This painting, attributed to Antonio da Viterbo the Elder (1450-1516), depicts Saint Francesca being clothed by the Blessed Virgin in the great white veil that, even today, characterizes the Olivetan Benedictine Oblates of Mary she founded in 1433. Our Lady wears a golden mantle, which Saint Paul at the left wraps around Francesca Romana. Saint Paul also holds a scroll. The mystical scene takes place on a cloud; fiery Seraphim accompany the Madonna and Child. Saint Mary Magdalene, in red vesture, and Saint Benedict, in the foreground, drape a protective mantle around twenty Oblates. Note the angel below the Gothic windows at left. He is busy carding golden threads with a warp and loom. Nearby are two frisky dogs and two cats. Francesca’s Oblate Congregation, it is said, was woven together by heavenly graces and harassed by evil spirits in the form of cats and dogs. The grace of Christ prevailed and the Oblates flourished.
In addition to being the First Sunday of Lent, today, February 9th, is the feast of Saint Francesca Romana. Saint Francesca is the patroness of Benedictine Oblates; she is a model of married life and of motherhood, of an active charity and of devotion to liturgical prayer. Loving feastday wishes to our own Oblate Sister Francesca in Oklahoma, to Oblate Sister Françoise–Romaine in California, and to Mrs. Frances Calkins in Pittsburgh. May their patroness obtain for them an abundance of heavenly blessings.
Married Life and Monastic Conversion
Saint Frances of Rome (1384-1440), more properly called by her own name, Francesca, is the patroness of Benedictine Oblates. The Collect for her feast tells us why. The Church has us pray:
O God, Who in Saint Frances of Rome, hast given us a model of holiness in married life and of monastic conversion, make us serve Thee perseveringly, so that in all circumstances we may set our gaze upon Thee and follow Thee.
It is not often that we mention both married life and monastic conversion in the same Collect. Francesca is there to tell us that it can be done. Another Collect for Saint Francesca highlights the privileged relationship she enjoyed with her Guardian Angel:
O God, Who among other gifts of Thy grace, didst adorn Thy handmaid Francesca with the familiar companionship of an Angel; grant, we beseech Thee, that helped by her prayers, we likewise may deserve to enjoy the company of the Angels.
Patronness of Rome
The Romans are extraordinarily proud of their Francesca, even to the point of considering her their special patron. Although they lay claim to Saints Peter and Paul, and to the spiritual richness of innumerable martyrs and glorious Popes, they remain attached to Francesca, a married woman, a servant of the poor, a mother to the sick, a spiritual daughter of Holy Father Benedict, and a mystic.
Enthusiasm for Holiness
Saint Francesca did nothing by half-measures. Being Roman, she lived life with a kind of reckless enthusiasm — not for the usual things Romans get excited over — but for holiness! Her life was extraordinary in some ways. She went in for fasting, austerities, and almsgiving in a huge way. The devil bothered her continually, not as he bothers most of us with boring, nagging temptations, but with spectacular assaults. Francesca was in the same league as Saint Anthony of Egypt and the Curé d’Ars.
For me, Francesca’s appeal is in her warm and very human personality. She was no dried up prune of a saint. She was intensely alive to everything human and capable of the grand passions without which life is bleak and dreary. She suffered struggles, endured sorrows, and bore with every manner of disappointment and hurt. One cannot say that Francesca’s holiness was of the tidy sort. One might even say that Francesca’s life was a mess. Her desire to serve God and live for him was continually frustrated by persons and circumstances. It was precisely in the midst of these conditions that Francesca grew in holiness, “setting nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:21), and “never despairing of God’s mercy” (RB 4:74).
Married at Thirteen
As a young girl, Francesca did not want to marry. She lived, after all, in the city of the Church’s shining virgin martyrs: Agnes, Cecilia, and so many others. Like them she wanted to consecrate her virginity to Christ, but her parents had other plans for her. The first big decision in her life was out of her hands. At the age of thirteen she gave in to her parents and married Lorenzo Ponziano, the wealthy nobleman they had chosen for her. Francesca was expected to be the perfect socialite, charming, beautiful, witty, and worldly as only Romans know how to be worldly. In her heart she longed for the cloister, but the will of God had placed her, concretely, in a setting far removed from it.
They Never Once Had A Quarrel
Lorenzo, Francesca’s husband treated her always with love and respect. He accepted that he had married an unusual woman, that she would never be like other Roman wives, and that there was something in her that he, try as he might, would never be able to satisfy. Francesca loved Lorenzo. She recognized his qualities and accepted that loving Lorenzo was part of God’s plan for her. It is said that through all their married life, Francesca and Lorenzo never once had a quarrel. For that alone they should both be canonized!
Devotion in a Married Woman
Francesca is best known for a sagacious remark, one that two centuries later Saint Francis de Sales would echo. “Devotion in a married woman,” she said, “is most praiseworthy, but she must never forget that she is a housewife. Sometimes she must leave God at the altar, to serve Him in her housekeeping”. An indication of Francesca’s Benedictine vocation was in her devotion to the Divine Office. One day in praying the Hours she was interrupted five times in succession. Each time she closed her book, attended to what was asked of her, and then returned to her prayer. After the last interruption she found the words of the antiphon she had been trying to pray written in letters of gold. God rewarded her patience as much as her zeal for the Divine Office.
Her Guiding Light
If you have ever seen a painting of Saint Francesca, you may have noticed a little angel standing near her. Francesca lost her little eight-year-old boy, Evangelista, to the plague. After his death he appeared to her announcing the death of yet another child, her daughter Agnese. Francesca’s grief is like described by the prophet Isaias: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaias 49:15). Francesca never forgot the little ones taken from her by death. In exchange for these terrible losses, she was given an unusual grace: that of always seeing her guardian angel. Her angel took on the appearance of a little boy of about eight years (like her son Evangelista); he wore a dalmatic like the deacon at Solemn Mass. Francesca’s guardian angel was with her visibly at every moment, assuring her of the love of Christ, giving her counsel and providing her, even visibly, with a guiding light as she made her way through Rome’s dark streets at night on errands of charity. It was this fact that made Pope Pius XI declare Francesca the patroness of motorists!
Francesca lived in troubled times. There were two rival Popes, making for schism and Civil War. Lorenzo was wounded fighting on behalf of the true Pope. In the aftermath of the conflicts, he lost his estates. Their home was destroyed and their one surviving son taken hostage. As if that were not enough Rome was beset with looting, famine, and plague. And we think we have troubles!
Mother of the Poor, the Sick, and the Brokenhearted
Francesca rose to the occasion. She fixed up the ruins of her home and opened a hospital. With poor and suffering people all around her, Francesca became a kind of Mother Teresa, compassionate and wonderfully effective. She fed and housed the poor sick picked up on the streets. She arranged for priests to minister to the dying. She reconciled enemies and calmed the rage of those plotting revenge. After the troubles caused by the schism in the Church, Lorenzo came home to her, but he was a broken man both physically and mentally. Francesca cared for him with every tenderness.
Francesca’s activities did not go unnoticed. Other Roman ladies, many of them war widows, were drawn to her. Little by little a new form of Benedictine life emerged: women living under the Rule of Saint Benedict, not as enclosed nuns, but as Oblates of the Roman monastery of the Olivetans at Santa Maria Nuova. Francesca’s Oblates were free to go out to serve the poor and sick. Their life was shaped to a great extent by the first part of Chapter Four of the Holy Rule, the Instruments of Good Works:
To relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to give help in trouble, to console the sorrowful, to avoid worldly behaviour, and to set nothing before the love of Christ (RB 4:14-21).
Francesca’s Oblates survive to the present day, not only in Rome, but also at Le Bec-Hellouin in France, at Abu-Gosh in Israel, and elsewhere. Most of them wear unchanged the distinctive black habit and long white veil dating from the time of Saint Francesca.
Lorenzo’s Deathbed Declaration of Love
Lorenzo died in 1436. His last words were for his darling Francesca. They are worth quoting. “I feel,” he said, “as if my whole life has been one beautiful dream of purest happiness. God has given me so much in your love.” A husband’s deathbed confession of undying love! No wife could ask for more.
The Angel Beckons
After Lorenzo’s death, Francesca was free to take a fuller role in the Benedictine community she had established. Her sister Oblates elected her prioress. Four years later, on the evening of March 9th her face became radiant with a strange light. “The angel has finished his task,” she said; “he beckons me to follow him”. Francesca was 56 years old. Her death plunged all of Rome into mourning. Miraculous healings abounded. Rome had another saint.
Acceptance of Things As They Are
Francesca’s life tells us that the plan of God for our holiness us unfolds in ways that often contradict our own projects and desires. Our endless planning can be no more than an attempt to control life, to manipulate people and events. Francesca challenges us to detachment from life as we would have it be, and to the acceptance of things as they are. Each of us has unexpected elements that, thrown into the mix, unsettle our plans, making life untidy and somehow bearable at the same time. And each of us has a guardian angel, a light in life’s obscurity, a faithful friend and spiritual counselor.