Throughout her eventful career as an upper-class Roman matron and foundress of a community of Roman social-worker nuns, Francesca Ponziani was profoundly devoted to the Mother of God. Even as a small child she learned by heart the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she often talked with Our Lady, whom she called her "dear Mother."
When a girl of only seven, she began to mortify her body severely and resolved to become a nun. Consequently this young saint underwent at the age of eleven what was perhaps the greatest trial in her whole life: her parents insisted that she marry. Weeping bitterly, Frances ran to be consoled by her wise old Benedictine Father confessor; he told her: "God wants your heart, Frances, but He also requires that you offer yourself to Him by submitting your will completely to His. Therefore, be His faithful servant, no matter in what circumstances He chooses to place you." And so, as the church bells of Rome were ringing the Angelus, young Frances bravely offered up her own will and in spiritual union with Mary humbly pronounced her "Fiat."
For two years the child-bride was deathly sick, until one night St. Alexis of Rome appeared to her and asked her whether she wanted to live. When Frances replied that she wanted only what God willed, the Saint healed her, saying: "The Lord wishes you to remain in this world to glorify Him." Henceforth Frances lived the happy and busy life of a loving Christian wife and mother. She had two sons and a daughter, whom she trained in sanctity with rare skill and affection. While still in her teens she began to manage with amazing efficiency, all the household affairs of a large Roman patrician mansion. She treated her servants with firm and truly supernatural love, nursing them personally when they were sick. She also found many opportunities to sanctify herself in her relations with her mother-in-law. Her extreme generosity toward the poor rather alarmed the men in the family, until they saw with stupefaction that Almighty God miraculously replenished their exhausted supplies of grain and wine.
And yet, despite all this activity, Frances somehow found time for daily Mass, meditation and recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Maryand for increasingly austere mortifications. One day, after she had been interrupted during her Office four times in rapid succession without being able to go beyond a certain verse in her prayerbook, she returned to her upstairs oratory the fourth time to find that verse printed in letters of gold, and later, St. Paul informed her that this miracle showed the importance in God's sight of willing obedience in one's everyday duties. (This message was restated by Our Lady in her apparitions at Fatima in 1917.)
When Frances was twenty-four; stark tragedy struck her happy home. In April, 1408, her husband Lorenzo was found outside the city, dying of a sword wound after a battle in which he had fought as one of the Pope's outstanding defenders. As soon as Frances had made him comfortable in their mansion, she begged him to forgive his enemies, and then she prayed so fervently for him that he gradually recovered.
But soon the anti-Papal forces broke into Rome, and since Lorenzo could not be moved, Frances was ordered to surrender her eight-year-old son Battista as a hostage. Instead, she fled with the boy. But on the street they met Frances' confessor; and he solemnly warned her: "On behalf of the Lord I say to youif you want to save him, take him to the Capitol (the enemy headquarters)!" Heartbroken but obedient, Frances gave up her son and went to pray at the nearby Ara Coeli Shrine of the Sorrowful Mother.
There Our Blessed Mother appeared to Frances in her agony, and looking down on her with touching compassion, the Mother of Mercy said: "I am with youfear nothing..." Meanwhile, an officer lifted the boy onto his horse to take him into captivity in Naples, for the Papal army was approaching. But the strong horse would notor could notmove an inch, no matter how much it was whipped or spurred! And after the same unexplainable marvel had happened with three other horses, an awe-struck commander ordered the boy to be returned to his mother.
Nevertheless, having thus learned to trust the Blessed Virgin unconditionally, a few years later Frances was obliged to let her son be captured as a hostage when the enemy troops sacked her home while searching for her husband, who had just been able to escape. Then came the dreaded Plague, and within a year Frances' other son and baby girl were dead. Yet the grief-stricken mother labored heroically among the sick and the starving, nursing them and bringing them food and clothing in the slums, besides taking many of them into her own devastated mansion. She made herself a sack-like robe from some plain old material and went begging among her rich friends for things which she stuffed into the ample folds of this strange dress. Under her saintly care, miraculous cures became more and more frequent, though she humbly attributed them to God's power and to a medically useless salve.
It was during this harrowing crisis, when she herself had contracted the horrible disease and lay abandoned by all but her beloved sister-in-law, that St. Frances was given an unforgettable series of "Dante-esque" visions of the various torments of Hell and Purgatory, which later she could never mention without weeping. At this time tooand throughout her lifeFrances underwent frequent painful physical persecution by devils. But God also gave her a resplendent Archangel who was henceforth her constant guide.
The following year brought peace and the return of her husband and son to their ruined home and destroyed suburban estates. Now Frances had to nurse Lorenzo and teach him again to forgive his enemies. And soon Battista married a very worldly girl with a cruel temper, who for ten years criticized and ridiculed her saintly mother-in-law-until she was finally converted by a stroke of intense physical suffering and by Frances' prayers and merciful kindness. And at last, Lorenzo came to realize the rare beauty of the practice of perfect chastity in Christian marriage, as the couple undertook to live a life of continence.
More and more during these years Frances undertook a discreet but very effective apostolate among her many upper-class friends and relatives. By her contagious example and her sincere urging, she inspired a growing number of fashionable ladies to dress and act more modestly, and she often succeeded in completely reconciling various feuding noblemen who had been filled with bitter hatred and a lust for vengeance. Her evident sanctity also had a regenerating influence on several priests and prelates. And now in each successive crisis of the Papacy, she offered herself to God as a willing victim for His Church.
Meanwhile, Frances had enlisted in her extensive charity work, a group of fervent lay apostles, and one day she said to these ladies: "I think that we would do something very pleasing to God if we all consecrated ourselves to His Mother!" Consequently, on the Feast of the Assumption, 1425, Frances and seven of her closest friends were accepted as Oblates by the Olivetan Benedictine Fathers in the Church of Santa Maria Nuova.
Two years later; during a pilgrimage to Mary's Portiuncula Shrine near Assisi, after St. Francis himself had appeared to and conversed with the Saint and her two companions on the road, a heavenly voice informed her that the Blessed Virgin Mary wished these lay women to cooperate in founding a new religious congregation.
Thus began what has developed into one of the most remarkable and lasting of the Blessed Virgin Mary's merciful interventions in the history of the Church. It soon became evident that Almighty God wanted a new community of noble servants, or Oblates of Mary, to give an example of the highest Christian life in the war-torn and dissolute society of Renaissance Rome. Due to Frances' special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, "The name of Mary was the pivot around which the whole apostolate of the Oblates revolved." And from now on, the Saint frequently saw the Mother of God in vision "more clearly than her Oblates saw one another."
During the eight years of gradual preparation which passed before the Oblates took up residence in a house of their own, Frances often dictated to her confessor the words of their Rule which were given to her by St. Paul, in the presence of the Blessed Virgin, St. Benedict, and St. Mary Magdalen, who were the heavenly patrons of the new community. Thus four Lents each year were prescribed, as well as many minute details of daily life. Without being cloistered, these young and middle-aged aristocratic ladies were to devote their time to prayer and charity work among the poor.
Now, the Blessed Virgin Mary often invited Frances to attend various feastday ceremonies with the Blessed in Heaven, and during the beautiful celebrations in honor of the great Queen of Heaven, the Saint contemplated Mary in all the Mysteries of her glorious life. She often described to her friends the Virgin's three lovely crowns, symbolizing her humility, her virginity, and her glory.
But it was at Christmas that Frances enjoyed the most thrilling mystical experiences. One Christmas, when Our Lady appeared to her with the Christ Child on her knees and the Saint begged to be allowed to caress Him, His Mother smiled and said: "But you will not be able to hold Him upHe is so heavy!" And with her quick Italian wit Frances replied: "O Queen of Heaven, do not worryHe will be able to hold Himself up all right!" At Christmas, 1432, Frances spent forty-eight hours in blissful ecstasy.
Henceforth, as Frances said, "I no longer belong to myself. I am an Oblate consecrated to the great Queen of the Angels. It is she who is my teacher and my patroness. As for me, I am her servant, her subject, her slave!" And later, after she had seen Our Lady and the Saints praying for Rome when it was threatened with war and intrigue, Frances explained thus to her Oblates what this consecration involves:
"My daughters, the Virgin asks us for tears, prayers, penances. It is up to you to supply what others fail to dothat is your vocation: to pray and to do penance for yourselves and for others. You are victims destined to appease the wrath of God. The Virgin will truly call you her Oblates when she sees you offer up your bodies and your souls as a sacrifice to the Lord through your prayers and mortifications. You are few, but be sure that if you are fervent and persevere, you will obtain help, and you will end a great evil. Yes, soon you will see the fruit of your tears."
In 1436, a few months after her husband's death, the Saint at last joined her beloved Oblates in their convent. But she who had longed to spend her whole life as a cloistered nun was destined to enjoy the religious life for only four years, during which she served her Sisters as a firm yet loving and humble Mother Superior. And on March 9, 1440, when Our Lady's Oblate and model lay apostle left this world for Heaven, her last act on earth was to finish reading her Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her Feast is celebrated on March 9th.
(Based on an account by Raphael Brown.)