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St. Frances of Rome: Holiness Through Submission to God's Will

St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440) teaches us that we must always submit our desires to God's will. We might have a holy desire, but if it is not God's will, we will be better off submitting our desires to His holy will. Through that submission and obedience, we find the keys to loving Him and our neighbors.

A Religious Calling?

Frances was born to Roman aristocracy as the daughter of Paul Bussa and Jacobella de’ Roffredeschi who both came from prominent families of nobility. She had a sister named Perna and a brother named Simeon. Her early life was marked with piety because of the influence of her mother.. At an early age, Frances developed good habits of frequent communion, confession, and adoration coupled with daily prayer which she would continue throughout her life.

Ever since she was just a young girl, Frances was convinced she had a calling to the religious life. It became a constant thought in her heart, and she confided this precious idea only to her confessor, Don Antonio Savello. With his consent, she practiced small mortifications for both devotional reasons and to in a way to try living as a religious. Frances always tried to make these practices in a way that they would not be noticed by her family.

However, her parents did notice her penances, and they questioned Frances about them. She replied that she was to become a religious. As Frances was eleven years of age, her father Paul considered this simply as a childish whim. Then, he promptly informed Frances that he had already arranged for her to be married to Lorenzo Ponziano who was a nobleman with a lineage that included St. Paulanius who was a pope and a martyr.

This was too much for the young girl's heart. She had been set on living her life as a nun. Frances broke down and cried in front of her father. Falling to her knees, she begged to be able to pursue a life in the cloister. It was all in vain. Her father made it very clear that he would not retract his word and that the matter was settled. His expectation was that she would accept this as an obedient daughter.

Frances knew that nothing would change her father's mind at that moment, so she got up and went to the prayer corner she maintained in her room. Before the crucifix of our Lord, she asked if it was His will that He might act to change the planned course of events. Then she went to her confessor to seek his counsel. Dom Antonio agreed to pray for God's will to be known and encouraged Frances to continue praying. However, he noted that if her parents remained steadfast, she should be prepared to accept it as God's will and to submit her will fully to God's will.

After many days of praying and fasting, Frances realized that it must be God's will that she be married. Her father was unchanging and the Lord did not intervene. Thus, Frances met with her father, gave her consent, and apologized for her resistance.

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Living the Good (and Holy) Life

The Ponziano family was overjoyed at the match. Frances was beautiful, wealthy, and a pious woman, and many young men were quite envious of Lorenzo. The wedding soon took place and between the two families there were many celebrations and banquets. Lorenzo brought the twelve-year-old Frances back to his family home the Ponziano Palace which was located in the Trastevere quarter of Rome. The home was large and spacious and included her father-in-law Andrew and mother-in-law Cecilia and Lorenzo's older brother and his wife Vannozza.

Not long after settling into her new home, Frances was approached by Vannozza who could sense that all was not well with her sister-in-law. Frances confided in Vannozza that she was not drawn to anything in the world and desired to live for God alone. Vannozza expressed that she, too, shared the same sentiment. Then and there, they both agreed to help each other in their journeys and to find how they could live fully for God in their married lives. They kept up this pledge until death separated them. And through this bond, they became the very best of friends because their friendship was based on common spiritual beliefs and desires.

For the next forty years, Frances would sanctify her daily life as a wife and mother by integrating her spiritual practices into the daily life which was expected of her. She would wear the rich clothes that Lorenzo provided for her, but she would wear a hair shirt underneath. She carried out her duties as a hostess and a guest to the other families of nobility, but she strove to build genuine relationships with the ladies rather than simply fulfill protocol. Indeed, she acted in such a graceful and charming manner that her new family was impressed with how well she carried herself. And she attracted many other young ladies to her because they considered her a good friend as indeed she was to them.
By all accounts, Lorenzo and Frances enjoyed a happy marriage over the course of forty years before Lorenzo's death. She was devoted to her husband and knew that she would find God in her love for her husband even as she tactfully tried to help him draw closer to the Lord. Lorenzo was a good man, and was never one to get in the way of Frances' devotion and service even if he himself did not fully understand it. Beginning in 1400, Frances gave birth to six children all of whom she cared for personally rather than turning over to a nurse. Sadly, three died in infancy, and only one son outlived both his parents.

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Caring for the Poor in Body and Soul

Frances and Vannozza's passion became the care for the poor and the ill. They would change from their finery and jewelry and don modest clothes as they went throughout the streets of Rome providing assistance and comfort to the needy, especially those who were most ill and destitute. They would use the resources which God had provided them to give food, clothes, and medicines.

Over the years, the many women who were attracted to Frances by her holiness became a more organized group. She established them as Oblates of Mary which allowed the women to live in their married state of life following the rule of St. Benedict. There were no vows, but they shared a common mission to serve the ill. Seven years after founding the Oblates of Mary, Frances acquired a building that allowed her to set up a related community of women who were not married and shared the same work of service to the poor. After her husband's death in 1435, Frances joined the Oblates and served as superior until her death five years later.

A year after the birth of her first child, when Frances was seventeen, her mother-in-law died. Having become familiar with her virtue, common sense, prudence, and organizational skills, her father-in-law asked Frances to take over the management of the household. Frances pleaded to be released from this responsibility and cited her youth and the fact that right belonged to Vannozza who was older than she. Vannozza declared that Frances was far better suited for the responsibility and the matter was settled.

Again, Frances had to accept God's will against her own desires. And so Frances found herself the manager of one of the most prosperous households in all of Rome before she had even turned twenty years of age. True to form, she remained faithful to her devotion to God and never let the opulence of her lifestyle sway her from her firm purpose to serve God in all things. Indeed, she let the household become an instrument for God by allocating resources for service to the poor and placing a priority on treating all of the servants with kindness as persons and with more concern for their souls than their work. Although they trusted her with all, the rest of the family did not always understand her priorities.

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The Virtue of Charity

One example illustrates this conflict. After only a year in charge of the household, Rome suffered both a famine and the plague. Frances' concerns turned to the needy of Rome. Word got out that provisions were available at the Ponziano home, and many made their way to receive generously provided corn, wine, oil, and clothing from the vast store which was held by the household. Vannozza and Frances were thrilled to be able to give from their surplus and continued to do so both at home and through their visits throughout the city. Andrew, the father-in-law, became worried that the family would become victims of the famine themselves and took away the keys to storerooms. He left them access to only one storeroom with very little corn and one room in the cellar which contained only one large cask of wine.

Undaunted, Frances and Vannozza went out into the streets and begged of their acquaintances to give generously to help the poor. Many were quick to help them, but others laughed at their actions. Finally, Frances thought that they might be able to find some amount of corn left in the almost bare storeroom in their home. The two women sifted through the straw and gathered one measure of corn which they took out to give away. After they had left the storeroom, Lorenzo observed that miraculously there were about forty measures of corn where before there had been barely one. He, of course, counted it toward his wife and sister-in-law's piety that God had granted them additional food.

Frances and Vannozza tapped the one cask of wine and drained it to give to others. When her father-in-law learned of this, he was furious and upbraided his daughters-in-law for their charitable giving. Frances asked that they all go down to the cellar to try the cask. Despite himself, the father-in-law went along with Frances and the others of the household. Frances, meanwhile, prayed to the Lord for a Cana-like miracle. When she opened the spigot, she was able to pour several glasses of wine which everyone agreed was the finest they had tasted. Her father-in-law changed his mind and declared that Frances should feel free to be as generous as she would like to be with the family's goods.

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