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St. Frances of Rome (March 9)

March 9, 2005

Rome of the 1300’s and early 1400’s was in turmoil.
In a quarrel over their respective claims to authority, the French King Philip IV of France,
in league with one of the powerful families in Rome,
had Pope Boniface VIII besieged and held captive in his palace in 1303.
While the pope was not physically mistreated, the trauma hastened his death 5 weeks later.
Under pressure from the French king, the college of cardinals elected a French pope, Clement V,
who took up residence in France in 1309 because he was afraid to face the turmoil
caused by rival factions striving for control in Rome.
Thus began the Avignon papacy, also known as the Babylonian captivity of the papacy,
since it lasted about as long as the captivity of Jews in Babylon, that is, nearly 70 years.
During this time the papacy developed a nationalistic flavor (French),
and its authority was undermined.
Meanwhile, Rome remained a battlefield, suffering from German invasion
as well as fighting among internal factions.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI finally returned to Rome.
After a few months of rioting,
the citizens of Rome finally became accustomed to having the papacy back in their midst.
Troubles, however, were not over.
Gregory XI died within a year of returning to Rome,
and the cardinals elected Urban VI as his successor.
However, it quickly became apparent that Urban VI was not the puppet pope the cardinals had expected,
but rather one somewhat rashly intent on beginning reform in the Church by reforming the cardinals.
With the support of the French king
(most of the cardinals were French, because of the long residence of the papacy in France),
the cardinals met again, declared the previous election invalid,
and elected a new, French, pope, Clement VII.
Thus began one of the most scandalous periods of Christian history,
with pope excommunicating pope, and mass confusion
regarding which was actually the true claimant to the See of Peter.
Since Urban VI and Clement VII each excommunicated the others’ followers as well,
nobody knew who was actually in communion with the Church.
Clement VII, unsuccessful in his attempt to take Rome by force,
returned his version of the papacy to Avignon,
and the clash of pope versus antipope persisted until 1409,
when an attempt to end the schism by electing a new pope
resulted in yet a third line of rivals.
Finally, in 1417 a general council convened at which Pope Gregory XII resigned,
the two anti-popes were deposed and Pope Martin V was elected,
finally ending the Great Schism.

In the midst of all this turmoil, confusion and war (which brought with it famine and disease),
God sent a stabilizing influence, through whom He provided for the eternal city
both physically and spiritually.

St. Frances of Rome was born into a noble family in 1384,
just a few years after the start of the Western Schism.
Her devout parents had her baptized the same day she was born.
Her mother nursed and taught baby Frances herself,
instead of leaving the task to servants or governesses, as was common among the nobility.
The first words Frances was taught to speak were the names of Jesus and Mary,
and, following her mother’s example of prayer,
she came to prefer prayer, works of mercy, silence and personal sacrifice
to the social whirl more common among her class.
Fortunately, her mother also entrusted her spiritual guidance to a holy priest
who became her spiritual director.
His guidance protected her from excesses in her sacrifices and from spiritual pride.

Given this background, it was only natural for Frances to develop a longing for the monastery,
where she might more completely give herself to growth in the spiritual life
that was so dear to her.
She kept this desire to herself at first, but when her parents questioned her,
she poured out the desire of her heart.
Her father, although a devout man, had other plans for her.
He had already promised her hand in marriage to the son of a friend of his,
and he was not going to break his word.
Frances was heartbroken.
She pleaded.
She wept.
She begged God to intervene and prevent the proposed marriage.
Finally, she poured out her heart to her spiritual director.
That worthy priest, after gently preparing her for the idea that marriage,
rather than the Religious life,
might be God’s will for her, asked her,
“Are you crying because you want to do God’s will or because you want God to do your will?”
(http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=49).
Frances realized that her desire for Religious life was her will.
Since she had already dedicated herself to doing God’s will,
she submitted to the marriage, sacrificing her dreams.
At the age of 13 she became the wife of Lorenzo Ponziani.

God was not to be outdone.
In Lorenzo, Frances had a holy, loving, noble husband,
who took his wife’s side in family disputes.
He was not as given to pious practises as she, but he admired her,
and allowed her considerable freedom to pray and do works of mercy.
Nor was he bad-tempered.
It is said that in their 40 years of marriage, they never quarreled.
In addition, Frances found in her sister-in-law, who lived in the family palace, a kindred spirit.
Vannozza had also wanted to become a nun,
so the two banded together for spiritual support, praying together daily
and ministering to the needs of the poor together.

Frances’ mother-in-law was another matter.
A kindly woman, she nevertheless enjoyed a wide-ranging social life
and expected her daughters-in-law to participate in keeping with their station.
The strain of parties, banquets and other social obligations surrounding her wedding
took such a severe toll on Frances,
that her health finally failed and she was near death,
unable to speak, rest or take nourishment for an entire year.
Acquaintances of the family suggested that she was under a magic spell
and twice persuaded her relatives to bring in a magician to restore her health.
Each time, Frances rallied enough to protest that she would rather die than submit to magic.
Finally St. Alexis appeared to her in a blaze of glory
and asked whether she wanted to be healed.
Although she very much wanted go to go Heaven, she feebly replied, “God’s will is mine,”
at which she recovered completely and immediately.
Her mother-in-law, however, still expected her to join in the usual social activities of the nobility.
Further, she didn’t like the ridicule “respectable” people heaped upon her household
at the sight of her daughter-in-laws’ unusual piety
(not only their prayers, but their care of the sick and the poor
were considered unsuitable for ladies of rank).
She pressured Frances and Vanozza to give up their devotional practises
and spend more time in worldly amusements.
She even went so far as to urge her sons to redirect their wives’ activities.
Fortunately, Lorenzo and his brother admired their wives too much
to interfere and persuaded their mother to back off.

About this time, Frances received another gift from God,
one that may not at first have seemed to be a gift!
Her guardian angel began to reveal himself to her
through his correction of even her least faults.
Before she was even aware of having done something wrong,
an unseen hand would strike her, alerting her to the spiritual danger
in which she had placed herself.
She made good use of this gift, and quickly advanced in virtue.

When she was 16, Frances bore her first son, Giovanni Baptista (after St. John the Baptist),
whom she had baptized right away.
As her mother had done for her, she nursed and cared for her son herself,
teaching him to love holiness as she did,
although she had to cut back on some of her religious activities in order to do so.
When her son was placed in her father’s arms,
he exclaimed, as had the holy Simeon,
“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29), and died soon after.
The following year, death again struck the household,
taking Frances’ mother-in-law
and leaving vacant the responsibilities of the managing of household affairs.
The family agreed that Frances was the best qualified to take over, despite her protests,
and she rose to the occasion.
She was gentle and courteous, but firm.
She urged the servants to serve God diligently
and arranged their schedules so that they could all attend Mass and religious instruction
as well as have time for prayer with their families.

About a year later, famine and disease broke out in Rome.
Frances told the servants to never send a poor person away
without supplying their needs
and herself counseled the poor to return to God and to pray fervently for God’s mercy
for the crimes of mankind.
Frances’ father-in-law, watching their provisions flowing to the poor in a steady stream,
began to regret having given Frances charge of household affairs.
Afraid that her generosity would produce a famine in his own household,
he took away the keys to the grainery, then sold off all the extra food,
lest he not be able to withstand Frances’ pleas.
Desperate to help the poor, whom she saw starving all around her,
Frances took to the streets, begging with Vanozza in order to have food to give to the poor.
One day she was inspired to sift through the husks left in the grain bin
to see if there might be a few stray kernels left.
She and Vanozza did indeed find a little grain
and triumphantly carried it off to those who were starving.
Lorenzo, her husband, came to the grainery shortly after they’d left and found it full!
Around the same time, Frances was giving out wine from the one barrel the family had left.
When the barrel ran dry, her father-in-law scolded her soundly,
and this time even her husband joined in.
She prayed, then asked them to come check the wine barrel with her.
They found it full of choice wine.
At this, her whole family realized that God would not be outdone by Frances’ charity
and she was given the freedom to distribute the family’s property as she desired.
As word of the miracles spread,
other wealthy families in Rome who had been holding back alms
out of fear of not having enough for themselves,
were encouraged to become more generous with the poor themselves.

Another consequence of the miracles
was that Lorenzo urged his wife to follow any and every divine inspiration.
This left her free, once she got her spiritual director’s permission,
to trade her silk and velvet clothing for one coarse green dress,
to sell her jewels, dresses and ornaments and give the money to the poor.
She increased both her personal sacrifices and her good works for the poor and sick.
She never lost sight of her vocation as a wife, though.
When called away from her prayer to tend to her husband’s needs or household affairs,
she responded promptly, saying,
“A married woman must, when called upon, quit her devotions to God at the altar
to find him in her household affairs”
(_Butler’s Lives of the Saints_).

When Frances was 20, her second son, Giovanni Evangelista (John the Evangelist) was born,
and about three years later she gave birth to a daughter, Agnes,
a tribute to Frances’ life-long devotion to St. Agnes.
Frances cared for these children as she had for her first-born,
not entrusting then to the care of others,
lest they should be ruined for Heaven by bad influences.

During the infancy of these two children, trouble was again brewing.
The factions which had arisen because of the schism
and the wars and intrigues over the throne of the neighboring kingdom of Naples
(where France and the papacy had competing interests in the outcome)
had thrown Rome into anarchy, with bloody battles occurring in the streets on a daily basis.
Frances’ husband, because of his rank and loyalty to the true pope
(as opposed to the French anti-pope),
was especially marked out as an enemy by the French-supported faction.
Frances’ trials reached a climax in 1409, when enemies of the pope gained possession of Rome
and began to persecute papal supporters.
Lorenzo was wounded and left for dead.
Frances managed to nurse him back to health
and inspire him to forgive the one who had injured him.
In the meantime, the (enemy) Count took Frances’ brother-in-law prisoner,
threatening to kill him unless Frances’ first-born, Baptista, now 9 years old,
was delivered to him as a hostage.
Frances first tried to flee with the boy, fearing more for his moral them his physical safety,
but she came upon her spiritual director,
who told her to turn back and trust the outcome to God.
Ever obedient, she did as he said and delivered her son to his captor,
fleeing into the neighboring church to pray and weep before the Blessed Virgin,
who knew what it was like to have a Son taken captive.
The count tried to put the child on a horse to take him away,
but the horse refused to move.
Five horses later, the count finally gave up and restored the boy to his mother.

About a year later, Rome was again taken over by her enemies and put to pillage.
Lorenzo fled to hide in a neighboring province while Frances stayed behind.
Their country properties were pillaged and destroyed,
the shepherds and servants murdered,
their palace was reduced to ruins
and Baptista was carried off, wrenched from his mother’s arms.
Frances and her two remaining children took refuge in a corner of the ruined palace.
Famine and disease came in the wake of the war, and Evangelista took sick.
Frances was comforted by her son’s holiness.
In his final moments he exclaimed that the angels were coming to take him to Heaven
and died with a radiant smile.
About a year later he appeared to her to reassure her of his joy and his prayers for her,
to explain that she would now be under the care of a guardian angel she would be able to see
and to let her know that his little sister would soon join him.
Agnes died soon after, and Frances, now bereft of all her children,
gave her energies more fully to the care of the poor and the sick throughout Rome.

In 1414, with the election of Pope Martin V, the Great Schism came to an end
and some measure of peace was restored to Rome.
The lands of Frances’ family were restored to them and Lorenzo returned,
bringing with him Baptista, who had grown into a fine young man.
Lorenzo had not fared so well.
He returned broken in spirit, devastated by the loss of his two children
and startled by the toll that time, illness and famine had taken on his wife.
Once again Frances nursed him back to health,
this time to an emotional and spiritual health deeper and stronger than he had ever known.
Once again she inspired him to forgive those who had harmed him.
She had long experience in bringing enemies to forgiveness,
preventing duels and assassinations that would otherwise have prolonged hostilities within the city.
She brought many to repentance of other crimes as well,
restoring souls as well as bodies to health.

When Baptista was 18, he was married to a lovely young lady named Mobilia.
Unfortunately, Mobilia’s new freedom (her parents had been very strict)
went to her head.
She preferred a frivolous social life and jeered at her mother-in-law’s piety.
Frances took this patiently, confident that God would work through this too.
He did.
One day in the midst of violently mocking Frances to her face,
Mobilia suddenly turned pale as death, was struck by a fit of trembling, and fell back senseless.
Frances and Vanozza carried her to her bed, where she was seized by intense pains.
Her conscience roused at last, Mobilia murmured,
“My pride! my dreadful pride!”
From that day forward her attitude toward Frances changed.
She came to respect her holiness and studied her carefully in order to learn from her.

By this time, other women were joining Frances in prayer
and helping with her works of mercy.
With the help of a Benedictine priest, she began to organize these women into a community.
They called themselves the Oblates of Mary
(they’re now known as the Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi),
and were associated with the Benedictines.
At first the women all lived in their own homes,
but eventually they bought a house and turned it into a monastery.
Frances did not join them until after Lorenzo died.
His last words to her were:
“I feel as if my whole life has been one beautiful dream of purest happiness.
God has given me so much in your love.”
Frances, then 52, begged permission to join the order she had helped to found.
They made her their superior
and she spent the remainder of her days in the vocation she had dreamed of as a little girl.
She was just 56 when she fell ill for the last time.
After her confessor celebrated the Mass in her room, he asked her what she saw.
She replied that her angel had finished his task
and was beckoning her to follow him.
With a joyful smile, she breathed her last,
her soul finally free to follow her heavenly escort.

St. Frances of Rome, please pray for us, that we may trust God as thoroughly as you did,
seeking His will in all things
and serving Him valiantly in the vocation He has chosen for us.

Primary source: _The Life Of St. Frances Of Rome_, By Georgiana Fullerton,
available as a free ebook from http://www.gutenberg.net.

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