A river of heavenly water
"Coelestis aquae lumen", a river of heavenly water — is the incipit of the Papal Bull with which Pope Paul V canonized Frances of Rome on 29 May 1608. It continues: "which flowed from the eternal source of life to revive the city of God". Indeed, from a tender age she showed "certain signs of virtue", which gave a glimpse of how "wonderful and glorious" she was to become, Fr Ippolito di Nuccio wrote in his Beata Francisca illustris. Even in her life time she was called Advocata Urbis, Advocate of the City, by the people of Rome for whom she did so much.
Santa Francesca Romana was born in Rome at the beginning of 1384 to the nobles Paolo Bussa de' Bruxis de' Leoni and Jacobella de' Roffredeschi. To have a clear picture today of the medieval Rome in which Frances grew up is challenging to say the least. People had to contend with the schism of the Church, with constant fighting among the nobles, with political instability and the plague. Witchcraft and superstition prevailed, with violence, widespread poverty, famines and generally dilapidated buildings. Frances was brought up by her mother in the virtues of her time, which placed emphasis on charity, religious devotion and obedience to God.
Francesca, was beautiful, intelligent and rich. She wanted to be a nun, but at the age of 11 or 12 her father insisted on her marriage with Lorenzo de' Ponziani, the son of a wealthy noble family. Frances appealed to her spiritual director, Fr Antonio, an Olivetan Benedictine of Santa Maria Nova. He told her that her true vocation was to serve God. Frances complied, was married and went to live with her husband and his family in Trastevere. Although her marriage proved to be a happy one, her apprehension at the thought of marriage, combined with her severe ascetic practices may have undermined her health. She fell seriously ill and it was feared that she would die. St Alexis then appeared to her in a dream and spreading his cape over her, restored her to health. She immediately rose and, calling her sister-in-law Vannozza, went to the Church of Sant'Alessio to give thanks to God. This was the first in a series of premonitions, signs and spiritual encounters that marked the most important stages of her mystical life.
Frances was to suffer an uninterrupted sequence of assaults by the devil. This is recounted by Fr Giovanni Mattiotti, a priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, who became her spiritual director for the last 11 years of her life. The simple priest recorded the spiritual experiences she described to him in Romanesco" the vulgate tongue then spoken in Rome. His treatise on her life, corn-piled after her death with the help of his notes, was invaluable in encouraging the devotion to her and to her cause of canonization. She was loath to speak of her spiritual experiences and Fr Mattiotti had difficulty in drawing her out of the silent depths of contemplation.
Vannozza became Frances' inseparable companion in her devotions and in her charitable activity for the poor and the sick. Two of her three children died of the plague, Agnese, and Evangelista. Battista outlived her. She dressed modestly, sold her elegant clothes and spent the proceeds for the poor, while her door was always open to the needy. She had a gift for healing, often using a simple ointment she herself concocted. The processes of canonization (1449, 1431, 1451) recorded the type and number of her miracles: in that of 1440, for example, 56 miracles worked in her life and 38 through her intercession after her death.
Twenty-six episodes of St Frances' life are vividly depicted by the frescoes that decorate the "Old Church" at Tor de' Specchi — completed in 1468 — possibly the work of Antoniazzo Romano.
After 28 years of marriage, with her husband's consent, the couple lived in continence and a life of contemplation. The first Oblates continued to live at home even after they had made an offering of themselves to Mary in the Church of Santa Maria Novella on 14 August 1425, becoming a lay congregation of pious women, the Oblates of Mary. St Frances founded the Congregation today known as the "Oblates of Santa Francesca" in 1433. Characteristic traits of the Congregation are a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, to the guardian angel and to the active service of the Church in the Eternal City.
The Rule she dictated was inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, but she integrated her project of religious life with several practices that constitute its special charism. Frances wanted her house to preserve the characteristics of an open monastery so that her spiritual daughters, not bound by the obligation of the cloister, might continue her work of care and charity. In advance of her times and in an age when anything unusual risked being viewed as heresy, her foundation must have been far from easy.
The indispensable qualities of the Oblates were suggested to her by heavenly inspiration. For the future community Frances chose Tor de' Specchi, opposite the Capitol Hill, and on 25 March 1433 they moved in. Frances remained at home, caring for her sick husband. On 4 July 1433 the new congregation received the approval of Pope Eugene VI. The group became Oblates of the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto. After her husband's death in 1435, Frances joined her Oblates on 21 March 1436, the Feast of St Benedict; however, frail as she was, her health deteriorated and she died on 9 March 1440.
Today, with the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and St Philip Neri, St Frances is patroness of Rome. She is also the patron saint of motorists; it is said that the light of her angel enabled her to see and even to read in the dark. (Kate Marcelin-Rice)