9 March: S. Francesca Romana

S. Maria Nova al Foro RomanoSt. Francis of RomeToday is the feast of one of my favorite saints, St. Frances of Rome (+1440).  She married into the Ponziani family, whose medieval palazzo is still in Trastevere.  When I moved to Rome many years ago I first lived there in that palazzo.  Therein is a chapel in the place where she died.  She has a place in my life, for sure.  At the death of her husband she founded a convent of Benedictine nuns, Oblates of the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveti, headquartered in the nearby Tor di Specchi.  This convent is open once a year, today, for the public to enjoy.  St. Francis body is in the church in the Roman Forum called S. Maria Nova al Foro Romano. 

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "With her husband’s consent Frances practiced continency, and advanced in a life of contemplation. Her visions often assumed the form of drama enacted for her by heavenly personages. She had the gift of miracles and ecstasy, (as) well as the bodily vision of her guardian angel, had revelations concerning purgatory and hell, and foretold the ending of the Western Schism. She could read the secrets of consciences and detect plots of diabolical origin. She was remarkable for her humility and detachment, her obedience and patience[.]"

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  1. Don Marco says:

    Three quadragesimal cheers for Saint Francesca Romana! See her collect, translated in the collect below:

    Saint Frances of Rome – more properly called by her own name, Francesca – is the patroness of Benedictine Oblates. The Collect for her feast tells us why. The Church has us pray: “O God, who in Saint Frances of Rome, have given us a model of holiness in married life and of monastic conversion, make us serve you perseveringly, so that in all circumstances we may set our gaze upon you and follow you.” It is not often that we mention both married life and monastic conversion in the same collect! Francesca is there to tell us that it can be done.
    We see Saint Francesca together with Saint Henry, the other patron of Benedictine Oblates, depicted in the icon written by Brother Claude of Mount Angel Abbey. Francesca’s gaze is turned to the central panel of the icon. There stands the Archangel Michael. His feet rest upon a craggy mountain, recalling the words of Saint Benedict in the Prologue: “Lord, who shall rest on your holy mountain?” (RB Pro: 23). The answer comes: “He who walks without fault and does what is right” (RB Pro:25). Saint Michael is holding a medallion of Holy Father Benedict. It represents the Benedictine medal worn by Oblates, but it also has the form of a protecting shield.
    Saint Benedict’s hands are raised in prayer and on his breast he bears the sign of the Cross. The Cross is the very heart of this icon. Saint Francesca is looking intently at the Cross. The so-called medal of Saint Benedict is, in fact, a medal of the Holy Cross, marked with the inscription: Crux Sacra sit mihi lux, “May the Holy Cross be my light.” The Archangel is holding a staff in the form of the Cross, the Tree of Life. One ascends the mountain of God leaning on the Cross. The icon thus recalls the image of the psalmist: “Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me” (Ps 22:4).
    Saint Francesca is shown against a dark background. It represents the sorrows of her life and her immersion in the sufferings of those who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79). She holds a book in her hand, probably her breviary. An indication of Francesca’s Benedictine vocation was her devotion to the Divine Office. One day in praying the Hours she was interrupted five times in succession. Each time she closed her book, attended to what was asked of her, and then returned to her prayer. After the last interruption she found the words of the antiphon she had been trying to pray illuminated in gold. God rewarded her patience as much as her zeal for the Divine Office.
    One sunny afternoon last October, I walked from Santa Croce to the Church of Santa Francesca Romana in the Roman Forum, just beyond the Coliseum. Her body is there, clothed in the black habit and long white veil of the Benedictine Oblates she founded. In her hands is a psalter – the same book we see in the icon – open to Psalm 72 with the words of the 24th verse in letters of gold: “Thou hast held me by my right hand: and by thy will thou hast conducted me, and with thy glory thou hast received me” (Ps 72:24).
    The day I visited the church it was completely empty. Today it will be filled with people and all around it will be Italian motorists awaiting the traditional blessing of automobiles. Yes, Saint Francesca is the patron saint of motorists. She never drove, of course, but when she ventured out into Rome’s dark streets and alleys on her errands of mercy, an angel would go before her shining like a headlight. It was this fact that made Pope Pius XI declare Francesca the patroness of motorists!
    Francesca was no dried up prune of a saint. She was intensely alive to everything human and capable of the grand passions without which life is bleak and dreary. Being Roman, she lived life with a kind of reckless enthusiasm – not for the usual things Romans get excited over – but for holiness! She suffered struggles, endured sorrows, and bore with every manner of disappointment and hurt. One cannot say that Francesca’s holiness was of the tidy sort. One might even say that Francesca’s life was a mess. Her desire to serve God and live for him was continually frustrated by persons and circumstances. It was precisely in the midst of these conditions that Francesca grew in holiness, “setting nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:21), and “never despairing of God’s mercy” (RB 4:74).
    As a young girl inspired by Rome’s shining virgin martyrs Agnes and Cecilia, Francesca wanted to consecrate her virginity to Christ, but her parents had other plans. The first big decision in her life was out of her hands. At the age of thirteen she married Lorenzo Ponziano, the wealthy nobleman her parents had chosen for her. Francesca was expected to be the perfect socialite, charming, beautiful, witty, and worldly as only Romans know how to be worldly.
    Lorenzo accepted that he had married an unusual woman, that she would never be like other Roman wives, and that there was something in her that he, try as he might, would never be able to satisfy. Francesca loved Lorenzo. She recognized his qualities and accepted that loving Lorenzo was part of God’s plan for her. It is said that through all their married life, Francesca and Lorenzo never once had a quarrel. For that alone they should both be canonized!
    Saint Francesca is often depicted with a little angel standing near her. Francesca had lost her little eight-year-old boy, Evangelista, to the plague. After his death he appeared to her announcing the death of yet another child, her daughter Agnes. Francesca never forgot the little ones taken from her by death. In exchange for these terrible losses, she was given an unusual grace: that of always seeing her guardian angel. Her angel took on the appearance of a little boy of about eight years (like her son Evangelista); he wore a dalmatic like the deacon at Solemn Mass. Francesca’s guardian angel was with her visibly at every moment, assuring her of the love of Christ, giving her counsel and providing her, even visibly, with a guiding light.
    Francesca lived in troubled times. In this she resembles the valiant Esther in today’s first reading. There were two rival Popes, making for schism and Civil War. Lorenzo was wounded fighting on behalf of the true Pope. In the aftermath of the conflicts, he lost his estates. Their home was destroyed and their one surviving son taken hostage. As if that were not enough Rome was beset with looting, famine, and plague. And we think we have troubles!
    Francesca rose to the occasion. She fixed up the ruins of her home and opened a hospital. With poor and suffering people all around her, Francesca became a kind of Mother Teresa, compassionate and wonderfully effective. She fed and housed the poor sick picked up on the streets. She arranged for priests to minister to the dying. She reconciled enemies and calmed the rage of those plotting revenge. After the troubles caused by the schism, Lorenzo came home to her, but he was a broken man both physically and mentally. Francesca cared for him with every tenderness.
    Other Roman ladies, many of them war widows, were drawn to Francesca and her works. Little by little a new form of Benedictine life emerged: women living under the Rule of Saint Benedict, not as enclosed nuns, but as Oblates of the Roman monastery of the Olivetans at Santa Maria Nuova. Francesca’s Oblates were free to go out to serve the poor and sick. Their life was shaped to a great extent by the first part of Chapter Four of the Holy Rule, the Instruments of Good Works: “To relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to give help in trouble, to console the sorrowful, to avoid worldly behaviour, and to set nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:14-21).
    Lorenzo died in 1436. His last words were for his darling Francesca. They are worth quoting. “I feel,” he said, “as if my whole life has been one beautiful dream of purest happiness. God has given me so much in your love.” A husband’s deathbed confession of undying love! No wife could ask for more. After Lorenzo’s death, Francesca was free to take a fuller role in the Benedictine community she had established. Her sister Oblates elected her prioress. Four years later, on the evening of March 9th her face became radiant with a strange light. “The angel has finished his task,” she said; “he beckons me to follow him”. Francesca was 56 years old. Her death plunged all of Rome into mourning. Miraculous healings abounded. Rome had another saint.
    Francesca’s life tells us that the plan of God for our holiness us unfolds in ways that often contradict our own projects and desires. Our endless planning can be no more than an attempt to control life, to manipulate people and events. Francesca challenges us to detachment from life as we would have it be, and to the acceptance of things as they are. Each of us has unexpected elements that, thrown into the mix, unsettle our plans, making life untidy and somehow bearable at the same time. And each of us has a guardian angel, a light in life’s obscurity, a faithful friend and spiritual counselor. Francesca tells us that there is more than one way to be a Benedictine, and that in all of these there is one thing that remains constant: the call to praise God in the sight of the angels, saying with the psalmist, “Though affliction surround my path, thou dost preserve me. . . . thy mercy, Lord, endures forever” (Ps 137:7-8).

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