Saint Frances of Rome, Then and Now

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We should not be surprised that the saints speak to us through the ages, how they responded in their own era – always with its own troubles and crises – offering us an example for how we should act in our own, and standing as intercessors.

Such was Saint Frances of Rome (1384 – 1440). Born into privilege in 1384 into a Europe already ravaged by the Black Death, which peaked from 1347 to 1351, Frances lived through tumultuous times, with Christendom severed by the ‘Great Western Schism’, which had begun in 1378, eventually with three rival claimants to the papacy, none of them providing a particularly edifying example. Frances wanted to give her life to God, but was ordered at the age of twelve to marry – as per custom back then – given to the wealthy Lorenzo di Ponziani, the commander of the papal troops. The marriage proved a happy one for its four decades, even if Frances’ liberal – one might say excessive from a worldly view – almsgiving and care for the poor caused some consternation, the miraculous replenishing of the supplies alleviated the anxieties of the Ponziani clan.

Rome was in ruin during her life – before the magnificent building boom of the renaissance in the next century – wolves wandered the deserted streets, and the sick, suffering from the recurrent plagues and pestilences, were often left to fend for themselves. Her care for them was renowned, even taking them into her own house. A contemporary wrote of Frances:

Many different diseases were rampant in Rome. Fatal diseases and plagues were everywhere, but the saint ignored the risk of contagion and displayed the deepest kindness towards the poor and the needy. Her empathy would first bring them to atone for their sins. Then she would help them by her eager care, and urge them lovingly to accept their trials, however difficult, from the hand of God. She would encourage them to endure their sufferings for love of Christ, since he had previously endured so much for them.

The saints always think of life and death sub specie aeternitatis, the greatest ‘evil’ was to die without charity, after a life absorbed with this life alone. Frances raised her children well, and cared for her husband until his death, after he was invalided in a battle. Before that, they had agreed to practice continence, and Frances’ charitable and prayer life deepened immeasurably, recounting visions of saints, her guardian angel, purgatory, hell, foretelling both the end of the schism and her own death. But these remarkable charisms were not what made her holy; rather, she was, as her biography attests, renowned for her patience, kindness, humility and obedience. Frances founded a community of pious women, the Benedictine Oblate Congregation of Tor di Specchi, and died on this day in 1440, after a life given to God in an age when so many were scandalized by so many bad examples in the Church.

Frances body was found incorrupt, and she was canonized on May 9th, 1608, by Pope Paul V. Pope Pius IX declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers in 1925 when those vehicles were becoming popular, since her guardian angel used to light her way through the dark streets of Rome, so we might invoke her before we make our own journeys, not least with family and loved ones.

A living lesson for our times, as all the saints are, really.

Saint Frances of Rome, ora pro nobis!