Tag Archives: Rome

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.

Just who is St. Valentine?

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We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day. But who is St. Valentine exactly and why his name synonymous with love and romance? The patron saint of love has been identified with two early Christians: a priest martyred in Rome around 269 and buried on the Flaminian Way north of the city and a bishop of Terni, in Umbria, who was also executed in Rome. Some seventeenth century sources assert they are the same person. Modern experts believe the priest-martyr to be the real Valentine. The name “Valentine” derived from “valens” (worthy, strong, powerful) was a popular name in Late Antiquity. At least eleven other saints are named Valentine.

The reasons for his association with lovers is also disputed. There are many legends associated with this saint, none of them based on fact. One is that Valentine, a priest, going against the emperor’s order, secretly married couples so their husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. The legend claims that soldiers were sparse in those day so this was a huge inconvenience for the emperor. Another legend is that he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter of blindness. On the day of his execution, he left a note for her signed “Your Valentine.” A possibility for his association with lovers derives from a centuries old belief that birds choose their mates on February 14. Another one is that it is a survival from the Roman festival of Lupercalia held in mid-February to secure fertility and keep evil away. It was once thought that Valentine’s Day was created to supersede this pagan feast. But this theory has been dismissed by modern scholars. Many of the current legends were invented  in the fourteenth century, most notably Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle, when February 14 first became associated with romantic love.

What we do know for certain is that troubled lovers have invoked him since medieval times and that the custom of sending a Valentine’s Day card to a chosen partner, first commercialized in the U.S. in the 1840s, has become a major industry.

Birth of Christendom: Coronation of Charlemagne (800)

By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West.  The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”

Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.

There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.

There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.

Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.

Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.

But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.

After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.

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Prayer & Work Together: The Rule of St. Benedict

St._Benedict_St. Benedict (540-604) lived in central Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries. He was born in the town of Nursia and as a young man he went to Rome for his education. The young Benedict was appalled by the secularism and hedonism that he saw. He then went into the mountains and spent some time as a hermit in a cave. His way of life and the healing miracles he performed attracted followers. Benedict was asked to be an abbot of a local monastery, but his strict rule soon led to the monks attempting to kill him. They first tried to poison his drink but when he picked up the cup the cup shattered. The monks then tried to poison his food but a raven flew in the window and snatched the bread and carried it off. The wise Benedict then left that monastery. This is most likely the reason why Benedict is some depicted with a raven.

He went on to found a string of twelve monasteries including Subiaco and most famously at Monte Cassino. It was at Monte Cassino that he wrote his famous Rule. Like earlier rules for monastic life, it depended on earlier sources such as the desert fathers but also benefited from his own wisdom and experience.

With genuine humility he called it ” a minimum Rule for beginners” and a “school for the service of the Lord” and he hoped that it would lead faithful disciples to the “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” of other monastic authorities. The wise and humble monk wrote nothing else. His contemporaries took no note of him, at least not enough for him to be mentioned in any document of the time. What we know of his life and work comes from Book II of the sixth century Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which Gregory says came from the testimony of contemporaries and near contemporaries of the recently dead abbot saint.

When it comes to St. Francis, one is drawn by the stories told of him which are known to Franciscan and non-Franciscan alike. They are great stories about how he embraced the leper, stripped himself of his garments, rebuilt the ruined church, gathered disciples, journeyed to the Holy Land and received the stigmata. But stories is not how Benedict is known. Gregory tells how we are drawn to the abbot:

“With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching. He wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.”

Benedict was thoroughly immersed in the two hundred years of monastic tradition that preceded him and reflects it in his Rule. St. Benedict would not have seen himself as an innovator. His way was simply the monastic way. His work was to codify that way for his own community and other communities which might find his way helpful. Innovator or not, his version of the monastic tradition “was so imbued with his own wise personality that it won an acceptance which would eventually eclipse all other monastic rules.” Above all, his way was marked by moderation in all things. It was the simplicity of a life lived in common, reticence in speech, humble obedience to a spiritual master, the willingness to allow personal ambition and career to be set aside for the good of the community, work and prayer and a discipline known as lectio divina.

His Rule is famous for its codifying vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum (continual conversion). It was noteworthy for its far-sighted concern for what it would take to keep individual monks and entire monastic communities on an even keel. It was also intentionally flexible and could be adapted to different conditions. Yet it was not a manual for slackers. It was clear that even younger members were to join in in the search for perfection. But it was stern for theological reasons. Benedict writes, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” His grouping of physical and mental labor together would open the way to the monks’ great contribution to learning that would be sustained almost from the first.

At its core foundation was a commitment to prayer. And the practice of prayer was to mold a life of prayerfulness: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent…This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But a life of prayer, however, was not to be divorced from a life of service. There were injunctions to care for the visitor, the stranger and the sick. These laid seeds for future charitable work. From such humble beginnings would grow vast monastic enterprises attending to both the body and the soul.

The concluding words of the Rule speak to its judicious and Christ-centered character: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.”

Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian tribes. It was the spiritual sons and daughters of Benedict  who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland” and through the law of Christ “brought stability and development to public and private institutions.”

Benedict is still important for us in the modern day. Cardinal Basil Hume says, “The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that a sense of community has to be created and constantly worked at.” He also says that we are to be a “society of people with a shared interest in each other’s welfare.” This relates to what Benedict says about good zeal: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” And this applies to everyone. There were to be no elite or exclusiveness in the monastery. The abbot was not to show favoritism. Benedict wrote that the abbot “is to show equal love to everyone.” An abbot is to work for the good of the whole community. This also ties into the Benedictine virtue of hospitality: the monastery is to be open to all and all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. We are to have respect and reverence for one another. Brother Tvedten writes, “Being Benedictine means trying a little harder to show the courtesy of love for one another, to see Christ in the people with whom we live, work, and pray and to look for him even in the people with whom we disagree. The Rule has endured because it was written for people who want to dwell together in unity in the midst of their diversity. It was written for people who want to be family, community.”

In closing, there is a prayer that speaks well: “Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict. kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church; inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

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.