The Church faced serious problems when Frances Bussa was born in 1384. The papacy had fallen under the influence of the French Crown and had developed a reputation for corruption. Worse, in 1378 a majority of bishops elected a new pope, Robert of Geneva, even though a legitimate pope already reigned, which launched the Great Schism of the West. The abuses, confusion, and conflict fractured the Church, causing internal strain and civil wars. Frances’ whole life would play out during the forty years of the schism.
Thankfully, the young girl’s parents shielded her from the schism’s worst effects. Paul and Jacobella each belonged to illustrious and wealthy families in Rome. Jacobella was quiet and pious, while townspeople revered Paul for his firm leadership and resolve. Both were deeply religious. When Frances was growing up, her family often visited Santa Maria Nuova, a nearby church served by Benedictine monks. They grew especially close to one monk, Dom Antonio. He became Jacobella’s spiritual director and she eventually entrusted Frances to Dom Antonio, too.
Frances was a notably pious girl. Feeling drawn to a life of solitude and prayer, she decided that God wanted her to become a nun. She never mentioned this to her parents, though she did tell Dom Antonio. The wise monk drew up a rule of life for the girl, a way to test-drive the ascetic demands of religious life before permanently committing to them.
Frances loved the lifestyle. It was everything she hoped for. She spent hours alone in prayer, conversing with God, and engaged in tough sacrifices to strengthen her will. At the age of eleven, she made up her mind. She wanted to become a nun. She went to her parents to ask their permission to enter the convent.
Her mother was initially open to the idea. She noted how Frances seemed inclined to the religious life. However, her father adamantly refused. If that wasn’t startling enough for young Frances, he explained that the reason he refused was because he had already arranged for her to marry Lorenzo Ponziano, a young boy from a noble family. As a man of his word, nothing would convince her father to renege on the promise.
Frances raced off in tears. She pleaded God to prevent the marriage and ran to Dom Antonio, begging him to help change her father’s mind. After listening to her laments, Dom Antonio replied: “Are you crying because you want to do God’s will or because you want God to do your will?”
The question slowed Frances’ tears. She knew she wanted to be a nun, but she wasn’t sure if that’s what God had in mind. Though still troubled, she returned home and announced that she would obey her father’s decision. She still yearned to enter a religious community, but by marring Lorenzo she would find community in a different way.
Finding God through Family
At first glance, the marriage looked ideal. Other young women would have been overjoyed to marry a man like Lorenzo. He was handsome, noble, wealthy, and had a good heart. As commander of Rome’s papal troops, he was greatly esteemed and lived lavishly.
But for the shy Frances, this was a nightmare. Her mother-in-law, Cecilia, pushed her hard, grooming her to be an active and outgoing hostess. After an elaborate wedding and a whirl of parties and banquets, the thirteen-year-old girl collapsed due to exhaustion. Frances lay close to death for months, unable to eat or speak, and even prayed for God to take her life.
Yet one day, she had a vision of St. Alexis, a fifth-century boy who like her was forced into an unwanted marriage. In the vision, Alexis told Frances that God was offering her a similar choice: she could either recover or not. She could become a devoted bride or give up and flee this life. The decision was hers and God would grant whatever she chose.
Though completely miserable, Frances’ devotion trumped her weakness. She whispered, “God’s will is mine.” St. Alexis replied, “Then you will live to glorify His Name.” Upon hearing that answer, Frances sat up, immediately healed of her fatigue, and set out to serve her husband.
Despite this new resolve, her problems continued. Frances and Lorenzo lived in a sprawling palace along with Frances’ mother-in-law, Cecilia; Lorenzo’s brother, Paluzzo; Paluzzo’s wife, Vanozza; and several servants. Cecilia constantly chided Frances for not being as bubbly and outgoing as Vanozza. The sister-in-law delighted in elegant parties and fancy dress and was a very devoted wife.
The complaints stung Frances and many times brought her to tears. One day, Vanozza discovered Frances sobbing in the garden. When she asked what was wrong, Frances poured her heart out. She revealed her struggles, her sickness, and her vision of St. Alexis. She complained that her life of frivolous recreation prevented her from pursuing her true desire, which was to dedicate herself to the Lord.
When Frances finished venting, Vanozza bent down, comforted the young girl, and revealed that she too preferred to give herself wholly to God, and that married life was not easy for her, either. Yet once she learned to see marriage as an outlet for her dedication to God, not as a competitor with it, things completely changed.
Frances was revived by discovering a kindred spirit within the family. She and Vanozza decided to help each other flourish in their vocation as wives. They created a mutual plan for holiness: they would live their married duties with deep commitment, serve their husbands as if serving the Lord, and maintain their interior sanctuary through prayer, almsgiving, and penance.
They visited local hospitals together to help nurse the sick and distribute food and clothing. Frances kept up weekly confession with Dom Antonio and weekly communion. At home, the two sisters-in-law created a secret oratory in an old building where they would pray quietly once their duties were complete.
Vanozza helped Frances see that becoming a wife didn’t mean leaving God behind. It means finding God even more deeply through the ordinary duties of marriage. As Frances later affirmed in the quote she’s most remembered for: “A married woman must, when called upon, quit her devotions to God at the altar, to find him in her household affairs.”
According to Pope John Paul II, “as the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world.” Catholic social teaching considers the family the basic building block of society and the first school of community. All of us, especially those raising families, can pursue the same gifts as those in monasteries, without ever leaving our homes—deep prayer, almsgiving, chastity, and communion. Frances’ early life shows that our spouses, children, and parents provide daily opportunities to live communally and to serve the Lord through serving others.
This is an excerpt from Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014).