War was raging throughout Europe, and the holy city of Rome was full of trouble; its churches burned and destroyed by heretics, and its streets the scene of terrible and bloody contests, when Frances, the child of Paul Bussa, was born there in the year 1334.
On the day of her birth she was carried to the church of Saint Agnes, and baptized in the presence of many devout people who were praying for the blessing of God to descend upon their city; but they did not know that their entreaties were to be heard, and the benediction bestowed, by means of that little baby of a few hours old, who was to be so powerful in God’s hands to raise the piety of the people, and bring back peace among them.
We hear that the little Frances was from her infancy unlike other children; such a heavenly light shone in her eyes, and such an unusual sweetness rested upon her features, that her mother always felt as if she had one of God’s angels in her arms when she hushed her baby daughter to rest.
At two years old she loved to go by herself into quiet corners, and, putting her little hands together, pray to God, or say hymns to the Blessed Virgin, and she delighted in silence, even at that early age. When she was six years old she received the sacrament of Confirmation in the church of Saint Agnes, where she had been baptized, and from that time she was filled with the desire to show her love for Jesus by denying herself, and suffering for His sake in every way she was able.
In imitation of some of the saints of whom her mother had taught her, Frances began to give up eating eggs, meat, and sweets of every kind, living on boiled vegetables and bread, and drinking only pure water from that time. She obeyed her confessor in everything, and often begged his permission to practise penances which would not be suited to one so young unless God showed very plainly that He had chosen that way for her to become holy. Sometimes the priest yielded to her desire, but more often he refused his leave, and she submitted quite cheerfully without a word of regret, or a shade of disappointment on her face.
Thus the life of the little Frances was as perfect as a child’s life could be; no untrue words were heard upon her lips, no passion disturbed her pure heart, every little action was done to please God, and the least fault caused her to shed most bitter tears of sorrow. Wonderful as all this may seem, we must remember that God chooses His saints to come to Him in different ways; some by their great contrition for early sin, some by terrible penances, some by easier ways of love, some by innocent holiness, even from their birth, like Saint Frances of Rome, in preparation for the favours He intended to give her in after years; but each one has been faithful to the special grace given them – each one has walked steadily along the path our Lord pointed out to them, and thus reached the state of perfection which was to lead them to the high places they hold in heaven.
All who love Jesus Christ love the poor who were so very dear to Him; and thus, as Frances grew in devotion, her works of mercy increased, and to many a sad, troubled heart her face, and smile, and sweet voice brought comfort and hope.
From a very young child, our Saint had wished some day to enter a convent, and give all her life to God as a religious; but she never talked freely and lightly of this great desire, believing it too sacred to be known to any but God and her confessor.
Each day she seemed to grow more suited for this life, loving nothing but to be near her Lord, and living on the help and grace He gave her – yet she was first to be tried by becoming the wife of a rich young nobleman, and learn to sacrifice her longing wish to God’s most holy Will for many, many years before it should be granted.
Her parents began to notice what an unusual life she led, and finding in reply to their questions how great was her wish to be a nun, they smilingly told her it was a girlish fancy, and that she had already been promised as the wife of Lorenzo Ponziano, of noble family, and possessed of a large fortune.
Frances sank on her knees, and begged her father to alter his plans, and allow her to do what she believed was God’s Will, but in vain; he declared that he had made the promise, and nothing should persuade him to break it, but she, as a dutiful child, must yield her desire to his. Rising from her knees, the Saint went to her own room, and there, prostrate before her crucifix, she implored God’s protection, and begged Him to prevent her being married, if it was His Will for her to become a religious. She then went to her confessor, and told him what had happened, and he promised to pray for her, and ask light from God about her future life; but as he foresaw what was the divine Will he tried to prepare her for the trial which was coming.
“If your parents continue to insist on your being married,” he said, “believe that God asks you to offer Him this sacrifice. Have only one thought – the sweet Will of God. Lay down your own wishes at His feet, and if He refuses you the life you desire, accept the one He offers you, and be His faithful servant.”
Frances went home to wait for her father’s commands; she prayed night and day, she wept and fasted, and when both father and mother repeated their wishes, she gently promised obedience, and gave no sign of the pain and disappointment she suffered.
The marriage soon took place amidst the rejoicings of the family of Fonziano; and Frances went to her new home, where she led the same holy life to which she had been accustomed, but she managed to act with such discretion that her piety offended no one, whilst her sweet temper and kind manners charmed them all.
Still, though she was forced to take some share in public amusements, because of her husband’s rank, she always abstained from dancing and card playing, and every moment which she could use as she pleased was spent in prayer, either in one of the churches of Rome, or her own room.
Of course there were many persons who laughed at her, and called her piety absurd in one so young; others would have persuaded her husband to interfere, but he looked upon her with too much love and respect to prevent her following where God led her, whilst his father and mother said she was an angel of peace to their house; and, indeed, her gentle influence seemed drawing them all nearer to heaven.
But soon a severe illness came upon her, to the great distress of her friends. Frances alone was quite calm, willing to live or die according to God’s pleasure. The worst night of her sufferings came, she was exhausted and motionless with pain, when suddenly a light broke in upon the darkened room, in the midst of which stood a majestic figure wearing the robe of a pilgrim, but shining like brightest gold.
“I am Alexis,” he said; “I am sent from heaven to ask if thou choosest to be healed.”
The Saint murmured, faintly, “I have no choice but the Will of God. I accept life or death as He pleases.”
“Life then it shall be,” said Alexis; “for God’s Will is that you should remain on earth to glorify Him,” and spreading his mantle over Frances, the vision disappeared, leaving her free from pain and perfectly well.
Astonished at God’s great mercy, she rose softly, and kneeling on the floor, gave thanks to Him, and then she hurried to the bedside of her sister-in-law, who was also very holy, and her best beloved companion.
“Vannozza, dear Vannozza!” Frances exclaimed, waking the sleeper so suddenly that she cried out, “Who are you? It sounds like the voice of my sister.”
“It is me – your sister,” replied Frances, and then relating what had happened, she bade Vannozza praise God for His favour to her, and as soon as morning broke, they hurried together to the church of Saint Alexis, to venerate his relics and give him thanks.
Her restored health was the source of great joy to her husband and family, who received her as given back to them by God from the arms of death.
After this illness and miraculous recovery, Frances gave her life more and more to prayer and penance, feeling that God asked it from her in return for His mercy. All the time which she had at her disposal was given to religious practices, or to visiting the hospitals and bestowing alms upon the poor.
But God allowed the Saint to have many great temptations and sufferings, even to see visibly the evil spirit, although he was not permitted to do her harm. This was to teach her great humility, so that she might depend only on divine help and grace.
When her first little son was born, Saint Frances took the greatest care of him, repeating to him the Our Father and Hail Mary even before he could speak; so that he might learn early to love the Names of Jesus and Mary; and he grew up afterwards to be a great honour and happiness to his family.
A terrible famine broke out in Rome, and the Ponziani being rich, did great acts of kindness to the sufferers, giving them presents of corn, wine, and clothing, while Frances and her sister Vannozza visited the hospitals and the most miserable parts of the city. But at last even their stores failed, and these two noble women went about begging for the poor they loved so much, asking with tears for help for the starving, dying people who were lying in crowds at the corners of the streets.
One day Saint Frances took her sister and a pious servant to the corn-loft to see if a few grains might not still be left, and after a long, patient search, they collected about a measure, which they were joyfully carrying off, when Lorenzo entered the granary, and, looking round, beheld with surprise, about forty measures of shining, yellow corn, which had been supplied miraculously by angels.
But not only thus did God help His servant – not corn alone, but wine was needed by her sick poor, and she had drained the casks to the last drop for them. Her brothers, and even her husband, reproached her for giving all they had, which she bore in gentle silence, and then, lifting up her heart in faith and prayer to heaven, she replied, “Do not be angry. Come to the cellar. It maybe that through God’s mercy there is now wine in the cask,” and following her unwillingly, they found a supply of richer wine than had ever been known before.
It would take too long to tell all the wonderful things which happened in the life of Frances – great troubles amongst her relations, the loss of her children, the strange visions which God sent to cheer and console her, and the miracles He worked through and for her – we must pass on to the strange, unusual grace which was bestowed upon her in having the power to see her angel guardian always at her side. We know by faith that it is so, that each one of us has a heavenly companion ever near us in danger or temptation, but Saint Frances of Rome could see this angel form distinctly, although it was not made visible to other people, and at night she could easily write by the light of the dazzling brilliancy shed around her. It was a wonderful grace, and Frances renewed her efforts to lead a life of perfect holiness with this guide always by her; but it deepened her humility as she felt how unworthy she was of this divine fovour. When she committed the slightest fault, the angel seemed to disappear, and it was only after examining her conscience and confessing her failing, that he returned.
Frances divided her own money into two parts – one half was given to buying food for the poor, the other for clothing and medicine for the sick – her own dress was only of a coarse, dark green material, patched with any bits of cloth which came in her way.
But though she devoted her life to prayer, and penance, and good works, Frances never allowed anything to prevent her fulfilling her duty to her husband; she obeyed his slightest wish, and never murmured at any interruption which he might cause her. One day he sent for her when she was reciting the Office of the Blessed Virgin; she went to him instantly, did what he required, and returned to her prayers; but another summons came, another, and another – four times she was disturbed, and always for trifling reasons, but she obeyed with perfect good humour, and returned to her Office without having had her peace of mind broken. On taking up her book the last time, she was surprised to see the words she had four times begun and left unfinished written in golden letters, and the angel whispered in her ear, “Thus God rewards the virtue of perfect obedience.” The golden letters remained in her book as long as she lived.
Lorenzo Ponziano became more attached to his saintly wife as years passed on, and remembering her early longing for a religious life, he told her one day that he would leave her free to choose her own employments and pursuits, and do in all respects as she wished, if only she would remain to attend on him until his death.
Lorenzo was then in feeble health, and Frances gave him the most tender care; but she received his permission with great joy, for it gave her the power of commencing a house for a new congregation of holy nuns, although she could not herself live with them whilst her husband needed her.
There were many devout women in Rome who had been imitating the life of Frances, and they desired to be together, keeping certain rules, looking to the Saint to give them advice and act towards them as a mother.
Saint Frances prayed much to know God’s Will, and that she might more certainly obtain His guidance, she Undertook a pilgrimage, in the company of Vannozza and another woman of piety, to “Saint Mary of the Angels,” in honour of the Blessed Virgin and the Saint of Assisi. They went on foot, without money or provisions, out of the city, and along their way under the burning August sun, parched with thirst and weary from the heat, and as their pilgrimage was nearly ended, a stranger met them, dressed in the habit of Saint Francis, who spoke with them of the sufferings of Jesus and the love of Mary. It was the Saint of Assisi, who blessed the little company, and touching a wild pear tree by the wayside, brought down from it fruit to quench their thirst and send them refreshed upon their way. That day they reached the church to which their pilgrimage was made, and next morning received Communion. There and then Frances had a vision, encouraging her to carry out the plan she had thought of.
A great trouble came to our Saint on her return to Rome. Her confessor, who had been her early friend and guide, had died during her absence, and it seemed as if she needed him more just then to advise her how to arrange for beginning the religious house she intended.
But God watched over her, and directed her to seek help from another holy priest, and after a great many difficulties, her scheme was carried out. Ten devout women of noble family gave themselves entirely to God, under the name of “Oblates,” to live for His glory in religion.
Frances had now been married forty years. It was a long time since her early wish had been given up, but it was as strong in her heart as ever. Yet even now the time had not come for God to allow her to leave the world, and she continued to nurse her husband, and attend to her household, although she visited and watched over her Oblates in the old gloomy convent of Tor di Specchi.
At last she was free. Lorenzo died in the grace of God, breathing blessings upon his holy wife; and then, bidding her only remaining son farewell, Frances went to spend the last years of her life alone with her Lord,
Wonderfully her days passed now; more and more supernatural favours were poured out upon her; but the end was very near, and when a violent, fever came on, her body, already worn out with labour and fasting, had not strength to recover it. The news of her illness spread through Borne, causing the greatest distress among rich and poor, and crowds surrounded the convent, trying to get to her dying bed. As many as she could receive were taken into her presence, and she had a loving word for each. Glorious visions passed before her, The evil one, who had been permitted to try her so often, was powerless now, and God’s peace was all around her. For the last time she received the Holy Communion, whilst angels seemed to surround her, making soft, sweet music in her ear. The nuns, her Oblates, wept bitterly as they knelt round her bed, and begged her to implore God to spare her to them longer. “His Will is my will,” she murmured. “I am ready to remain if it is His pleasure.”
But after that she grew worse. There were last words with her son, Baptista, last instructions to the sorrowing nuns, and then a sublime beauty beamed upon her face, her eyes closed, and her spirit returned to God.
Even as she lay in death, it pleased the Almighty to display His power in healing sickness by the touch of her holy body, and every one declared that “Frances was a saint; Frances was in heaven.”
That was the feeling of loving, grateful hearts, but the Church echoed it, and the 9th of March was the day appointed for her festival, and nobles and beggars alike rejoiced, and the grand old city was illuminated upon the night when it was proclaimed that their own loving, humble Frances, who had knelt before their altars, and begged in their streets, who had shared in their sufferings, and brought down heavenly blessings by her prayers, should be for ever the Saint of Rome.
– from Stories of the Saints for Children, by Mary Seymour