would visit the sick and care for the poor, and inspired other wealthy women to do the same. Among the poor, Saint Frances earned the nickname "la Ceccolella" (the queen).

Saint Frances and her husband had six children, but two of them died in the plague. For Francesca, it sensitized her and her husband to the plight of the poor in the war torn and ravaged Rome of the time. Tradition tells that the city had fallen into such disrepair that  wolves roamed the streets. During the military campaigns of Lorenzo, and the strife in Rome, much of the property and possessions of he and Saint Frances were lost or destroyed.

After Saint Frances' home was looted by invaders, she turned it into a hospital and shelter for the needy.

A year after her nine year old son, Evangelista, died from plague, Francesca received a vision that her daughter, Agnes, was to die too. In return, however, God sent to Saint Frances an archangel to be her guardian for the rest of of her life. This ever-present bright light was said to resemble a young boy that only she could see. A moral adviser, he once commanded her to stop her severe penances: “He who made your body and gave it to your soul as a servant never intended that the spirit should ruin the flesh and return it to him despoiled.” When her behaviour displeased him, he was said to have faded from her sight; and when vulgar language was spoken before her, he covered his face in shame. When she traveled in the dangerous city by night, her angel preceded her with a lamp resembling a headlight to help her find her way.

In A.D. 1425, with the approval of her husband, she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, a confraternity of religious women attached to the Santa Maria Nova church in the Roman Forum. Its women were neither cloistered nor bound by formal vows so were able to devote themselves to the sick and needy. On 4 July Pope Eugene IV declared Saint Frances' oblates a religious congregation of nuns. (The Olivetan Congregation has been apart of the Benedictine Confederation since A.D. 1960.) Since A.D. 1433, the convent of Saint Frances has been in Tor di Specchi, near Trastevere, and upon the death of her husband from battle wounds in A.D. 1436, she retired permanently to the convent and became the superior.

Saint Frances had the gift of miracles and visions. Her visions often assumed the form of drama enacted for her by heavenly personages. She had revelations concerning purgatory and hell, and foretold the ending of the Western Schism. Tradition also tells that Saint Frances was remarkable for her humility and detachment and her obedience and patience. Saint Frances died on 9 March 1440.

Today, the doors of her convent are opened to the public once a year on 9 March. The saint’s room and the main hall can be seen as decorated in the 1480sl. Bright frescos depict Francesca’s visions of divine personages and heaven and hell – a woman’s divine comedy – and scenes from her life, fearlessly venturing through the city, often accompanied by her guardian archangel or sometimes tempted by fiends.

On 9 May 1608, Francesca was canonized by Pope Paul V and a search was undertaken to find her remains. They were found on 2 April 1638 and reburied on 9 March 1649. In A.D. 1869, Saint Frances' body was exhumed and has since then been exposed to the veneration of the faithful in a crystal coffin. The church of Santa Maria Nova is usually now referred to as the church of Santa Francesca Romana. In A.D. 1925 Pope Pius XI declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers because of a legend that an angel used to light the road in front of her with a lantern when she traveled, keeping her safe from hazards.


in Saint Frances You have given us
a singular example of both the monastic
and the conjugal way of life.
Help us to persevere in serving You
so that in all vicissitudes of life
we may both look to You and follow You.


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