Saints: March 2013 Archives

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Prayer to Saint Joseph for Priests

O glorious Saint Joseph,
who, on the word of the angel
speaking to you in the night,
put fear aside to take your Virgin Bride into your home,
show yourself today the advocate and protector of priests.
Guardian of the Infant Christ,
defend them against every attack of the enemy,
preserve them from the dangers that surround them
on every side.
Remember Herod's threats against the Child,
the anguish of the flight into Egypt by night,
and the hardships of your exile.
Stand by the accused;
stretch out your hand to those who have fallen;
comfort the fearful;
forsake not the weak;
and visit the lonely.
Let all priests know that in you
God has given them a model
of faith in the night, obedience in adversity,
chastity in tenderness, and hope in uncertainty.
You are the terror of demons
and the healer of those wounded in spiritual combat.
Come to the defence of every priest in need;
overcome evil with good.
Where there are curses, put blessings,
where harm has been done, do good.
Let there be joy for the priests of the Church,
and peace for all under your gracious protection.
Amen.

Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick

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Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland

Today is my second Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland (transferred from yesterday, Passion Sunday). Silverstream Priory is not very far from the famous Hill of Slane where, in 433, Saint Patrick kindled the Paschal Fire in defiance of the Supreme Monarch of Island and the druids.

Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle,
On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile;
And now thou art high in the mansions above,
On Erin's green valleys look down in thy love.

Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, thy words were once strong
Against Satan's wiles and an infidel throng;
Not less is thy might where in heaven thou art;
O, come to our aid, in our battle take part.

In the war against sin, in the fight for the faith,
Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death;
May their strength be in meekness, in penance, their prayer,
Their banner the cross which they glory to bear.

Thy people, now exiles on many a shore,
Shall love and revere thee till time be no more;
And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright,
Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.

I Have Taught You

Like Moses, Saint Patrick, having announced the Gospel to the people of Ireland, was able to say, "Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me. . . . Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (Dt 4:5-6). The gift of the true faith imparted by Saint Patrick brought with it a sacred responsibility, one that the Irish people honoured down through the centuries, even in times of persecution and cruel repression.

Many People Were Reborn in God Through Me

Saint Patrick himself was conscious that God had used him to do great things. In his Confession, he writes: "I am very much God's debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth." By preaching, baptizing, ordaining priests, and consecrating virgins, Saint Patrick changed the face of Ireland. He did not blush to apply to the Irish people the prophecy of Hosea: "I will have mercy on her that was without mercy. And I will say to that which was not my people: Thou art my people. . . . And in the place where it was said: 'You are not my people': it shall be said to them: 'Ye are the sons of the living God'" (Hos 2:23-24; 1:10).

Monks and Virgins of Christ

Saint Patrick, conscious of his own weakness, was in awe of the power of the grace of Christ. "How," he asks, "did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshiped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God, that the sons and daughters of the kings of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ?" The psalmist expresses Saint Patrick's wonder before the work of grace in the hearts of a great number: "He has not done thus for any other nation" (Ps 147:20).

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I took this photo from the road in front of Saint Patrick's Chapel in Gowell, County Leitrim, where my grandmother Margaret Mary Gilbride Kirby received her First Holy Communion in 1909. In the distance is the wild and reputedly mystical Hill of Sheemore, about which my grandmother often spoke. Five years ago I climbed the Hill of Sheemore together with my good friend John Flynn. The view from the Cross at the summit is magnificent.

The Missionary Born of the Monastery

Irish Christianity was, from the beginning, monastic in temperament and in organization. The Church was barely established when already monasteries sprang into life. Succeeding generations saw a spectacular growth: there came to be monasteries of over three thousand monks, centres of learning, monastic universities of a sort, drawing students from all over the continent. From the sixth to the twelfth centuries, these same monastic centres of learning were seedbeds of missionary work. Irish monks poured into France. Germany, Belgium, and Italy welcomed them. Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both presented their visions of a Europe infused with the love of Christ, of a "new civilization of love." Efforts toward the rechristianization of Europe can draw inspiration from the ideals of the Irish missionaries of the so-called Dark Ages. The Irish model is a good one: the missionary is born of the monastery. Prayer, asceticism, and scholarship come to fruition in the implantation of the Gospel and in the renewal of the churches.

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And here you see my Dad, 86 years old this year. Dad marched this year in the New Haven, Connecticut Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

The Passion of the Church in Ireland

The faith received from Saint Patrick came, in time, to be sorely tested. The eighteenth century saw the enactment of repressive laws penalizing Catholics: Catholics were prohibited from voting; were not permitted to purchase land or lease it for more than thirty-one years; it was illegal to teach the Catholic religion to children and adults; it became illegal for Catholic priests to remain in Ireland or enter Ireland from abroad; it became illegal to harbour or otherwise assist Catholic priests. Only in 1829 did the British Parliament grant a decree of Catholic Emancipation, making it possible for the Church to emerge from the underground. But another trial was to follow, The Great Hunger that claimed over a million lives. Those who could escaped the famine; wave after wave of impoverished Irish emigrants found a home in America, bringing with them their greatest possession: the Catholic faith. Out of the horrors of The Great Hunger God brought a great good: were it not for the exodus of the Irish at the time of the famine there would be very few English-speaking Catholics in the world today.

New Penal Laws?

Strangely, there seems to be among some in Ireland today, a militantly secularistic ideology bent on the repression of the Catholic Faith in public life. Will we see the enactment of a new set of Penal Laws imposed not by an anti-Catholic oppressor from without but, instead, by Irish upon Irish? Or will we see instead a great Catholic reawakening, and a joyful rallying around the Most Holy Eucharist, the Mother of God, and fidelity to the teachings of the Church?

Transmit the Faith

Moses' words to the children of Israel become Saint Patrick's words addressed to us: "Keep thyself therefore, and thy soul carefully. Forget not the words that thy eyes have seen, and let them not go out of thy heart all the days of thy life. Thou shalt teach them to thy children and to thy grandchildren" (Dt 4:9). The transmission of the faith is more urgent today than ever before. Saint Patrick and those who followed in his footsteps teach us that the surest way of holding fast to the faith is by transmitting it. Deep in the heart of every Christian is a monastic impulse and a missionary impulse. Like Saint Patrick, may we rise today to both of them.

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Saint Patrick's Day

On this feast of Saint Patrick (transferred from yesterday, Passion Sunday), I should like to reflect on his life and mission, and on the patrimony of the Catholic Faith that he bequeathed to his sons and daughters.

The Enlightener of Ireland

"Remember the marvels the Lord has done" (Ps 104:5). The psalmist invites us to remember, among other marvels, the wonderful works done by God through Saint Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland. Sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 432, Saint Patrick delivered the true, Catholic and Apostolic faith to the Irish people. He announced, in the language of his own poetry, "the strong name of the Trinity, Christ's incarnation, His baptism in the Jordan River, his death on the Cross for our salvation, His bursting from the spicèd tomb, His riding up the heavenly way, and His coming at the day of doom" (Saint Patrick’s Breastplate). Patrick, bound fast to the mystery of Christ, enlightened the minds and warmed the hearts of a people "dwelling in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Lk 1:7) with faith in the Son of Mary.

When Every Staff of Bread Was Broken

This is the faith for which the Irish risked home and possessions and life during years of cruel persecution. This is the faith kept alive in the humble telling of the beads, in hospitality heroically given to fugitive priests, and in the preparation of secret altars for the Holy Sacrifice, for nothing mattered to them more than Holy Mass. This is the faith that sustained the Irish even when, as the psalm says, they "were wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another" (Ps 104:13), when "famine fell upon the land, and when every staff of bread was broken" (Ps 104:16). This is the Catholic faith passed on, at great cost, from one generation to the next.

The Transmission of the Faith

A faith that is not passed on grows dim and, like a dying flame, becomes no more than a flicker offering little in the way of light and warmth. The transmission of the faith assures its vitality. Faith is inseparable from tradition, tradition being the transmission of what we ourselves have received from the saints: whole, unchanged, and intact.

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Tradition

There is an old saying -- not an Irish one -- a Middle Eastern one that expresses perfectly what we mean by tradition. "With a trail, the best way to keep it alive is to walk on it, because every time you walk on it, you create it again." So too with the path of tradition: the best way to keep it alive is to walk on it, because every time you walk on it, you create it again.

Things Put Into Our Hands

Every now and then in life things are put into our hands to help us remember the marvels the Lord has done and to help us walk on the path of tradition, creating it again, and discovering it again with a sense of gratitude and wonderment. After the death of my dear grandmother Margaret Mary Gilbride Kirby on March 23rd, 1993, it was necessary to sort through years of accumulated treasures in the house she had lived in.

A Little Irish Prayerbook

Among the things found in that house was a little Irish prayerbook. Its gilded pages are faded now and the once shining stamp of the Sacred Heart on its leather cover is dark with age. It is 153 years old, having been published in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, in 1860. Blessed Pius IX was Pope. It bears the imprimatur of His Eminence Paul Cardinal Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, and of the Right Reverend Doctor William Delany, Lord Bishop of Cork.

My Grandmother's Faith

The prayerbook is called The Treasury of the Sacred Heart. In the back of the book in what appears to be a child's hand, there is the date October 11th, 1912. That was the year of my grandmother's second return to America from Ireland. In all she crossed the Atlantic four times. Childhood memories of Ireland enchanted her right until the end of her long life. She spoke of them often, her blue eyes sparkling. As for her faith, she lived it. "I could not on without it," she used to say. It was the faith she received, the transmitted faith, the faith of a holy tradition, the faith of a path beset with brambles and sharp stones. By persevering along the path of tradition, she recreated it for herself, and bequeathed it to her children and her children's children.

A Treasury

If this little prayerbook could talk, what a tale it would tell! I don't know who used it, but it is well used. The pages are worn and the binding coming unstitched. It is a remarkable little volume. Whoever named it, named it well. It is a Treasury. It contains the whole Ordinary of the Mass in Latin and in English, Vespers and Compline in Latin and in English, the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays and principal feasts, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Sacrament of Penance, the great hymns of the Divine Office for the whole liturgical year in Latin and in English. It contains meditations for the Holy Rosary and for praying the beads of the Seven Dolours. There is, of course, the Way of the Cross and the litanies that so often followed the Rosary in Irish homes. There are prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and novenas to the Blessed Virgin, to Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick, and other saints. There is also The Jesus Psalter, a splendid old prayer that the Irish cherished and recited in the darkest hours of the Penal Times.

The Tale of A People Who Loved the Mass

Yes, if this little prayerbook could talk, what a tale it would tell! The tale of a people rising before dawn for Holy Mass -- in Latin, with a Communion fast from midnight. The tale of a people sustained by their attachment to the Blessed Mother of God and to her rosary. The tale of a people drawn to the mystery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the image of Suffering Love that held a place of honour in every Irish home. The tale of a people who knew their faith: the Gospels, the Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, the Seven Capital Sins, the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Ghost, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, and all the rest! The tale of a people who made their way often to a dark confessional, there to pour out their misery, their failings, and their sorrow to a man in whom they recognized the merciful Christ, and from whose mouth they received the miracle of absolution and of peace.

Remember . . . and Walk

This little prayerbook from Ireland, now nearly a century and a half old, does speak in its own way. It was placed in my hands for a reason. Perhaps so that I could tell you its story again for this Saint Patrick's Day. "Remember the marvels the Lord has done" (Ps 104:5). And walk in the path of tradition. The best way to keep it alive is to walk on it, because every time you walk on it, you create it again for yourself, and for generations to come.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great

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Your Servants Through Jesus

The feast of Saint Gregory the Great, falling in the midst of Lent on March 12th, and on the opening day of the Conclave, brings joy to the whole Church and, in a special way, to the Benedictine Order. Like Saint Paul, Saint Gregory had a passion for preaching "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor 4:4). "For we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ our Lord; and ourselves your servants through Jesus" (2 Cor 4:5).

Father and Doctor

Saint Gregory the Great takes his place among the Fathers of the Church, alongside of Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and Saint Leo the Great. His fatherhood in the Spirit is an ongoing reality. Saint Gregory continues to be a father in the Spirit, sowing the seeds of contemplation even today by means of his writings. The writings of Saint Gregory allow us to hear his voice and to thrive on his teaching. Thus does he continue to help us grow up to maturity in Christ. Saint Gregory the Great is the Doctor of Lectio Divina, the Doctor of Compunction, and the Doctor of Contemplation.

Illumined by the Love of Jesus Christ

Saint Gregory was born into a patrician family in the year 540. His prestigious family background and education prepared him to do great things in Rome. His place was among the learned and esteemed. By age thirty-five, he was well on the way to a successful life, according to worldly standards. And then, like so many saints before him and like so many after him, Gregory was illumined by the love of Jesus Christ in so intimate a way that it changed the direction of his life. "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus" (2 Cor 4:6).

The Monastic Haven

The Gospels and the Psalms became his inseparable companions. Gregory became a monk, a disciple in the school of the Holy Patriarch Saint Benedict, although not without a struggle. "Even after I was filled with heavenly desire," he says, "I preferred to be clothed in secular garb. Long-standing habit so bound me that I could not change my outward life.... Finally, I fled all this with anxiety and sought the safe haven of the monastery. Having left behind what belongs to the world (as I mistakenly thought at the time), I escaped naked from the shipwreck of this life."

Servant of the Servants of God

Saint Gregory was acutely aware of his own fragility. Again, Saint Paul speaks to us today to reveal the soul of Gregory: "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God, and not of us" (2 Cor 4:7). Benedictine obedience, silence, and humility, together with the daily round of the Work of God, prepared Saint Gregory to become the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff and, to use his own expression, the Servant of the Servants of God.

All Pope and All Monk

Saint Gregory did not live the cloistered life for very long, but it marked him indelibly, almost painfully, and this for life. His talents and learning did not go unnoticed. Pope Gelasius sent him as his special delegate to Constantinople where he remained for six years. Upon his return to Rome, he was elected Pope. Today is, in fact, the anniversary of his ordination as bishop of Rome on September 3, 590. All his life, Saint Gregory longed for the silence of the monastery. All his life, he lamented that the affairs of the Church consumed him, leaving him with little time for prayer and contemplation. Outwardly, Gregory was all pope; inwardly, he was all monk.

Non Angli Sed Angeli

Zeal to make known "the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus" (2 Cor 4:6) compelled Pope Gregory to send the Roman monk Augustine together with forty others to preach the Gospel of Christ in England. Saint Gregory had a special affection for the English. Saint Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, recounts the origin of the English mission:

Nor must we pass by in silence the story of the blessed Gregory, handed down to us by the tradition of our ancestors, which explains his earnest care for the salvation of our nation. It is said that one day, when some merchants had lately arrived at Rome, many things were exposed for sale in the market place, and much people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and saw among other wares some boys put up for sale, of fair complexion, with pleasing countenances, and very beautiful hair. When he beheld them, he asked, it is said, from what region or country they were brought, and was told, from the island of Britain, and that the inhabitants were like that in appearance.
He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, "Alas! What pity," said he, "that the author of darkness should own men of such fair countenances; and that with such grace of outward form, their minds should be void of inward grace." He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation, and was answered, that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, "for they have an angelic face, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven."

How important it is that we pray today for the Ordinariates established for Anglicans returning to full communion with the See of Rome! Saint Gregory is the "father in Christ" of the Ecclesia Anglicana. Pray today that, through his intercession, the Ordinariates may flourish unimpeded in their mission, and so accomplish that which Pope Benedict XVI had in view when he made them possible.

The Word of God

Saint Gregory preached incessantly. He knew that the Church would flourish only if the faithful were nourished with the Word of God. His homilies and other writings were read and copied throughout the Middle Ages and, in this way, came down to us. Saint Gregory continues to feed us with the Word of God. He calls us to a heart-piercing, life-changing reading of the Scriptures. Blessed John XXIII read and re-read Saint Gregory's Rule for Pastors so as to better fulfill his own mission as Servant of the Servants of God. The saints engender saints. We are known by the company we keep and by the books we read!

The Sacred Liturgy

Pope Saint Gregory was deeply concerned with the dignity and beauty of the Sacred Liturgy. In this he was a worthy son of Saint Benedict. He encouraged the study of liturgical chant and the formation of singers for the glory of God. This is yet another reason for us to seek his intercession at this time of the Conclave, so that the measures taken by Pope Benedict XVI to restore beauty, reverence and dignity to the celebration of the Holy Mysteries may continue to be fostered in the Church. The Holy Father spoke of Saint Gregory the Great in Summorum Pontificum. This is what he said:

Up to our own times, it has been the constant concern of supreme pontiffs to ensure that the Church of Christ offers a worthy ritual to the Divine Majesty, 'to the praise and glory of His name,' and 'to the benefit of all His Holy Church.'
Since time immemorial it has been necessary - as it is also for the future - to maintain the principle according to which 'each particular Church must concur with the universal Church, not only as regards the doctrine of the faith and the sacramental signs, but also as regards the usages universally accepted by uninterrupted apostolic tradition, which must be observed not only to avoid errors but also to transmit the integrity of the faith, because the Church's law of prayer corresponds to her law of faith.'
Among the pontiffs who showed that requisite concern, particularly outstanding is the name of St. Gregory the Great, who made every effort to ensure that the new peoples of Europe received both the Catholic faith and the treasures of worship and culture that had been accumulated by the Romans in preceding centuries. He commanded that the form of the sacred liturgy as celebrated in Rome (concerning both the Sacrifice of Mass and the Divine Office) be conserved. He took great concern to ensure the dissemination of monks and nuns who, following the Rule of St. Benedict, together with the announcement of the Gospel illustrated with their lives the wise provision of their Rule that "nothing should be placed before the work of God." In this way the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman use, enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and fecundated their piety.

Teach Us to Sing Wisely

Saint Gregory the Great, Servant of the Servants of God, be present to us today as Father, Shepherd, and Teacher. Teach us to sing wisely, that the words on our lips may pierce our hearts, raising us to the love of heavenly things, and to the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages.

Saint Francesca of Rome

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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.

The feast of Saint Francesca Romana -- February 9th -- is almost upon us. Saint Francesca is the patroness of Benedictine Oblates; she is a model of married life, of motherhood, of an active charity, and of devotion to liturgical prayer. Loving feastday wishes to our own Oblate Sister Francesca in Oklahoma. May her patroness obtain for her an abundance of heavenly blessings.

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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, the one we prayed this morning when we commemorated Saint Francesca at Lauds, 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

I find it extraordinary that the Romans should be so proud of their Francesca, even to the point of considering her their special patron. They can lay claim, after all, to Saints Peter and Paul, to innumerable martyrs and glorious Popes, and yet, with all that spiritual richness, 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

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 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.

Intensely Alive

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. 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 had 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. I cannot help but relate Francesca;s grief to the passage in Isaiah: "Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you" (Is 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. It was this fact that made Pope Pius XI declare Francesca the patroness of motorists!

Rival Popes

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, Lorenzo came home to her, but he was a broken man both physically and mentally. Francesca cared for him with every tenderness.

Benedictine Oblates

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. They 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.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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