Saint Frances of Rome, Widow
The period intervening between the Purification of our Blessed Lady and Ash-Wednesday (when it occurs at its latest date), gives us thirty-six days; and these offer us a Feast of every order of Saint. The Apostles have given us St. Matthias, and St. Peter’s Chair at Antioch; the Martyrs have sent us, from their countless choir, Simeon, Blase, Valentine, Faustinus and Jovita, Perpetua and Felicitas, and the Forty Soldiers of Sebaste, whose Feast is kept tomorrow; the holy Pontiffs have been represented by Andrew Corsini, and Peter Damian, who, together with Thomas of Aquin, is one of the Doctors of the Church; the Confessors have produced Romuald of Camaldoli, John of Matha, John of God, and the angelic prince Casimir; the Virgins have gladdened us with the presence of Agatha, Dorothy, Apollonia, and Scholastica, three wreathed with the red roses of martyrdom, and the fourth with her fair lilies of the enclosed garden (Cant. iv. 12) of her Spouse; and lastly, we have had a Penitent-Saint, Margarite of Cortona. The state of Christian marriage is the only one that has not yet deputed a Saint during this season which is the least rich in Feasts of the whole year. The deficiency is supplied today, by the admirable Frances of Rome.
Having, for forty years, led a most saintly life in the married state, upon which she entered when but twelve years of age, Frances retired from the world, where she had endured every sort of tribulation. But she had given her heart to her God long before she withdrew to the Cloister. Her whole life had been spent in the exercise of the highest Christian perfection, and she had ever received from our Lord the sublimest spiritual favours. Her amiable disposition had won for her the love and admiration of her husband and children: the rich venerated her as their model, the poor respected her as their devoted benefactress and mother.
God recompensed her angelic virtues, by these two special graces: the almost uninterrupted sight of her Guardian Angel, and the receiving most sublime revelations. But there is one trait of her life, which is particularly striking, and reminds us forcibly of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and of St. Jane Frances Chantal:–her austere practices of penance. Such an innocent, and yet such a mortified life, is full of instruction for us. How can we think of murmuring against the obligation of mortification, when we find a saint like this practising it during her whole life? True, we are not bound to imitate her in the manner of her penance; but penance we must do, if we would confidently approach that God, who readily pardons the sinner when he repents, but whose justice requires atonement and satisfaction.
The Church thus describes the life, virtues, and miracles of St. Frances.
Frances, a noble lady of Rome, led a most virtuous life, even in her earliest years. She despised all childish amusements, and worldly pleasures, her only delight being solitude and prayer. When eleven years old, she resolved on consecrating her virginity to God, and seeking admission into a Monastery. But she humbly yielded to the wishes of her parents, and married a young and rich nobleman, by name Lorenzo Ponziani. As far as it was possible, she observed, in the married state, the austerities of the more perfect life to which she had aspired. She carefully shunned theatrical entertainments, banquets, and other such amusements. Her dress was of serge, and extremely plain. Whatever time remained after she had fulfilled her domestic duties, was spent in prayer and works of charity. But her zeal was mainly exercised in endeavouring to persuade the ladies of Rome to shun the world, and vanity in dress. It was with a view to this, that she founded, during her husband’s life, the House of Oblates of the Congregation of Monte-Oliveto, under the Rule of St. Benedict. She bore her husband’s banishment, the loss of all her goods, and the trouble which befel her whole family, not only with heroic patience, but was frequently heard to give thanks, saying with holy Job: “The Lord hath given, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord!”
At the death of her husband, she fled to the aforesaid House of Oblates, and there, barefooted, with a rope tied round her neck, and prostrate on the ground, she humbly, and with many tears, begged admission. Her petition being granted, she, though mother of the whole community, gloried in calling herself everyone’s servant, and a worthless woman, and a vessel of dishonour. She evinced the contempt she had for herself by her conduct, as well as by her expressions. Thus, when returning from a vineyard in the suburbs, she would go through the city, sometimes carrying faggots on her head, sometimes driving an ass laden with them. She looked after, and bestowed abundant alms upon the poor. She visited the sick in the hospitals, and consoled them, not only with corporal food, but with spiritual advice. She was untiring in her endeavours to bring her body into subjection, by watchings, fasting, wearing a hair-shirt and an iron girdle, and by frequent disciplines. Her food, which she took but once in the day, consisted of herbs and pulse, and her only drink was water. But she would somewhat relent in these corporal austerities, as often as she was requested to do so by her confessor, whom she obeyed with the utmost exactitude.
Her contemplation of the divine mysteries, and especially of the Passion, was made with such intense fervour and abundance of tears, that she seemed as though she would die with grief. Frequently, too, when she was praying, and above all after Holy Communion, she would remain motionless, with her soul fixed on God, and rapt in heavenly contemplation. The enemy of mankind seeing this, endeavoured to frighten her out of so holy a life, by insults and blows; but she feared him not, invariably baffled his attempts, and, by the assistance of her Angel Guardian, whose visible presence was granted to her, she gained a glorious victory. God favoured her with the gift of healing the sick, as also with that of prophecy, whereby she foretold future events, and could read the secrets of hearts. More than once, when she was intent on prayer, either in the bed of a torrent, or during a storm of rain, she was not touched by the water. On one occasion, when all the bread they had was scarcely enough to provide a meal for three of the sisters, she besought our Lord, and he multiplied the bread; so that after fifteen persons had eaten as much as they needed, there was sufficient left to fill a basket. At another time, when the sisters were gathering wood outside the City walls, in the month of January, she amply quenched their thirst by offering them bunches of fresh grapes, which she plucked from a vine, and which she had miraculously obtained. Her virtues and miracles procured for her the greatest veneration from all. Our Lord called her to himself in the fifty-sixth year of her age, and she was canonised by Pope Paul the Fifth.
O Frances! sublime model of every virtue! thou wast the glory of Christian Rome, and the ornament of thy sex. How insignificant are the pagan heroines of old compared with thee! Thy fidelity to the duties of thy state, and all thy saintly actions, had God for their one single end and motive. The world looked on thee with amazement, as though heaven had lent one of its Angels to this earth. Humility and penance put such energy into thy soul, that every trial was met and mastered. Thy love for those whom God Himself had given thee, thy calm resignation and interior joy under tribulation, thy simple and generous charity, to every neighbour,–all was evidence of God’s dwelling within thy soul. Thy seeing and conversing with thy Angel Guardian, and the wonderful revelations granted thee of the secrets of the other world,–how much these favours tell us of thy merits? Nature suspended her laws at thy bidding; she was subservient to thee, as to one that was already face to face with the Sovereign Master, and had the power to command. We admire these privileges and gifts granted thee by our Lord; and now beseech thee to have pity on us, who are so far from being in that path, in which thou didst so perseveringly walk.
Pray for us, that we may be Christians, practically and earnestly; that we may cease to love the world and its vanities; that we may courageously take up the yoke of our Lord, and do penance; that we may give up our pride; that we may be patient and firm under temptation. Such was thy influence with our Heavenly Father, that thou hadst but to pray, and a vine produced the richest clusters of fruit, even in the midst of winter. Our Jesus calls Himself the True Vine; ask Him to give us of the wine of His divine love, which His Cross has so richly prepared for us. When we remember how frequently thou didst ask Him to let thee suffer, and accept thy sufferings for poor sinners, we feel encouraged to ask thee to offer thy merits to Him for us. Pray, too, for Rome, thy native city, that her people may be staunch to the faith, edifying by holiness of life, and loyal to the Church. May thy powerful intercession bring blessings on the Faithful throughout the world, add to their number, and make them fervent as were our fathers of old.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.