March 8, 2017

Saint Frances of Rome, Wife, Mother & Benedictine Oblate

Saint Frances of Rome
St. Francesca Romana, Giovanni Antonio Galli (Lo Spadarino), c 1638.  

March 9th, is the optional memorial of St. Frances of Rome. It sometimes seems, when we look at the lives of the saints, that these holy people have been almost exclusively those who were ordained or were vowed members of a religious community. Indeed, many were, but that doesn’t mean that the path to sanctity lies only in this direction. One need only look at the life of St. Frances of Rome to see a powerful example of how Jesus can be “carried to the world” by anyone who follows His will in whatever life circumstances God has set before them.

Frances was born into wealth and privilege in the city of Rome, Italy, in 1384. Although she knew by the time she was 11 that she wanted to devote herself to religious life, her father had other ideas. And so, at his bidding, she reluctantly married a nobleman named Lorenzo Ponziani; she was 12 years old.

Despite the fact that her husband was a good man who cared deeply for his young wife, Frances was miserable. Her mother-in-law, Cecilia, felt that the proper place for Frances was in society—which meant an almost endless round of parties, banqueting, and card playing. This was so at odds with Frances’ desire for an ascetic life that she broke down from the strain and lay close to death.

But at what must have seemed her lowest point, God sent her a spiritual friend who would end up changing her life. Lorenzo’s brother was married to a woman named Vanozza who, it turned out, wanted to serve God in the same way that Frances did. The two sisters-in-law soon became fast friends. They agreed that God was calling them to carry out their obligations to their families first, but that they were also to pray, attend daily Mass, and care for Rome's poor and sick.

At the time, however, this type of charitable work was not fashionable for women of their station, and Cecilia now found herself trying to stop two daughters-in-law from “making fools of themselves.” She appealed to her son, but Lorenzo, who had enormous respect for his wife's mission, refused to interfere with her work.

Then two hard blows came Frances’ way. First, civil war erupted in Italy, and not only was the house in which she lived destroyed, but her husband was sent away and her oldest son was taken hostage. Then, after she herself had been sent away to Naples, a virulent plague swept through Rome, killing her second son. A year later, her third child—and only daughter—also died. Frances could well have given up at this point, but instead she returned to her ruined home where she soon set up a makeshift hospital and homeless shelter.

When the war ended, both Lorenzo and her oldest son both came home. With Lorenzo’s support, Frances established a lay order of women attached to the Benedictines called the Oblates of Mary. Here, the women lived the lives of religious, but without a cloister or formal vows. Although a house was soon established for the widowed members of the community, Frances remained at home to care for her husband until his death. It was only then that she moved in with the Oblates and became their superior. That’s when she realized that God had finally, in His own time and way, answered the prayer of the 11-year-old girl who desired so ardently to be a nun. St. Frances of Rome died in 1440. She was canonized by Pope Paul V in 1608, and is the patron of motorists and widows.

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