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St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440)

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Frances of Rome is an Italian saint, wife, mother, mystic,  organizer of charitable work and a Benedictine oblate who founded a religious community of oblates who share a common life without religious vows (still exists today). She is a wonderful example to the church who was faithful to God and remarkable in her charitable work for the poor. She also shows us what happens when we submit to God’s will even when it contrasts with our own.

Frances was born in 1384 in Rome to a wealthy and aristocratic couple in the district of Parione and christened in the nearby Church of St. Agnes on the famed Piazza Novona. When she was eleven, she wanted to become a nun but her parents had other ideas. They had already arranged for her to be married. Her soul was troubled at this point. Yet God granted her a special grace by sending her an archangel to be her guardian angel. The angel questioned her about her motives to become a nun despite her parents’ wishes. Was this honoring to God? She decided to submit to her parents and married Lorenzo Ponziani, commander of the papal troops of Rome and member of an extremely wealthy family. The marriage was a happy one, lasting forty years, partly because Lorenzo admired his wife and partly because he was frequently away at war.

With her sister-in-law, Vannozza, Frances visited the poor and took care of the sick, inspiring other wealthy women of the city to do the same. Soon after her marriage, she fell seriously ill. Her husband called in a man who dabbled in magic but she drove him away. She later recounted that Saint Alexis had appeared to her and cured her.

When her mother-in-law died, Frances became mistress of the household. During a time of flood and famine, she turned part of the family’s country estate into a hospital and she distributed food and clothing to the poor. This angered her father-in-law and he took away her keys to the supply rooms. But then something miraculous occurred: the corn bin and wine barrel were replenished after she finished praying. Upon seeing this, her father-in-law handed the keys back to her. This was also the catalyst for her husband’s conversion.

During the wars of the Great Schism, Lorenzo served the pope in Rome. Their son, Batista, was to be delivered as a hostage to the commander of the Neapolitan troops. Obeying this order on the command of her spiritual director, Frances brought the boy to Campidoglio. Along the way, she stopped in the Church of Aracoeli and entrusted the life of her son to the Blessed Mother. Upon their arrival, the troops put her son on a horse to transport him off to captivity. The horse, however, refused to move despite heavy whipping. The soldiers saw the hand of God in this and returned the boy to his mother.

During a period of exile, much of Lorenzo’s property and possessions were destroyed. In the course of one occupation of Rome by Neapolitan troops, Lorenzo was severely wounded and never fully recovered. Frances nursed him throughout the rest of his life.

She experienced other sorrows as well. She lost two children to the plague. Chaos abounded in Rome in that period of neglect by the pope and ongoing warfare between him and other forces competing for power in Italy. Rome was in ruins and wolves roamed the streets. Once again, Frances saw the opportunity for ministry and responded. She opened her home as a hospital and drove her wagon  through the countryside to collect wood for fire and herbs for medicine. It is said that she had the gift of healing and over sixty cases were attested to during the canonization proceedings.

The Catholic Encyclopedia writes, “With her husband’s consent, Frances practiced continence, and advanced in a life of contemplation. Her visions often assumed the form of drama enacted for her by heavenly patronages. She had a 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 Great 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.”

On August 15, 1425, the Feast of the Assumption, she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, a confraternity of pious women, under the authority of the Olivetan monks of Santa Maria Nova in Rome. But these women would neither be cloistered nor bound by formal vows in order so they could follow her pattern of combining a life of prayer with answering the needs of their society.

In March 1433, she founded a monastery at Tor de’ Specchi, near the Campidoglio, in order to allow for a common life by those members of the confraternity who felt called to this. It remains the only house of the Institute. On July 4 of that year, they received the approval of Pope Eugene IV as a religious congregation of oblates with private religious vows. They later became known simply as the Oblates of St. Frances of Rome.

Frances herself remained in her own home, nursing her husband for the last seven years of his life from his battle wounds. When he died in 1436, she moved into the monastery and became their superior. She died in 1440 and was buried in Santa Maria Nova.

On May 9, 1608, she was canonized by Pope Paul V and in the following decades there was a diligent search for her remains, which had been hidden due to the troubled times in which she lived. Her body was found incorrupt some months after her death. Her grave was identified on April 2, 1638 (but this time only the bones remained) and her remains were reburied in the Church of Santa Maria Nova on March 9, 1649, which has since then been her feast day. In 1869, her body was exhumed and has since been on display in a glass coffin for the veneration of the faithful. The Church of Santa Maria Nova is often referred to as the Church of St. Frances.

In 1925, Pope Pious XI declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers because of the account that an angel used to light the road before her with a lantern when she traveled, keeping her safe from hazards. She is honored as the patron saint of oblates. She is also the patron saint of widows.

Frances had an implicit trust in God: suffering from a painful illness, giving away food to the poor and never wavering from her faith when ridiculed. Frances shows us the balance of active life, prayer and works of charity. She believed her family came first and must never be slighted in order to spend more time in prayer or acts of charity. As a Benedictine oblate myself, she certainly serves as an example to me and I hope you as well.

A Wonderful Pope: Gregory the Great (540-604)

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He was one of the greatest popes who ever lived. Born into an old senatorial family in Rome and educated for government service and held the highest civil office in Rome, prefect of the city at age 30. A year later he decided to devote himself to God. When he inherited his father’s wealth, he converted his father’s home into a monastery under the patronage of St. Andrew in 575 and became a monk. He would go on to build six other monasteries in Sicily. He lived in such strict abstinence and austerity that he undermined his health. He would be chosen as one of the seven cardinal deacons of Rome. It was not too long before the pope appointed him the ambassador to the imperial court at Constantinople where he served from 578 to 585. When he returned to Rome he was made abbot of a monastery he had founded earlier; he also served as ambassador to Pope Pelagius who he would succeed in 590. He was unanimously elected by the senate, clergy and the people to become the next bishop of Rome. This marked the first time monasticism ascended to the papal throne.

Gregory was a great organizer and administrator who faced a host of problems. Rome was suffering from famine exacerbated by plague. He restructured the administration of the papal estates and used the money from their income to counteract the effects of poverty and pestilence. The Lombards invaded Italy in 568 and were ravaging the countryside; Gregory negotiated a peace in 592. He did much to make the Western church strong. There was no emperor in the West and Gregory became the strong man there.

He also did much to promote missions. He sent missionaries to convert the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul (France) and the Anglo-Saxons in England. It has been said that he had seen some English boys for sale in a slave market in Rome and was impressed by their beauty. He inquired as to where they came from. When he was informed they were Anglos, Gregory replied they were not Anglos but angels. He sent St. Augustine, a monk at St. Andrew’s monastery, as leader of the missions team to England in 596. The conversion of England was one of the greatest achievements of his pontificate.

The Pastoral Care, written in 591, which explained the office and duties of bishop, became a key text for the medieval church. He also wrote many noted homilies and commentaries. These made him one of the Doctors of the Church.

Gregory’s role as the patron saint of singers arises from his work with the liturgy. Gregorian chant is named after him. He concerned himself with creating a Latin liturgy and founded a school for singers in Rome. Gregory also composed a number of prayers.

Gregory suffered from poor health for most of his life and in his last years was inflicted with gout and gastritis. He died in 604 when Rome was once again in the grips of famine and plague. Gregory’s description of himself as the “servant of the servants of God” illustrated his great humility. The use of this motto by all popes since then reflects his key position in the history of the church and the papacy. Even John Calvin referred to him as the “last good pope.” Coming from a Protestant reformer, that is high praise.