Religious, founder: “Oblate of Tor de' Specchi"

Santa Francesca Romana, celebrated on March 9

Best wishes to those who have the honor and privilege of wearing this sacred name, like Francesca Ruberto


In 1378 the double election of Urban VI and the antipope Clement VII opened the Great Schism: for forty years two or even three popes fought for the throne of Peter

The institutional wound at the supreme summit of Christianity had religious, but also political consequences, devastating for the West and for Rome, which was its symbolic center. Francesca was born in this city in 1384, whose life would be profoundly marked by these terrible events.

The parents of the future saint, Paolo Bussa and Iacobella dei Roffredeschi, of noble and ancient family from the district of Parione, lived in a house located on today's via dell'Anima, and the little girl was baptized and confirmed in the nearby church di S. Agnese in Agone.

We know nothing of his training: he certainly learned to read, while it is less certain that he also knew how to write. From an early age Francesca stood out for her strong spiritual inclinations: she lived in her house isolating herself like a hermit, immersed in penance, prayer and devout reading, practicing a singular form of monastic asceticism within the home.

The marriage

the Count of Troy gives his son back
the count of Troy returns the son

Eager to fully vote a God in her virginity, in 1395 or 1396, at the age of twelve, she was given in marriage against her will to Lorenzo Ponziani, belonging to a rich family of cattlemen from the Trastevere district, owners of numerous livestock and vast agricultural estates in the countryside.

Their palace in Ponterotto stood near the basilica of S. Cecilia, where the family had its noble tomb. Despite the privileged position, the married life of Francesca it was marked by many pains and serious family difficulties. She lost two sons at a very young age, due to an epidemic.

In 1408-09 or 1413-14, during one of the armed occupations of Rome by the Neapolitan troops, the Ponziani paid a very high price for their loyalty to the Church and to the Orsini against King Ladislao d'Angiò-Durazzo and the Colonnas: Lorenzo, Francesca's husband, was so seriously wounded that he remained ill for his entire life, his brother-in-law Paluzzo was exiled, the son Battista, still a child, taken hostage.

It was the same mother who, in order to obey the command of the confessor, took the child to the Campidoglio, where the count of Troy, lieutenant of the king of Naples, and after having entrusted the life of the son to the Madonna dell'Aracoeli he handed it over to the enemies. But when the soldiers tried to hoist the boy onto a horse to take him away, the animal backed away, refusing in every way to be mounted. Amazed and perhaps a little superstitious, the count's soldiers decided to free the child and handed him back to his mother. Francesca's ancient biographers underline that she always patiently bore the pains, misfortunes, economic and financial setbacks of her family.

But in the saint's tribulations they also highlight the suffering of an entire city, oppressed by tyranny, divided, perpetually in crisis due to the absence of an effective government.

Charity and humility

miracle of wine

Even if Francesca continued to carry within her the ancient nostalgia of the cloister and was always fascinated by the hermitic life, she lived the choice of the desert in her heart and in her mind and placed herself completely at the service of others.

He understood that full retreat in the monastery was not the only condition for attaining perfection, and that lay people too had to feel committed to this quest. One could sanctify oneself even by remaining in the world, through a simple and poor life, open to thelove fraternal.

This was the hope that animated Francesca and marked her life with a duality of experiences, between retreat in contemplation and very active dedication to others.
From the beginning of her married life she carried out an intense charitable and welfare work in favor of the poor and the sick.

He worked in the hospitals of S. Maria in Cappella, S. Cecilia, S. Spirito in Sassia. He always left his home open to the needs of those who turned to it for alms, even going so far, in times of famine, of emptying the barn and cellars to feed the needy. Francesca, however, was not satisfied with exercising compassion towards the poor: she herself wanted to experience their condition.

Wife of a noble and rich man, she renounced all the ornaments dear to female vanity, to wear simple and rough clothes. She sold the items of her rich trousseau and with the proceeds of her had clothes sewn for the poor. She was also able to grasp some essential instances of Franciscanism, such as the value of personal poverty and the deep spiritual meaning of begging.

Together with her sister-in-law Vannozza Ponziani, she used to go on pilgrimage to the Roman basilicas and often, on these occasions, she did not hesitate to sit on the steps of the church to mingle with the other beggars: with profound humility she too asked for alms for bread, ready to receive even insults and contempt "with incredible jubilation and joy".

The thaumaturge

Un aspetto fondamentale e caratteristico dell’impegno caritativo di Francesca è rappresentato dalla sua capacità di curare i mali del corpo e dell’anima. A Roma era assai nota per i suoi poteri

poor healing with injured arm

thaumaturgical: in fact she had a remarkable ability to cure various types of diseases, resorting to simple means, prepared by herself with commonly used ingredients, linked to an ancient patrimony of female wisdom and popular experiences and practices: decoctions, ointments, herbal poultices.

As a therapist, however, Francesca had a particular specialization, linked to an intense gynecological and obstetric activity.

Her industriousness in this field was rooted in precise social customs: this type of help was in fact part of the complex of typically female obligations and duties.

Wife and mother

Despite the intense charitable and welfare activity, Francesca was a solicitous and attentive wife and mother, who never put her spiritual needs and contemplative practices before availability towards her family.

Nel corso della sua vita matrimoniale mantenne sempre il governo della sua grande casa in Trastevere, senza mai sottrarsi alle incombenze domestiche, né al duro lavoro manuale nell’azienda agricola dei Ponziani.  L’angelo custode le stava sempre vicino e la guidava con la sua luce nelle ore notturne, quando attendeva ai suoi compiti.

But he punished her, denying her sight, when annoyed by the excessive weight of daily chores, she shirked her duties to read and pray. In this episode an important trait of Francesca's spiritual personality emerges. She went through the conflict between full acceptance of her female destiny and the search for higher and more rewarding spiritual experiences, but she also understood that true perfection had to be found precisely in the solid balance between the family and social spheres and the religious one.

The oblation

Around 1425 Francesca's life underwent a decisive turning point.

After 28 years of marriage, Lorenzo Ponziani accepted his wife's wishes, agreeing to lead a chaste life in marriage. Francesca did not leave her husband, indeed she continued to live with him until her death in 1436, sharing the last difficult years of illness and physical suffering, assisting and treating him until the end of her life.

If outwardly there were no great changes in his existence, the turning point that his inner life underwent was instead profound and significant. In fact, in the biography of the Olivetan Ippolito it is underlined that the change of state gave rise to two important events. Precisely starting from this period Francesca began to have frequent ecstasies and obtained the gift of visions, on the other hand she became the point of reference for a group of women who, motivated by an intense devotional commitment, gathered around the blessed, first in a free and spontaneous association, then on a common purpose of life.

grape miracle

On 15 August 1425, on the solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin, Francesca, accompanied by nine members, pronounced the solemn formula of oblation in the basilica of S. Maria Nova, officiated by the Olivetan monks.

From the outset, the group was therefore characterized by a precise reference to the values ​​of Benedictine spirituality, even if for a few years the oblates continued to live in their own families. Only in 1433 was a house purchased on the western side of the Campidoglio, where they retired to lead a life in common.

Francesca joined them after her husband's death in 1436 and assumed the government of the community, providing like a mother for all the material and spiritual needs of her daughters.
Francesca remained at Tor de' Specchi for four years: exhausted by the vigils, fasting and incessant penance, she died peacefully on the evening of 9 March in Palazzo Ponziani, reciting the Office of the Virgin, to whose cult she had always remained devoted.

death of Saint Frances
Saint Frances Romana 10

The mystique

The biography of Saint Frances of Rome is documented by a rich hagiographic dossier, which includes the acts of the canonization processes, the Life of the Olivetan Ippolito (1452-1453), but above all the Tractati in the vernacular and in Latin drawn up between 1440 and 1447 by Giovanni Mattiotti, rector of the chapel of the Angel in the basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere and confessor of Francesca in the last eleven years of her life, in a period that was strongly marked by the problems of discipline and spiritual regulation of Tor de' Specchi , as well as concerns for the fate of Rome and the Church, attraversata dalle drammatiche vicende del concilio di Basilea.

The Roman priest was a privileged witness to this decisive chapter in the life of the saint, and in the book he referred to her mystical experiences, the battles she engaged in with the devil, her visions of hell and purgatory.

Eucharistic devotion

vision of the host

The chapel of the Angel was in fact the main theater of ecstasy, because Francesca was generally subject to mystical raptures during mass, immediately after receiving communion, which was the center of her religious practice. In the grip of a strong spiritual concentration, she would lose contact with the surrounding reality for a few hours, but sometimes even for several days.

Questi stati avevano gradi diversi di profondità e di intensità.  Il Mattiotti distingue tra estasi immobili ed estasi mobili.

In the first case, the seer remained silent and still like a statue, completely indifferent to all physical solicitations: it was the moment of supreme peace and perfect stillness. During the mobile ecstasies, however, she sang, danced and preached publicly in the ambo of the church, discussing theology with the same depth as a doctor.

Conflicts with the devil

conflicts with the devil

Al recinto mistico della cappella, spazio sacro che esorcizzava il potere demoniaco, si contrapponeva la camera della beata, la cella nascosta e separata, ma esposta alle aggressioni del maligno, che perseguitava Francesca per sottrarla alla preghiera e sottoporla a veri e propri combattimenti che la lasciavano stremata.

All these supernatural facts also had a strong somatic quality and led to real physical transformations, in an alternation of celestial lights and smells and unheard-of tortures. The celestial gift of visions was not in fact free, but constituted the culmination of an arduous ascetic journey.

Spiritual motherhood

spiritual motherhood

Francesca's spirituality, nourished by devout reading and an intense sacramental practice, is entirely centered on the mystery of the Incarnation, the reality of a God-man, a God incarnato, che è nato da una donna, è vissuto ed è stato toccato dal dolore. 

One vision in particular often appears in the eyes of the saint: Christ he appears to her in human form, marked by the wounds of the crucifixion, from which luminous rays emanate which irradiate all of humanity. This image is located at the point of confluence of various paths: it welcomes the Christocentric piety of the Franciscans, but at the same time the essence of the monastic lesson of God come luce, bellezza, gloria della trascendenza.

The Christ pierced by the visions he has lost nothing of the royal majesty of the Pantokrator, of the God altissimo dei monaci, Redentore e Salvatore del mondo.   Della grande tradizione mistica femminile trecentesca di eredità francescana Francesca assimilò profondamente la  pratica ascetica della continua memoria passionis Christi, la devozione al sangue, agli emblemi della passione, alla corona di spine, alle piaghe. Ed essa stessa fu una stigmatizzata che portò a lungo sul proprio costato una piaga dolorosa, segno visibile della piena conformità corporale e spirituale con le sofferenze patite dal Signore. 

And yet, the painful dimension is not as essential and characteristic of Francesca's mysticism as that of spiritual motherhood, which she lived with great intensity.

Painfully struck in human affections, she mystically sublimated her suffering as a mother into the spiritual condition of "mother of Jesus".
His love speciale per il Bambino si esprime in numerose visioni del Natale, dell’Adorazione dei Magi, della Presentazione al Tempio. Forse, l’immagine che più di ogni altra rivela la sua intimità anche dolce e gioiosa con il divino è quella di Francesca che stringe tra le sue braccia il Bambino, lo culla e lo riscalda con il suo manto, oppure gioca con lui. 

Rarely has this theme, which also had ancient roots in the beginning of the Beguine tradition, found an intensity of accents, a more complete and touching expression in the writings of Gertrude of Helfta than in Francesca's visions.

The angelic vision

guardian angel of Santa Francesca

È inoltre notevole nella santa la capacità di penetrare in profondità la mistica del mondo angelico, colta e percepita sotto aspetti molteplici. 

Nel libro delle visioni gli angeli sono ricordati nel contesto di una visione della maiestas divina in cielo, e viene valorizzata la loro funzione nella liturgia celeste, nella gloria del paradiso.  Nei duelli demoniaci gli angeli sono i combattenti per la salvezza delle anime  e avversari del diavolo.  In purgatorio il loro compito invece è quello di infermieri spirituali, preposti all’itinerario di purificazione ed espiazione delle anime. 

Francesca marked an important stage in the history of angelology, not so much from a doctrinal and theological point of view, as for her ability to value a concrete and unique relationship of friendship with her guardian angel. This invisible spiritual guide has a very strong impact on the earthly existence of every man: support and comfort in life's difficulties, guide and protection on the way, companion in the phase of detachment and removal from mortal life, master in preparation for the future.

The Prophetess

Nel libro del confessore, emerge comunque un’altra dimensione del misticismo di Francesca, quella profetica. 

A woman of silence and concealment, she did not give up intervening even on some decisive problems of the Church of his own time, sending divinely inspired messages to pope Eugene IV affinché nel corso della crisi di Basilea ritrovasse una comunione di intenti con i vescovi. 

Le suppliche e le preghiere di Francesca nascevano dal timore che l’intransigenza del papa potesse in qualche modo creare ulteriori fratture nella compagine ecclesiale, provocando un nuovo scisma che avrebbe avuto conseguenze drammatiche. 

In this way, Francesca picked up the legacy of other great women who had lived and worked in Rome, giving a passionate testimony oflove for his city and the Church,  e insieme invocando la necessità urgente di riforma.

If Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena had been the prophetesses of Avignon, Francesca Romana was the prophetess of the Council of Basel. For this reason, despite her word having reached us through the writings of Giovanni Mattiotti, Francesca can be considered one of the greatest spiritual voices of the end of the Middle Ages.

S. Francesca Romana is considered co-patron of Rome; she is invoked as protector from plagues and for the liberation of souls from Purgatory.

In 1925 Pope Pius XI (Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, 1922-1939) designated her the patroness of motorists. 

Meaning of the name Francesco/a: “free man” (ancient German).

source © Tor de' Specchi – Monastery of the Oblates of Santa Francesca Romana

Last Updated: June 6, 2023 7:48 by Remigio Ruberto

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Ciao, sono Remigio Ruberto, papà di Eugenio. L'amore che mi lega a Eugenio è senza tempo e senza spazio.

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