Saint Frances Romana: Angel of the Eternal City

Today, March 9, the Catholic Church celebrates the memory of St. Frances Romana, who for her prodigious activity in favor of the poor and the sick, earned the title of the Angel of the Eternal City.

Newsroom (March 9, 2022, 10:10 PM, Gaudium Press) A strong woman like the one in Sacred Scripture, “the most Roman of all the Saints” enlightened souls and helped the needy in one of the most troubled periods of the Church’s history. This is how Saint Frances Romana was.

The Divine Savior established His Church on sure foundations: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). But throughout history, the forces of hell have not ceased to attack this unshakable rock.

One of these attacks began with the political and social upheavals that forced Pope Clement V, in 1309, to transfer the seat of the Papacy to the French city of Avignon, where Peter’s successors remained until 1376. It was a long period of turmoil that culminated in the Great Schism of the West (1378-1417).

The outbreak of the Schism further aggravated the situation, to the point that the Eternal City was reduced to a state of misery, battered by wars, famine and pestilence. In this context, a young lady of high nobility, Saint Frances Romana, stood out as a shining angel of charity. Because of her prodigious activity in favor of the poor and the sick, she earned the honorable title of Advocata Urbis (Advocate of the City).

Early piety

Born in 1384, Frances was from a wealthy Roman patrician family. Her parents, Paulo Bussa de Leoni and Jacovella de Broffedeschi, gave her an excellent Christian education. From an early age, she accompanied her mother in pious practices such as abstinence, prayers, spiritual readings, and visits to churches where indulgences could be gained.

She frequented the Basilica of Santa Maria Nuova, her mother’s favorite, which was entrusted to the Benedictine monks of Monte Olivetto. There, while still a child, Frances began to receive spiritual direction from Friar Antonio di Monte Savello, with whom she went to confession every Wednesday.

At the age of eleven, she expressed the desire to consecrate herself to God by a vow of virginity. Her inclination for the monastic life became noticeable when – on the advice of her spiritual director, to prove the authenticity of her vocation – she began to practice at home some austerities proper to certain female religious orders. Her father, however, opposed these childish projects, because she was already promised in marriage to Lorenzo Ponziani, a young man of noble family, good character, and great fortune.

An exemplary wife

Francisca was always an exemplary wife. At her husband’s wish, she presented herself in public with the rank of a Roman lady, wearing beautiful jewelry and sumptuous costumes. But underneath, she wore a rough tunic of ordinary cloth. She dedicated her free time to prayer, and never neglected the practices of interior life. She transformed a palace hall into an oratory, and spent long hours of nocturnal vigil there, accompanied by Vanozza. She was the object of mockery from worldly people, but her family considered her an “angel of peace.” [1]

The Designs of Providence

Three years after her marriage, she contracted a serious illness that lasted twelve months, leaving all the members of the family fearful. Francisca, however, was not afraid, for she had placed her life in God’s hands with complete resignation. During this period of trial, Saint Alexis appeared to her twice. The first time he asked her if she wanted to be cured, and the second time he told her that “God wanted her to remain in this world to glorify his name. [2] Then, placing his golden mantle over her, he restored her to health.

This illness, however, made her meditate deeply on Providence’s plans for her. And once she recovered, she decided, with Vanozza, to lead a life more in conformity with the Gospel, renouncing useless amusements and dedicating more time to prayer and charitable works.

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Protection from the Angel, attacks from the devil

It was at this time that God sent her a special Angel to guide her on the path of purification. She could not see him, but he was constantly at her side and manifested himself through clear signs. Besides being a friend and counselor, he was a vigilant admonisher, who chastised her when she committed any small fault. One time, when Frances, out of human respect, did not interrupt a superficial and frivolous conversation, he gave her a blow on the face so strong that it left its mark for several days and was heard in the whole room!

The devil undertook all kinds of efforts to disrupt the life and especially to prevent the sanctification of Frances. Since the Saint always triumphed over his temptations, he often resorted to direct attacks. Thus, on one occasion she and Vanozza were returning from St. Peter’s Basilica and decided to take a shortcut, for it was already late. When they reached the banks of the Tiber, they bent down to get some water. Pushed by an invisible force, Francisca fell into the river. Vanozza jumped in to save her and was also swept away by the current. Feeling their lives in danger, they turned to God and in the same instant found themselves back on the shore, safe and sound.

Model mother and housewife

When her first child, John the Baptist, was born in 1400, she did not hesitate to leave some of her mortifications and pious exercises to take better care of the child. To her mother’s affection, she joined the firmness of a good educator, correcting him in his infantile manifestations of stubbornness, obstinacy, and anger, without ever giving in to his tears of impatience. She was also a model mother to John the Evangelist and Agnes, who were born a few years later.

Her Angel helped her to lead her married life with love and dedication, both for her husband and her children. She carried out her housewife’s duties with perfection, understanding that the sacrifices imposed by daily tasks are part of the necessary purification in this life and have priority over private mortifications. She performed herself in such a way that, in 1401, when the wife of the old man Ponziani, her father-in-law, died, he entrusted her with the government of the palace. In this function, the young lady showed great ability, intelligence, and above all, kindness.

She organized the work of the numerous servants so that everyone had time to fulfill their religious duties. She assisted them in their material needs and encouraged them to lead a truly Christian life. When any of them fell ill, Francisca acted as nurse, mother, and sister. And if the illness was life-threatening, she herself would seek the spiritual assistance of a priest, at any time of the day or night.

Miracles performed during his lifetime

Around 1413, famine struck Rome. Frances’ father-in-law was alarmed to see that she was still very generous in helping the needy… distributing to them part of the provisions that he had set aside to support the family, and forbade her to do so. Since the charitable lady could no longer use the food to help the hungry, she began to beg for alms for them. And one day, overcome by a sudden inspiration, she went with Vanozza to an empty barn in the palace to look for what wheat might be left among the straw. After patient work, they managed to collect a few kilos of the desired grain. Right after they left, Lorenzo, her husband, went into the barn and found 40 sacks each containing 100 kilos of golden, ripe wheat!

An identical miracle took place at the same time: wanting to bring some wine to the poor, Françoise gathered the scarce amount that remained at the bottom of a barrel, and at the same moment the barrel was miraculously filled with excellent wine.

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These miraculous events caused Laurence to grow in reverential and loving awe for his wife. As a result, he gave her freedom to devote her time to her apostolic works and allowed her to exchange her beautiful clothes and jewelry – which she hastened to sell in order to distribute the money to the poor – for simple and inconspicuous clothes.

Wars and Trials

Many trials still awaited her. The political situation of the Italian Peninsula and the crisis resulting from the Great Schism in the West caused him much suffering. Rome was divided into two groups that waged a fierce war: the Orsini, whose faction Lorenzo belonged to, were in favor of the Pope, and the Colonna, who supported Ladislaus Durazzo, king of Naples, who invaded Rome three times. In the first invasion, Lorenzo was seriously wounded in battle and was healed by the faith and dedication of his wife. In the second, in 1410, the troops sacked the Ponziani palace, and the family’s possessions were confiscated. Worse still, Frances saw her husband and son Baptista go into exile.

In 1413 and 1414, the capital of Christendom was left to pillage and reduced to misery. A new scourge, the plague, aggravated the situation. The Saint transformed the palace into a hospital and personally cared for the victims of the terrible disease. She was an angel of charity in that unhappy city plagued by misfortune.

Her own family was not immune to this tragedy: in 1413 her youngest son Evangelista died, and the following year little Agnes died. Eventually, she too contracted the disease but was miraculously healed by God.

Visions and supernatural gifts

Still, in 1413, her recently deceased son appeared to her, having at her side a young man of the same size, appearing to be the same age, but much more beautiful.

– Is it really you, son of my heart? – she asked.

He answered that he was in Heaven, together with that splendorous Archangel that the Lord sent to assist her in her earthly pilgrimage.

– Day and night you will see him by your side and he will assist you in everything,” he added.

That celestial Spirit radiated such a light that Francisca could read or work at night without any difficulty, as if it were day. And he illuminated her path when she needed to go out at night. In the light of this Archangel, she could see the innermost thoughts of hearts. She also received the gift of discernment of spirits and the gift of counsel, which she used to convert sinners and lead those astray back to the right path.

God favored her with numerous other visions. The most impressive were those of hell. She saw in detail the torments by which the damned are punished, according to the sins committed. He observed the hierarchical organization of the demons and the functions of each one in the work of destroying souls, a parody of the hierarchy of the Angelic Choirs. Lucifer is the king of pride and the boss of all. He also saw how the acts of virtue performed by the good ones torment these miserable creatures and hinder their action on earth.

Life of Apostolate

When King Ladislaus died, peace was restored in the Eternal City, his husband and his son Baptist returned from exile, and the Ponziani family recovered the goods unjustly confiscated.

Through prayers and good words, the Saint succeeded in convincing Lorenzo to reconcile with his enemies and to give himself to a life of perfection. After the wedding of her son, she gave her daughter-in-law – converted by her – the government of the palace, to dedicate herself entirely to works of charity and apostolate.

Lorenzo left her free to find an association of secular-religious, on the condition that she continue to live at home and not stop guiding him on the path to sanctity. Guided by her spiritual director, she founded a society called Oblates of the Blessed Virgin, following the model of the Benedictines of Monte Olivetto. On August 15, 1425, Frances and nine other ladies made their oblation to God and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but without making solemn vows. They lived each in her own home, following the evangelical counsels, and gathered in the church of Santa Maria Nuova to hear the words of their foundress, who was a guide and model for them to imitate.

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Some years later, she received the inspiration to transform this society into a religious congregation. She acquired the building named Tor de’ Specchi, and in March 1433, ten Oblates of Mary were clothed in the habit and established there in community life. In July of the same year, Pope Eugenius IV erected the Congregation of the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin, a name later changed to Congregation of the Oblates of St. Frances Romana. It was a new and original institution for its time: religious women without vows, without cloister, but with an austere life and dedicated to a genuine social apostolate.

Committed as she was to marriage, it was only after the death of her husband in 1436 that Frances was finally able to fulfill the greatest desire of her life: to become a nun. She entered the congregation she founded as a mere postulant. But she was forced – by the community chapter and the spiritual director – to accept the duties of superior and foundress.

She saw Heaven open and the Angels coming to get her.

She lived in the convent for only three years. In 1440, she was forced to return to the Ponziani palace to care for her seriously ill son. Stricken with strong pleurisy, she remained there because she had no more strength. Then she knew that her last moment had come. She suffered terribly for a week but was able to give her last advice to her spiritual daughters and say goodbye to them.

On March 9, after thanking her director, Father Giovanni, in her name and in the name of the community, wanted to say Vespers of the Office of the Blessed Virgin. With her eyes very bright, she said she saw Heaven open and that the Angels had arrived to take her away. With a smile illuminating her face, her soul left this earth.

When Pope Paul V raised her to the honors of the altars in May 1608, he called her “the most Roman of all the Saints. [3] And Cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine, who had contributed decisively, with his vote, to the canonization, declared at the Consistory: “The proclamation of the sanctity of Frances will be of admirable benefit to very different classes of people: virgins, married women, widows, and religious.” [4]

Four centuries later, Cardinal Angelo Sodano drew this picture of her: “Reading her life, we seem to come across one of those strong women of whom the Sacred Books and the pages of the History of the Church are full. […] A woman of action, Francisca drew, however, from an intense life of prayer the necessary strength for her social apostolate.” [5]

Precious advice for all of us: it is from “an intense life of prayer” that we draw the strength to carry out our apostolic works.

By Sister Juliane Vasconcelos Almeida Campos, EP.

……………………………………………………

[1] SUÁREZ, OSB, Father Luis M. Pérez. Saint Frances Romana. In: ECHEVERRÍA, L.; LLORCA, B. and BETES, J. (Org.). Año Cristiano. Madrid: BAC, 2003. p. 173.
[2] Idem, ibidem.
[3] Tor de’Specchi, Monastero delle Oblate di S. Francesca Romana – Venerazione e culto.
[4] SUÁREZ, OSB, op. cit.
[5] SODANO, Card. Angelo. Homily on the occasion of the feast of St. Frances Romana, March 5, 2005.

Compiled by Sarah Gangl 

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