March 9: Saint Frances of Rome, Religious—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of motorists and widows
Invoked against the death of children
Canonized by Pope Paul V on May 29, 1608
Liturgical Color: White (Purple if Lenten Weekday)
A married woman must, when called upon, leave her devotions to God at the altar to find him in her household affairs. ~Famous quote of Saint Frances
Frances was born into an aristocratic family in the Eternal City of Rome near the famed Piazza Navona. From an early age, she was drawn to God and responded with much generosity. At the age of eleven, she told her father that she wanted to become a nun, but her father had other plans for her life. He informed her that he was giving her hand in marriage to Lorenzo Ponziani, a wealthy aristocrat who was a commander in the papal army. Frances struggled with her father’s decision and brought her concern to a local priest. After listening to her, the priest said to her, “Are you crying because you want to do God’s will or because you want God to do your will?” She quickly responded that she wanted God’s will, and the matter was settled. At the age of twelve, Frances was married.
Soon after her marriage, Frances was expected to assist her mother-in-law with the family’s social calendar. She was to help plan and host parties, engage in frivolities, and attend numerous public meetings. Since all she longed for was a life of solitude and prayer, the social expectations placed on her wore her out and she became gravely ill. The illness lasted for months and left her on her deathbed at a tender age. As she lay dying, she had a vision of Saint Alexis, a holy monk who fled an arranged marriage to pursue his vocation, who told her that she could choose one of two options, to recover or not. She deferred to the will of God and was immediately healed.
For the next forty years, Frances embraced her marriage with her whole heart. She loved her husband and he loved her. Her humble affection and devotion to him were so great that it has been said that during those forty years they never once had an argument. Though drawn to a life of prayer, Frances often said, “A married woman must, when called upon, leave her devotions to God at the altar to find Him in her household affairs.” One story relates that, while praying the psalms, Frances was called away four times to tend to family affairs before even being able to finish the prayer. Upon returning to begin a fifth time, she found the words of the psalm written in gold as a sign that her fidelity to the duties of her vocation was pleasing to God.
Though Frances was wealthy and of the noble class, she embraced a personal life of simplicity, bodily penance, fasting, and prayer. She abstained from meat except for rare occasions. She would often exchange the delectable food of the nobility for the food of poor beggars, usually receiving from them dry and moldy bread. She dressed in coarse garments, never fine linen, and often wore a hairshirt that irritated her flesh.
Frances and her husband had three children, two boys, and one girl. When a plague afflicted the city of Rome, one of her sons and her only daughter died at an early age. This personal suffering led her to join her sister-in-law to begin an informal outreach to the sick and poor. The women regularly visited hospitals, nursed the sick back to health, distributed food to the hungry, and were ministers of the compassion of Christ. Frances exhausted all of her own money and possessions to care for those who were suffering. When her money ran out, she began to beg other wealthy families for more. Eventually, some holy noblewomen in Rome were inspired to join Frances and her sister-in-law in their work.
In the year 1413, when Frances was twenty-nine years old, her husband was exiled from Rome by invaders, his property was seized, their home destroyed, and their only living son was detained as a hostage. Through it all, Frances called to mind the sufferings of Job and prayed with him, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21). Within a few years, the situation was resolved, and her husband was able to move back to Rome and regain his possessions. But the chaos led Frances to turn the ruined family home into a hospital to care for the sick. One of those whom she cared for was her husband, who had suffered greatly during his exile. He was broken more in mind than in body, but her loving devotion helped him heal. During this time, it is said that she began having visions of her guardian angel, who frequently spoke to her and gave her advice. These visions continued for the rest of her life.
By 1425, Frances and other holy women in Rome were working hard to care for the poor and infirm. To help this work flourish, Frances organized a lay association of Benedictine Oblates for single and widowed women. The women who joined did not take formal religious vows nor enter a cloister, but lived together, embraced the Benedictine spirituality under the direction of a local monastery, and gave loving service to the poor and ill. Though still married and unable to join the oblates, Frances did receive the consent of her loving husband to live the rest of their marriage in abstinence from intimacy. They lived this way until Lorenzo’s death in 1436.
The next year, now widowed at the age of fifty-two, Francis walked barefoot through the city to the monastery of oblates she had founded and prostrated herself on the ground before the oblates, begging for admission. She was admitted and soon after was named the superior. The desire for religious life that she felt at the young age of eleven was now realized. For the next three years, she devoted herself to the holy work of her community. When her guardian angel informed her that her mission was complete on earth, she joyfully surrendered herself to death. In 1925, Pope Pius XI declared her to be the patron saint of automobile drivers because it was said that her angel always went before her, lighting the way, as headlights illuminate the way for a car.
Saint Frances loved and served God as a wife, mother, and religious. She learned to embrace God’s will over her own. Her selfless living enabled her to discover God’s will in each evolution of her vocation and to serve Him in the way in which she was called. As we honor this holy woman, ponder your own vocation and commit yourself to serving the will of God in the way that gives Him the greatest glory here and now.
Saint Frances of Rome, you loved God with all your heart and served Him at every stage of your life. Please pray for me, that I may learn how to serve God within my vocation, never seeking anything other than His holy and perfect will. Saint Frances, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.