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The Crown and Cross of St. Frances of Rome

March 9, 2022


When I first began to study Scripture as a young adult, a wise and elderly nun advised me to begin with Revelation, a book which, she told me, had gotten her through a difficult year as a young novice. “Start there. It’s spooky and mysterious, and if you can stand it, it will fill you with consolation.”

Some might rightly be wary of a recommendation that comes with such a potent qualifier—“If you can stand it!”—but amid John’s odd and prophetic book, I did indeed find the promised consoling notes, most particularly in the last part of Revelation 2:10: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

It is an assurance that we can cling to in those difficult times when we are handed our share of the cross and find ourselves wilting under its weight. It reminds us that Christ bore it first, and that the crown he wears is the crown he shares—the crown of life that is forged by saying yes to God’s plan, and then continually repeating that consent, again and again, even as it leads us down paths we never meant to travel.

That’s what Saint Frances of Rome must have discovered back in the fourteenth century when the thirteen-year-old told her wealthy father she wished to become a nun, and was informed by him that she was about to become a nobleman’s bride. A quiet, retiring girl by nature, Frances—convinced she was meant for the convent—went to the local priest, begging his intercession for her sake. Instead, he asked her something unsettling: Was she seeking his help because she wanted to conform herself to God’s will, or because she wanted to conform God, and the world, to hers?

With that fair question before her, and no one to support her religious aspirations, Frances was soon married to Lorenzo Ponziani, a nobleman of good repute, and was swept into the family’s busy social life. Her mother-in-law Cecilia was a renowned hostess who expected her new daughter to enthusiastically take part in the never-ending banquets, parties, and public festivals— and all their attendant material concerns—which kept the family amused, active, and conspicuous.

It was no life for an introvert, especially not for one who, like Frances, was clinging to a belief that she was called not to a life of servants and parties, but to radical service and poverty. Misunderstood by her family (and by the times, too, for there was no Myers-Briggs profile to help them recognize her need to recharge with solitude and silence), the exhausted and depressed bride quickly went into a collapse. She spent months in bed, with no desire to eat or to engage with the world.

Eventually, Frances prayed herself out of it, deciding that if such a life was to be her cross, she would embrace it. She gave God her consent, said yes to all she had never wanted, and yet—confounding the way these narratives usually go—she still found it all unbelievably difficult to bear.

And here is where Frances’ story reminds us that even if our intentions are sound and we think we are putting ourselves at God’s disposal, we can do nothing of ourselves but must lean on his grace and on all of the unexpected assists that come our way.

In Frances’ case, grace took the form of her sister-in-law Vannozza, a young woman who capably fulfilled the social demands made upon her by the family, but who nevertheless felt called to live out her Christian life in a more meaningful way. Together, the young women began to attend Mass daily, and—between family obligations, which had primacy—they visited the sick and brought food to the poor. Over the course of several decades fraught with war, the births and deaths of all but one of her six children, and some opposition from her in-laws, Frances was able to find a middle way of no extremes—the leveling balance between society and solitude that she needed in order to fully become the person she was born to be.

When Cecilia died, Frances—with her husband’s support—developed a hospital in one part of the family’s estate. She became a Benedictine oblate and stepped up her service to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. She was married to Lorenzo for forty years, and nursed him through his final illness.

She never did become a nun, but eventually Frances founded the Olivetan Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a still-extant society of women who take no vows but make promises to a Benedictine superior as they serve the church in the heart of Rome.

The elderly nun who first referred me to Revelation said she had discovered the consolations of that particular book during a difficult point in her novitiate. “I thought I wanted to be a nun, but the life was very different from what I had envisioned. It seemed God wasn’t as choosy as me, and the other nuns weren’t the angels I had expected them to be. I had to adapt to the fact that I wasn’t so great after all either.”

In many ways, Frances of Rome is a perfect model for those times when we are forced to adjust our expectations, or adapt to new realities not exactly to our tastes. She sought a cloister cell; she got a castle. She hated going out in society; she practically invented social work. Once Frances figured out how to consent to God’s plan, and to cooperate with grace, there was nothing to look back upon with regret.

For us, Frances’ companionship is an antidote for those times we are stricken with a toxic case of the “if onlys”—if only I’d taken that scholarship; if only I’d fought harder for what I wanted; if only I had done this, instead of that—and risk losing sight of what we are actually being offered: the thing that can look and feel exactly like the cross, hard and heavy, but is actually the key to the crown.