Tag Archives: St. Benedict

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.

The Man Behind the Rule: St. Benedict of Nursia

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The magnitude of Benedict’s significance in church history is not matched, unfortunately, 

by the knowledge of his life. About forty years after his death (and the year of his death is not known), Pope Gregory I wrote a series of dialogues on noteworthy Christians of previous times; his account of Benedict contains almost all the solid biographical information we have.

 

He was born in about the year 480 in Nursia in north Umbria in Italy, along with his twin sister St. Scholastica. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia. He was educated at Rome, where he was repelled by the vices of the city and in about the year 500, he abandoned the city and fled to the mountainous town of Subiaco, some forty miles away. He seems to have been about nineteen to twenty years of age. 

 

On his way there, he met a monk named Romanus, whose monastery was on a mountain overhanging a cave. The wise monk discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco and gave him the monk’s habit. By his advice, Benedict became a hermit and lived for three years, unknown to men, in this cave above a lake. Romanus served Benedict in every way he could. The monk apparently visited him frequently and on fixed days brought him food. 

 

During these years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character and in his knowledge of himself and his fellow man. Despite his desire for solitude, his holiness, austerities and spiritual insight became well-known. He secured the respect of those in the area, so much so that upon the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, the community at Vicovaro came to him and begged him to be their abbot. Benedict consented. 

 

But the monks came to resent Benedict’s attempts to reform the monastery along with his strict rule of life and the monks tried to poison him and he returned to his cave at Subiaco. The legend goes that they first tried to poison his drink. He prayed a blessing over the cup and the cup shattered. They then tried to poison his bread. When he prayed a blessing over the bread, a raven swept in and snatched the bread away. This is why Benedict is sometimes portrayed with a raven. From this time forward, the miracles seem to have become quite frequent and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance and Subiaco became a center of spirituality and learning. For them, he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of them he placed a superior with twelve monks. 

 

In 525, he moved south to Monte Cassino where he destroyed a pagan temple to Apollo on its crest, brought the neighboring people back to Christianity and in about 530 he started to build the monastery that was to be the birthplace of Western monasticism. The monastery exists to this day, sitting on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. He remained the father or abbot of all the monasteries he founded. Soon disciples again flocked to him as his reputation for holiness, wisdom and miracles spread far and wide. Benedict organized the monks at Monte Cassino into a single monastic community. It was most likely after the arrival at Monte Cassino and as part of the effort to reform the general practice of monasticism that Benedict composed his regula  or Rule prescribing common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study and work, and community life under one superior known as an abbot or father. It stressed obedience, stability, zeal and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life. It was to influence spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come. 

 

This famous Rule soon won nearly universal approval as providing shape for monasticism in the West. Benedict’s Rule was also read with appreciation in the East. It became the norm for tens of thousands of new monastic communities in Europe and it served as an inspiration for the slightly altered ideals that created the Mendicant Orders (or “friars”) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. “Never in the recorded history of Christianity has a person whose own life remains so obscure,’ writes historian Mark Noll, ‘done a deed with greater public consequences.”  While ruling his monks, most of whom including Benedict, were not ordained, he counseled rulers and popes and ministered to the poor and destitute around him. 

 

Benedict died of a high fever at Monte Cassino at its magnificent abbey, while standing in prayer to God. According to tradition, this occurred on March 21, 543 or 547. But due to the observance of Lent, he is commemorated on July 11, including in the Anglican Church.  He was buried with his sister in the same grave. 

 

He is the patron saint of Europe, students, monks, against poison, farmers, cave explorers and many more. It is quite an impressive list and it shows how influential St. Benedict is. In fact, the early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.” Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian hordes. It was the Benedictines who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland.” During the Dark Ages, Benedictines taught people how to read and write, to cultivate the soil, to develop crafts and the arts, and to pray. In short, Benedict helped bring about stability during a very unstable time period.

 

In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St. Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope emeritus said that “with his life and work St. Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the “dark night of history” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Benedict of named the patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius. To this day, The Rule of St. Benedict is the most common and influential Rule used by monasteries and monks, more than 1400 years after its writing.