Saint Frances of Rome (b. 1384) was the daughter of wealthy aristocratic parents. Although she would have preferred to become a nun as a youth, she accepted her parent’s wishes and married. She was a wife for forty years and birthed three children. Tragically, Frances’ two daughters were killed in the chaos of Rome at the time. Her husband was seriously wounded—she nursed him seven years until his death—and bounty was put on her son. These misfortunes drove Frances into profound prayer, and into a life of service outside of the home—something barely thinkable for a woman of her time.
Today as I reflect on Frances’ “pushing-back” against social norms, I am aware of the “male-privilege” afforded me and other men by our society—a privilege often unearned, but bestowed merely by our gender. In the 14thCentury she was “going against the grain,” impelled by love of God, and love of those most in need, appropriating privileges afforded largely to males. I can’t help but think that yesterday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day. Sadly, the marches and rallies around the world in support of women’s equal rights “to be, to become, to belong” were scarcely noticed in the U.S.
In her life, Frances and her biological sister traversed the streets of Rome caring for the sick and the poor. She converted a portion of her family’s estate into a hospital. Eventually she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary.
In Autumn 2018, I was graced to visit one of the few Olivetan Benedictine Monasteries in the U.S., at Pecos, New Mexico. In the chapel are several icons: one of our holy father, St. Benedict, and the other of St. Frances of Rome. I was permitted to take a photograph of the paintings, and am happy to share them.
While praying in the Pecos chapel, my thoughts drifted back to the mid-1990s, when as a member of Maryknoll, I spent time in Rome. While there I began each morning at the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana (previously known as Santa Maria Nova)—“St. Frances’ Church.” Here her incorrupt body is in repose, visible for all to experience, in the crypt. The basilica is a pilgrimage place for Oblates, not so much realized here in the U.S.
Seeing me there every morning to begin the day after the Office and time meditating, an Olivetan Benedictine approached me to discuss my attraction to St. Frances. For quite a number of mornings, he and I spent time discussing her life, her gifts to the Church, and her relevance for today. As usual, one morning the Benedictine father arrived for my “instructions.” To my amazement, after our conversation, he handed me a relic of St. Frances, with sealed papers of authentication. Today, being her feast day, it is before me, watching as I pen this note.
…But back to Frances! A group of grace-filled women gathered around her, who offered themselves to God and to the service of the poor. Anathema for women of the day, they were neither cloistered nor vowed, but humbly served the needs of their communal life through prayer, and of society through acts of charity. The group eventually grew to include a monastery founded by Frances, living the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, calling its members the Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome. After her husband’s death, Frances moved from her estate to the monastery. She was canonized in 1608 by Pope Paul V, based in part on more than 60 miraculous cures attributed to her gift of healing.
She is the patron saint of Oblates. As an aside, Saint Frances of Rome is also the patron of widows, and of car drivers, owing to the legend that an angel would light her way with a lamp during night travels. Today, March 9th, cars will line up for great distances in Rome to receive blessings offered at the Basilica. My prayer today for my Oblate Sisters and Brothers is that an angel may light our way, on what ever paths we take.
More than a model for Oblates, she is “a saint for all people” as Daniel Stramara, O.S.B., Oliv. wrote in his book on her life, titled, Driven by the Spirit: The Life of St. Frances of Rome with Reflections (On the Rule) (Dove Publ., Pecos, NM, 1992). She illustrates that what ever vocation we chose in life: married, single, wife, mother, a person drawn to communal life in the Spirit, or one steeped in social justice work “in the streets”—she has something to offer—to everyone. As Br. Daniel has written, “By examining how she responded to the promptings of the Spirit in her life, we can be encouraged in ours. Frances experienced the same human dramas that you and I do. And she didn’t become a saint overnight. Neither do we.”
Frances understood “balance” and folded life responsibilities into her day: at first running the affairs of the family estate (later as leader of the community of women); being a servant of the poor and the outcast, at a time when famine and civil war were raging; making space for spiritual reading and spiritual direction (provided by a Benedictine monk); to prayer and meditation.
Her life teaches us that holiness is accepting ourselves exactly as we are, where we find ourselves, while yearning for the mercy of God to respond to His will. We are to be Christ’s “other self” without regard to life’s conditions. Circumstances, often beyond our control, throw us into a dynamic journey of changing realities, as they did for her. But by the intercession of our patroness St. Frances of Rome, our holy father St. Benedict, and St. Scholastica, God ceaselessly offers us the opportunity to consecrate each moment to Him, through His Son.
Frances of Rome exemplified the words of St. Benedict in the conclusion of the Prologue to the Rule, “…as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (RB Prol 49).
Happy Feast Day!
Brother Nicholas, Ob. OSB
Prayer to St. Frances of Rome: Saint Frances of Rome, help us to see the difference between what we want to do and what God wants us to do. Help us to discern what comes from our will and what comes from God’s desire. Amen.