Saint Frances of Rome
Wife, Mother, Visionary
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We have been asked to write on Lay people who became Saints. As we researched our last book, Visionaries, Mystics and Stigmatists, we found ourselves writing on many Saints and Blesseds, brothers and sisters who came from a life very much like our own; they never entered the Religious life, but instead served the Lord right where He had planted them, within their families.
St. Frances of Rome is one such Saint and Visionary. True Saints are remembered long past their life here on earth; they are an everlasting remembrance of how very much God loves us and when we accept that love, how very much He can change our lives. Till today, if you visit Rome, you can pray before her tomb, seeking her intercession - powerful in life and powerful in death. If you were to visit the Church on her Feast Day, you would be among the countless faithful who still pray hopefully, petitioning her to intervene for them with the Lord, their families having passed down the Good News of miracles through her intercession. St. Frances of Rome's story is one of joy and sorrow, of faith and of hope at a dire time in the world and in the Church.
I do not know about you, but I am tired of reading over and over again how, throughout the last twenty centuries, the world has influenced the Church, instead of the Church influencing the world. It's time for a change, I say! The more we read about these great Saints who have brought us messages from our Celestial Family of what joy is awaiting us in Heaven, and from the Church Suffering what agony our brothers and sisters are enduring in Purgatory, it gives us reason to pause in our busy, worldly-filled days and meditate on what is really important. Will we pay for every soul who does not choose everlasting life with Jesus in Paradise and instead chooses the temporary rewards of life on earth, because we did not tell him about the Treasures of our most precious Roman Catholic Church? Will we share in the punishment of those who have sinned grievously against the Lord because we said and did nothing?
Our story begins in the Fourteenth Century, and the birth of The Great Western Schism which would have devastating consequences on the Church and on St. Frances' family.
"Towards the end of the Thirteenth Century, many factions within Italy were trying to take over Rome, and the Papal States. One family in particular, the Colonna family, was attacking the Popes. In 1304, Pope Benedict XI fled Rome to Perugia, near Assisi, where he died the same year.
"Pope Clement V, the first Pope of Avignon, was elected in Perugia on June 5, 1305. He was a Frenchman, who accepted the offer of the King of France to rule the Church from France. He had ulterior motives. While it was true that Italy was a battleground and the Pope one of the main targets, he also wanted to reconcile France and England in order to get them to help him launch a new crusade in the Holy Land. It was not until March of 1309 that he actually took up residence in Avignon.
"The first two popes who had residency in Avignon, Clement V, and John XXII considered Avignon as temporary living quarters, and the last two, Urban V, and Gregory XI, wanted to return to Rome. Urban V did go back to Rome in 1367, but returned to Avignon in 1370.
"Gregory XI had made a secret promise to the Lord before he became Pope, to bring the Papacy back to Rome. Only he and Jesus were aware of this promise. So, when Catherine of Siena reminded him of the promise he had made, Pope Gregory XI knew it was the Lord who was speaking to him. He returned to Rome in 1376. This caused what has been termed The Great Western Schism, in which there was a Pope of Avignon who was recognized only by France, Spain, and the Kingdom of Sicily, and another Pope, the Roman Pope, successor of St. Peter. This sorrowful situation lasted until 1409.
Although the Schism ended in 1409, Frances never saw peace and harmony return to Rome and the Church.
Frances was born in the year 1384, into nobility and great wealth. The luxurious life they led in their palace, did not affect the spirituality of the family. As they were deeply devout, it should have come as no surprise that Frances, at the age of only eleven years, would ask to be allowed to enter a convent. They refused, emphatically! Although her parents were holy and pious people, they would not acquiesce. They had very different plans for this beautiful and talented daughter, their budding rose! For a year her tearful requests and persistent pleading to become a nun, fell on deaf ears. At the end of that time, the family introduced her to the man who was to be her spouse. He was young and wealthy, came from a fine family, equal in stature and position with that of her family. All in all, Lorenzo Ponziano, her future husband was a perfect match for the fair Frances. Seeing his kindness and gentleness, Frances finally gave in and at thirteen years old, she was betrothed to Lorenzo and settled in the Ponziano Palace.
Their apartment in the palace was elegant. But although she tried to please both her young husband and his family, she became more and more despondent. There was something missing in her life, or was it Someone? One day, her brother-in-law Paluzzo's wife, Vannozza, came upon her crying. When she discovered why little Frances was so heartbroken, she revealed that she too, had always desired a life of prayer and quiet. A close friendship began and lasted to the end of their lives. The two young ladies of the nobility put aside all their finery and jewels and exchanged them for very simple, unadorned dresses of coarse fabric. Adopting the clothes of the peasantry, they ventured into the most rundown sections of Rome to serve the poor and destitute, each day. Although this was not their husbands' walk, they did not object to this new austere lifestyle their wives had adopted and did not place any obstacles in their way.
At one point, all charitable activities had to be curtailed as Frances had become seriously ill with a disease that had all the doctors in Rome stumped. Did Frances' family lose faith in the One True God and return to the false gods of paganism? They called in witches and resorted to the use of magic to attempt to cure their loved one. Can you just picture God, shaking His Head sadly, as He looks down upon His creation once again giving into the enemy who led Adam and Eve astray? It makes us wonder if He is not thinking, "How many times do I have to suffer and die for them to understand that there is only One God and no other; wasn't once enough?"
After a year of this foolishness, the Lord had had enough. He sent Saint Alex to Frances. In a vision, he asked her if she was prepared to die or did she wish to remain here on earth. Frances responded, as the Saints before and after her, "It is not my will I want, but the Will of my Father." "Then," Saint Alex responded, "it is the Will of God that you recover and that you work for His glory!" With that, the Saint placed his cloak over her and she was cured!
If the family had thought their former lifestyle was austere, it was a party compared to the life the two daughters-in-law now adopted. They left their lovely palace early each day for the Ospedale Santo Spirito to serve not only the poorest and sickest, but those suffering from the most highly contagious and repugnant diseases. Their mother-in-law was upset because she was worried they would catch one of the diseases and/or transmit it to the rest of the family. She also complained to her sons that it was not fitting for ladies of their station to be seen doing such menial work and that she felt they were causing scandal by ignoring the duties connected with the nobility - such as entertaining at dinner parties and attending formal banquets. Thank God, her sons felt differently and told their mother they would not interfere with their wives' acts of charity.
In the year 1400, a baby was born to Frances. They named him Battista after St. John the Baptist. This new life now dominated most her waking hours, but she still found time to serve, although not as much as before the baby was born. When the baby was almost one year old, her mother-in-law died and her father-in-law asked Frances to take her place as hostess and head of the household. Although she protested that Vannozza, as wife of the eldest son was the natural one to succeed the mother-in-law, they all (including Vannozza) insisted she would best serve. Their faith in her was well-founded; she discharged her responsibilities joyfully and faithfully, treating the servants as family rather than as serfs beneath her. She never stopped serving God. In her position as head-mistress, she was in a position to share her Faith with her servants, and because of the love she showed them, she was responsible for many of them returning to Church and receiving the Sacraments.
Her husband and family came first; serving God was also serving her family. Whenever her husband and children called her, she stopped praying and tended to them, making her action her prayer at that time. We call that serving the small church. She loved God with all her heart and might; but that did not take away from the love she bore her husband and children; it only enhanced it. Lorenzo and Frances were the happiest couple; never a harsh word was heard between them, the forty years they were married. There were three children in all, and she personally reared all of them. She said of her commitment:
"It is commendable in a married woman to be devout, but she must never forget that she is first and foremost a housewife."
God rewards those who are obedient to their immediate superior, whether a religious obeying his or her superior, or a wife obeying her husband, or a child obeying a parent; this is a way on earth we can obey God. This one day, one of the servants interrupted Frances, saying her Office, five times with, "Madonna, my master begs you to come to him." Each time, she closed her Office and went peacefully to her spouse. When she returned to her Office the fifth time, she found the words imprinted in Gold!
As with the other Saints, Frances was attacked her entire life by all sorts of temptations, sometimes savage and ferocious, other times lewd and repulsive, the devil never sleeping, never missing a moment or occasion to try to drain her of all her energy or detract her from doing God's Will. But she fought! And won, battle by battle! When he saw that all his antics did not get the desired effect, he proceeded to inflict the most brutal physical attacks.
But one area where she and her family were not affected was financially; that is not until unrest and wars between the provinces broke out, eating away at the flesh of the little boot like a giant spreading cancer. Plagues accompanied the pestilence of violence that bred more violence. People were dying in the streets, with barely enough help at times to take the bodies away; consequently, the spread of highly infectious disease. The stench of death choked the hope out of the people. Crops were affected; work was curtailed; starvation became a natural progression for an already fractured Rome. It seemed as if the sun would never shine over Rome again. The once proud Romano no longer strutted in the streets of his fair Rome, but instead searched the garbage for what he could find. Chaos and confusion accompanied desperation and despair.
Frances and her family shared all the provisions they had in the palace until there were none left. Then, Frances asked her father-in-law's permission to sell her jewels to feed the poor, and he gave his consent. From that time on, Frances wore the plainest peasant clothing.
Rome was taken over by an ally of the anti-pope. He appointed one of his henchmen as governor. As the Ponziano family always defended the Apostolic succession of the legitimate Pope, the family was attacked and Lorenzo was wounded. They carried him home, near dead, to the palace. But as his wife had selflessly tended others and been an instrument of healing for them, the Lord healed and completely restored her beloved spouse to his former self. The governor, believing he had completely destroyed the morale of the people, decided to take all leadership from them, so that they would have no one to lead them to recovery. [All the monsters of the world have always killed the leaders and the intelligentsia of a nation, beginning with the members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, so that the lambs are left without shepherds and die.]
Her brother-in-law, Vannozza's husband Paluzzo, was taken prisoner and then they came for little Battista. Frances turned to her Lord and Savior; while she was praying in church, word came that the governor, without any earthly reason, released the little hostage Battista. A sigh of relief filled the palace. But, it was short-lived for Rome was again taken over by the followers of the anti-pope. Lorenzo, who was head of the party supporting the Pope, had to flee! He escaped but his family was not able to, and had to remain behind. Little Battista was once again taken hostage, but got away and joined his father. The palace was looted; the family's possessions were seized and that which the thugs of that day could not carry, they destroyed. They killed all the livestock, burned the farm to the ground and murdered the peasants. Frances retired to a small corner of her ruined home with her remaining children, Evangelist and Agnes, and her sister-in-law Vannozza. They took care not only of their families but, as much as they could, the poorer families around them, sharing what little they had.
Three years later, a plague attacked Rome and Frances' son Evangelist died. Frances mourned the dead by caring for the living; she turned part of her home into a hospital, open to all who came. God always rewards sacrifice. He also gives us all we need, to do His Will. He gave Frances the Gift of Healing. One year after his death, Evangelist appeared to his mother. As she was praying, a bright light filled the room, and before her stood her beautiful son accompanied by an Archangel. He told his mother how wonderful it was in Heaven and how very happy he was there. She was overjoyed. How she had longed to see him, once more. But her joy turned to sorrow, as he said he had another reason for coming, to warn her that Agnes, her daughter was going to die. But Our Lord did not leave her bereft of companionship and love; He left her the Archangel, who had accompanied her son, to be her companion and guide for the next twenty-three years, to be then replaced by another Archangel who would remain with her the rest of her life.
Just as her son had forewarned, Agnes soon became ill and after a year's illness, she died at sixteen years old. From the moment her beloved daughter departed this world, Frances could see the Archangel. He took on the appearance of a beautiful eight year old boy. But this gift was only for her. No one else could see the Angel and when she committed a serious fault, she was denied the presence of the Angel. He faded away, leaving her all alone. As soon as she was heartily sorry, confessed her sins, and was absolved, he returned.
As with many of the Saints, she was completely poured out. The tragedy in her life had drained her of all her strength; she became a victim of the plague and was dying. But, God not finished with her yet, she recovered!
Purgatory, a Stopover of Hope
It was at this time Frances saw a vision of Hell. It was so horrendous, she could not speak of it without sobbing uncontrollably. The vision of Hell and its horror, the excruciating agony of its tenants, tormented her more than any suffering she had endured on earth.
Frances wrote that having passed through this unbearable inferno, she was carried into Purgatory by her Heavenly Angel. There, she saw neither the utter hopelessness nor the endless pitch-black gloom she had seen in Hell. Instead, it seemed as if they were in a fog where the bright hope of life eternal with Jesus was trying to cut through. It must be like when you awaken to the dawn. It is still dark from the cover of night, but the promise of a new day begins, as you see a glimmer of the sun trying to filter through. Here, in this level of Purgatory, the pain of the Poor Souls was seeing that glimmer of Divine Hope and yet not being able to see God in His Beatific Vision. Although these souls suffered intensely, their pain was lessened by the presence of the Angels who came to visit and help them in their suffering. Oh, how good and merciful is our God.
She said that Purgatory is composed of three distinctly different levels, as diverse as being in three different countries of one continent. One level is located beneath another, the souls consigned to a level based on the seriousness of the offense and the debt owed. The deeper they are interred, the longer the time before their delivery.
St. Frances is led to the deepest Dungeon of Purgatory
The Angel brought Frances to the lowest level of Purgatory, to a a cavern filled with a roaring fire, its red-hot flames cutting through the black smoke that darkened the cave. But as horrible as it was, Frances said it was not as hot as in Hell. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see bodies being plunged into what appeared to be a cauldron of raging fire, its flames enveloping them, pulling them down. She was told that these were souls who had been guilty of committing serious sins, had confessed and were absolved of their sins by a priest, but had not satisfied the wrong done by their act against God.
In this vision, she was told that for each mortal sin committed and forgiven, a payment of seven years of reparation in Purgatory was necessary to erase it from the soul. Since the damage done by each mortal sin affects the world differently, some more deadly and lasting, the length of time and punishment differs. The type of pain and suffering measured out to each of these souls, was in proportion to the type of sin, the damage done by the sins, and the number of wounds inflicted on our Lord's Sacred Heart by these sins.
In this level, she found the Poor Souls of the Laity and Religious, alike. Those of the Laity were souls who had led a life of sin, and converted toward the end of their lives. Conversion to the Lord and His Church is God's gift to us, as only the Holy Spirit can convert men's hearts. As they had not paid their debt on earth, they had to clear the invoice due the Lord here in Purgatory.
The Souls of the Religious were those who had not kept the vows they had professed. No sooner had this been explained to her than St. Frances saw the soul of a priest who was very well known. He had a covering on his face, to try to hide the ugly blemish that had remained. Now, this priest had led a truly priestly life, faithfully administering the Sacraments and pastoring his flock. His only sin had been an intemperate need to gouge himself at mealtime, seeking his reward from God's creation rather than God alone.
The Angel then led Frances to the Intermediate Dungeon
This region was reserved for those souls who had not sinned as seriously as those of the lowest dungeon, nor caused irreparable damage by their transgressions. As their souls were not free from the ugly blemishes that are a result of sin, they were required to spend time in Purgatory; but because of God's Justice they did not need to spend time suffering the intense punishment of souls in the dungeons below. This dungeon had three compartments:
(1) The first was a cavern of ice, sharp icicles threatening the souls below. It was incredibly cold in here. She could see the poor souls trying to warm themselves to no avail, as ice seemed to be hemming them in, closing in on them, surrounding them; the walls, the floor, the ceiling, nowhere to get away from the endless freezing cold!
(2) Next, there was an underground prison of boiling oil and pitch. The sickening odor of burning flesh filled the area. She could see the Poor Souls, covered with black pitch, writhing in pain. No matter what they did, they could not escape the boiling petroleum nor the sticky hot, black mess which clung to them.
(3) In the third and last level she saw Souls struggling not to drown in what appeared to be a pool filled with liquefied ore, resembling melted gold and silver. Had these Souls attached too much importance to the rewards of the world, counting the Graces from the Lord as nothing in comparison?
The Saint visits the Upper Dungeon
Our Saint does not go into detail on this level of atonement, only that this is the place where the Poor Souls condemned themselves, upon seeing that one time before the Lord, how they had transgressed against Him. The more we study about Purgatory, the more I find myself asking the question, "Am I offending You, my Lord?" This is not so much from the viewpoint of suffering in Purgatory (my foremost desire being Heaven), but the thought of Jesus and how He will look, as my unrequited sins pass before me, the many times I failed to put Him first, the missed opportunities to love Him by loving my brothers and sisters. Oh my Lord, how my heart breaks thinking I may have offended you!
The Souls in this dungeon have the anguish which the Poor Souls in Purgatory say is the most painful, the absence of the Beatific Vision. Can you imagine knowing that your loved one is somewhere but you cannot see him or her? Multiply that by a million-fold and you get a small idea of how it must be for those who, having seen Jesus that one time, can no longer see Him. Oh, Lord, how we long to see Your Face! The consolation of being in this place is that this is the last place before being united with Jesus, Mary and the whole Celestial Family; they know they are on their way.
It is the year 1414, and we find Pope John XXIII convening the Council of Constance which was called to end the Schism in the Western Church. After 45 sessions Gregory XII, the Roman Pope agreed to step down and the Council fathers deposed John XXIII, the Pope residing in Avignon. Then the Council elected Pope Martin V.
Lorenzo and Battista returned to Rome and they along with the rest of the family, were allowed to occupy their palace once more. But Lorenzo was no longer a zealot on fire; he was tired and broken. Tragedy had taken a toll on him. Frances tenderly cared for her spouse. The miracles connected with Frances began to spread throughout the seven hills of Rome. People asked her to pray for them, and they were healed. Others asked her to settle disputes between families and even on civil matters. God was using her. Lorenzo loved her more and more each day, but he could see that she was to go another step in her walk with Jesus; he released her from occupying his bed and living a fully sacramental life as his wife. He just asked that she remain under his roof, living as brother and sister.
Frances could see that this was the Lord's way to tell her this was His Will and His timetable, and so she founded a community of women. This dream had been growing in her mind and heart and now, it was to become a reality: a community of women living in the world, bound by no vows, who would devote themselves to a life consecrated to doing God's Will through serving the poor and helpless. She received the full approval of her confessor and the first community was called the Oblates of Mary, later to be known as the Oblates of Tor de' Specchi.
The community of women continued to live at home and serve the poor for seven years when they were called to open a house for the women to meet and pray together. It was an old building, but they loved it and named it: Tor de' Specchi. Whenever she could get some free time from caring for her family (never neglecting them for one moment), she would go to the house and share the work and prayer life of the community of women she had founded. Three years passed when the Lord called Lorenzo Home. A grieving widow laid her dear spouse to rest beside his children Evangelist and Agnes. Her family no longer needing her (Battista was married), Frances told them she was thinking of entering her community.
On the Feast of St. Benedict, Frances requested she be allowed to enter as just another member of the community. The one whom she had chosen as Superior when the house had first opened, Agnes de Lellis, immediately insisted on stepping down and the community of women greeted their foundress as their Superior, all her objections failing to accomplish her desired effect. She continued living a life of extreme austerity and maintained all the forms of mortification and discipline she had practiced all her life.
Frances grew more and more in the Celestial world, than in the world around her, visions of her Lord and His Mother becoming more and more frequent. When the other sisters would look into her room to check up on her during the night, they said that many times they would see her deep in prayer; only to discover the following morning, her bed untouched, she had remained awake the entire evening.
Spring had come to the year 1440. Although only 56 years old, the wounds of the passing years were taking their toll. One evening, as she was returning from visiting her son Battista and his family, she was finding it difficult to walk. She had wanted to return home before her family could see how seriously ill she was. By the providence of God, who should come upon his charge at the point of death, but her spiritual director. He carried her to her son's home. The family thought she would pass on that evening, but she lasted seven days. I wonder, was she giving her precious son time to accept his mother going to join the rest of her family? March 9th, her family around her, Frances' face was suddenly illuminated with a light, unlike any they had ever seen. She looked beyond them and said: "The Angel has finished his task; he is beckoning me to follow him." And she was gone; now she would do her good from Heaven.
As soon as word got out that their Saint was dead the mourners filed into the Palace to see their beloved patron one more time, and to be healed through her intercession; knowing, as only the pure heart can, death would not rob them of this powerful instrument of healing. And they were right! They had to bring her body to the church of Santa Maria Nuova because of the multitude of believers who continued to come and pray for her intercession. Miracles upon miracles spread past the Italian borders, and the faithful from all parts of Europe still visit and pray before the tomb of Frances of Rome.
In 1608, what the faithful had believed for over 200 years, the Church made official, and Frances of Rome was canonized Saint Frances of Rome. Santa Maria Nuova was renamed Santa Francesca Romana after the Saint. Do you have a petition? Pray to a woman who led a faithful life, always, to husband, children, family, friends, the poor and the needy, to her community, but most of all to her Lord. She will speak to your heart. Listen!
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.”