There have been saints whose histories strike us as particularly beautiful, not only as possessing the beauty which always belongs to sanctity, whether exhibited in an aged servant of God, who for threescore years and more has borne the heat and burden of the day, or in the youth who has offered up the morning of his life to His Maker, and yielded it into His hands before twenty summers have passed over his head; whether in a warrior king like Saint Louis, or a beggar like Benedict Labre, or a royal lady like Saint Elizabeth of Hungary; but also as uniting – in the circumstances of their lives, in the places they inhabited, and the epochs when they appeared in the world, much that is in itself poetical and interesting, and calculated to attract the attention of the historian and the man of letters, as well as of the theologian and the devout. In this class of saints may well be included Francesca Romana, the foundress of the religious order of the Oblates of Tor di Specchi. She was the model of young girls, the example of a devout matron, and finally a widow, according to the very pattern drawn by Saint Paul; she was beautiful, courageous, and full of wisdom, nobly born, and delicately brought up: Rome was the place of her birth, and the scene of her labours; her home was in the centre of the great city, in the heart of the Trastevere; her life was full of trials and hair-breadth escapes, and strange reverses; her hidden life was marvellous in the extreme: visions of terror and of beauty followed her all her days; favours such as were never granted to any other saint were vouchsafed to her; the world of spirits was continually thrown open to her sight; and yet, in her daily conduct, her character and her ways, minute details of which have reached us, there is a simplicity as well as a deep humility, awful in one so highly gifted, touching in one so highly favoured.
Troubled and wild were the times she lived in; perhaps if one had to point out a period in which a Catholic Christian would rather not have had his lot cast, – one in which there was most to try his faith and wound his feelings, he would name the end of the fourteenth century, and the beginning of the fifteenth. War was raging all over Europe; Italy was torn by inward dissensions, by the rival factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. So savage was the spirit with which their conflicts were carried on, that barbarism seemed once more about to overspread that fair land, and the Church itself was afflicted not only by the outward persecutions which strengthen its vitality, though for a while they may appear to cripple its action, but by trials of a far deeper and more painful nature. Heresy had torn from her arms a great number of her children, and repeated schisms were dividing those who, in appearance and even in intention, remained faithful to the Holy See. The successors of Saint Peter had removed the seat of their residence to Avignon, and the Eternal City presented the aspect of one vast battle-field, on which daily and hourly conflicts were occurring. The Colonnas, the Orsinis, the Savellis, were every instant engaged in struggles which deluged the streets with blood, and cut off many of her citizens in the flower of their age; strangers were also continually invading the heritage of the Church, and desecrated Rome with massacres and outrages scarcely less deplorable than those of the Huns and the Vandals. In the capital of the Christian world, ruins of recent date lay side by side with the relics of past ages; the churches were sacked, burned, and destroyed; the solitary and indestructible basilicas stood almost alone, mournfully erect amidst these scenes of carnage and gloom; and the eyes of the people of Rome were wistfully directed towards that tutelary power, which has ever been to them a pledge of prosperity and peace, and whose removal the signal of war and of misery.
It was at that time, during the Pontificate of Urban VI., in the year 1384, that Francesca was born at Rome; that “she rose as a star in a dark night,” according to the expression of the most ancient of her biographers. Her father’s name was Paul Bussa; her mother’s Jacobella de’ Roffredeschi; they were both of noble and even illustrious descent, and closely allied to the Orsinis, the Savellis, and the Mellinis. On the day of her birth she was carried to the church of Santa Agnese, in the Piazza Navona, and there baptised. Little could the worshippers who may have been praying there that day for a blessing on their bereaved and distracted city, have guessed in what form that blessing was bestowed, and that that little babe, a few hours old, was to prove a most powerful instrument in the hands of God for the extinction of schism, the revival of piety, and the return of peace.
From her infancy, Francesca was not like other children. Her mother, when she held her in her arms or hushed her to sleep on her knee, had always an involuntary feeling of reverence for her little daughter; it was as if an angel of God, not an earthly child, had been lent her; a heavenly expression shone in her eyes, and the calm serenity of her infant features struck all who approached her with admiration. Francesca learned to read at the same time that she began to speak; the first words she was taught to utter were the sacred names of Jesus and Mary; at her mother’s knee she lisped the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, and during the whole course of her life she never omitted that practice.
At two or three years old she had the sense and intelligence of a grown-up person; an extraordinary piety revealed itself in all her words and actions. She never played like other children; but when left to herself would often retire into silent corners of her father’s palace, and kneeling down, join her little hands in prayer; and lifting up her infant heart to God, would read a devout book, or repeat hymns to the Blessed Virgin, her own dear mother as she used to call her. Silence appeared to be the delight of this young child – the deepest reserve and modesty an instinct with her. At the age of six years the practices of the saints were already familiar to her. She had left off eating meat, eggs, or sweets of any description, and lived on plainly boiled vegetables and bread. The necessity of eating at all seemed irksome to her, and she never drank any thing but pure water. Then also had begun her unwearied study of the lives of holy women, and especially of the virgin martyrs who have shed their blood for the love of Jesus Christ. The Sacrament of Confirmation, which she received at that time in the church of Santa Agnese, the same in which she had been baptised, filled her with ardour to show her love for her Lord by every imaginable means, even those the most painful to the flesh.
Her mother was a very devout person, and in the habit of visiting every day some of the churches, especially those where indulgences were to be gained, and she also frequented the stations with affectionate assiduity. For in that troubled epoch, as in the earliest times of the Church, as now, as always, on certain days, in certain places, the relics of apostles, of martyrs, and of confessors were exhibited to the faithful, often on the very spot where they had finished their course with joy, having kept their faith and won their crown. The devotion of “the stations,” as it is performed in Rome, is one of the most touching links with the past that it is possible to conceive. To pass along the street, so often trod by holy feet in former and in latter days, and seek the church appointed for that day’s station; to approach some time-worn basilica, or ancient sanctuary, without the city walls may be, and pausing on the threshold, give one look at the glorious works of Almighty God in the natural world, – at the wide Campagna, that land-sea, so beautiful in its broad expanse and its desolate grandeur, at the purple hills with their golden lights and their deep-blue shadows, and the arched sky telling so vividly the glory of its Maker; and then slowly lifting the heavy curtain that stands between that vision of earthly beauty, and the shrine where countless generations have come to worship, – to tread under feet the green boughs, the sweet-smelling leaves, the scattered flowers, that morning strewn upon the uneven, time-trod, time-honoured pavement; bowing in adoration before the Lord in His tabernacle, to thank Him for the wonders that He has worked in His saints, – for the beauty of the world of grace, of which that of the visible world is but the type and the shadow; and then move from one shrine to the other, wherever the lights upon the altars point the way, and invoke the assistance, the prayers of the saints whose relics are there displayed; – all this is one of those rare enjoyments which at once feed the soul and awake the imagination, and which the devout Christian can find in no place but Rome.
It was these “stations” that Francesca’s mother frequented, and took her little daughter with her. Sometimes she went to some church in the heart of the city; sometimes to some lonely shrine without the walls. Then, as now, the beggars (so we find it mentioned later in the life of the Saint) congregated at the doors, and clamoured for alms. Then, as now, the lights burned upon the altars, and the sweet smell of fragrant and crushed leaves perfumed the air. During sermons the little girl’s attention never wandered; and on her return home she was wont to repeat what she had heard with unction and delight.
Her mother’s favourite church was that of Santa Maria Nuova; in our day more frequently called that of San Francesca Romana. It stands in the Toro Romano, close to the ruins of the ancient Temple of Peace. It was served at that time by the Benedictine monks of Mount Olivet; and to one of them, Don Antonio di Monte Savello, Jacobella de’ Roffredeschi intrusted the spiritual direction of her daughter. He was a man of great learning and piety, and continued her director for five and thirty years. Every Wednesday the little maiden came to him for confession. She consulted him about her occupations, her religious exercises, and her studies, and exactly obeyed his most minute directions, even in indifferent things. Often she tried for his permission to practise greater austerities; and such was her fervour, and the plain indications of God’s designs upon her, that he occasionally allowed her to perform penances which might have been considered in ordinary cases too severe for her tender age. At other times he forbade them altogether; and she submitted cheerfully to his commands, without a word of remonstrance or complaint, and resumed them again at his desire, with the equanimity of one who well knew that the spirit of perfect obedience is more acceptable to God than any works of devotion.
“A celestial brightness, a more eternal beauty,
Shone on her face, and encircled her form, when after confession
Homeward serenely she walked, with God’s benediction upon her.
When she had passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.”from Evangeline, by Longfellow
Francesca’s daily life was as perfect as a child’s could be. No untrue words sullied her pure lips; no gross thought dwelt in her mind. She seldom laughed, though a sweet smile was often on her lips. Up to the age of eleven, her life was one long continual prayer. Every little action was performed with a view to the glory of God. Her trifling failings she deplored with anguish; every stain on the pure mirror of her conscience was instantly washed away by tears. It was not long before it pleased God to vouchsafe to her extraordinary graces. Her early and almost intuitive acquaintance with the mysteries of religion was wonderful. Every day she meditated on the Incarnation and the Passion of Jesus Christ; and her devotion to the Blessed Virgin increased in proportion to her love for our Lord. Her face flushed with delight, and a seraphic expression beamed in her eyes, when she spoke of the sufferings of Jesus, and the glories of Mary. From the little oratory where she held secret communion with heaven, she went out into the world with the most ardent desire to serve the poor, to console the afflicted, to do good to all. The affection of her young heart found vent in numerous works of charity; and Francesca’s name, and Francesca’s sweet voice, and Francesca’s fair face, were even then to many of the sufferers of that dark epoch a sign of hope, – a pledge that God was still amongst them as of yore, and His Spirit at work in the hearts of men.
CHAPTER II – FRANCESCA’S EARLY INCLINATION FOR THE CLOISTER – BY HER FATHER’S DESIRE SHE MARRIES LORENZO PONZIANO – HER MARRIED LIFE – HER ILLNESS AND MIRACULOUS CURE
From the time that Francesca had understood the meaning of the words, her greatest desire had been to enter a convent; but with that spirit of humility and reserve which so particularly belonged to her, she had kept her desire concealed in her heart, and had manifested it to none but God and her director. Don Antonio encouraged her to persevere in this silence, and to prove her own resolution by secretly adhering to the rules, and practising the austerities of one of the strictest religious orders. She gladly assented to this, and persevered in it for a considerable time. Stronger and deeper every day grew her inclination to forsake the world, and to hold communion with God alone in the solitude of the cloister; with that God whose love had already driven from her heart all care for comfort, for pleasure, and for self. But not so smooth was to be her path through life; not much longer was she to sit in silence at the feet of her Lord, with no other thought than to live on the words, which fell from His lips.
Though she concealed as much as possible the peculiarities of her mode of life, they could not altogether escape the notice of her parents; and they soon questioned her on the subject. When she informed them of her wish to embrace the religious life, her father chose to consider her vocation as a childish fancy, and informed her in return that he had already promised her in marriage to Lorenzo Ponziano, a young nobleman of illustrious birth, and not less eminent for his virtues and for his talents than from his fortune and position. He reckoned amongst his ancestors Saint Paulianus, pope and martyr; his mother was a Mellini; and his eldest brother Paluzzo had married Vannuzza, a daughter of the noble house of Santo Croce. Francesca’s heart sank within her at this announcement, and falling on her knees she implored her father to alter his determination, and allow her to follow what she believed to be the will of God in her regard. She went even so far as to protest that nothing should induce her to consent to this marriage; torrents of tears fell from her eyes as she poured forth her supplications and urged her request. But it was all in vain that she wept and prayed. Paul Bussa turned a deaf ear to her pleadings; declared that his word was pledged, that nothing should ever persuade him to retract it; and he insisted that, as a dutiful daughter, she should submit herself to his will. Seeing him thus immovable, Francesca rose from her knees, withdrew in silence from his presence, and retiring into her little oratory, prostrated herself before the crucifix, and asked counsel of Him at whose feet she wished to live and to die; and implored Him, if such was His good pleasure, to exert His Almighty Power, and raise obstacles to the projected marriage. Then, strengthened by prayer, she was inspired to seek direction from him who was the organ of the divine will to her, and hurrying to Santa Maria Nuova, she requested to see Don Antonio Savello.
Kindly and gently the good priest spoke to his afflicted penitent. He promised to consult the Lord for her in prayer, and suggested some devotions to be used by herself for that purpose. Then, seeing her countenance assume a calmer expression, he endeavoured to prepare her mind for what he doubtless already knew was the will of God, and the true, though in one so minded, the singular vocation of Francesca. “If your parents persist in their resolution (he said), take it, my child, as a sign that God expects of you this sacrifice. Offer up to Him in that case your earnest desire for the religious life. He will accept the will for the deed; and you will obtain at once the reward of that wish, and the peculiar graces attached to the sacrament of marriage. God’s ways are not as our ways, Francesca. When Saint Mary Magdalene had sent for the Lord Jesus Christ to come and heal her brother, it was no doubt a severe trial to her that He came not; that the long hours of the day and of the night succeeded each other, and that He tarried on the way, and sent no message or token of His love. But when her brother rose from the dead, when the shroud fell from his limbs, and he stood before her full of life and strength, she understood the mystery, and adored the divine wisdom of that delay. God indeed asks of you your heart, Francesca; but He also claims your whole self as an oblation, and therefore your will that He may mould it into entire conformity with His own. For works may be many and good, my daughter, and piety may be fervent, and virtues eminent, and yet the smallest leaven of self-love or self-will may ruin the whole. Why do you weep, Francesca? That God’s will is not accomplished, or that your own is thwarted? Nothing but sin can mar the first, and in this your trial there is not the least shade of sin. As to your own will, bend, break, annihilate it, my child, and take courage. Have but one thought – the good pleasure, the sweet will of God; submit yourself to His Providence. Lay down your wishes as an oblation on His altar; give up that highest place which you had justly coveted; take the lower one which He now appoints you; and if you cannot be His spouse, be His loving and faithful servant.”
Francesca went home, and awaited in silence her father’s further commands. She was very pale, for the struggle was a painful one. She prayed night and day, watched and fasted. When Paul Bussa renewed his injunctions, she gently gave her assent, begged him to forgive her past resistance, and henceforward gave no outward signs of the suffering within, all the greater that it came in the form of rejoicing, and that others deemed that to be happiness which cost her so many secret tears. The family of Ponziano were overjoyed at the marriage, – the bride was so rich, so beautiful, and so virtuous; there was not a young man in Rome who did not look with envy on Lorenzo, and wish himself in his stead. There was no end to the banquets, the festivities, the merry-makings, which took place on the occasion; and in the midst of these rejoicings Francesca left her father’s palace for that of the Ponziani. It stood in the heart of the Trastevere, close to the Yellow River, though not quite upon it, in the vicinity of the Ponte Rotto, in a street that runs parallel with the Tiber. It is a well-known spot; and on the 9th of March, the Festival of Saint Francesca, the people of Rome and of the neighbourhood flock to it in crowds. The modern building that has been raised on the foundation of the old palace is the Casa dei Esercizii Pii, for the young men of the city. There the repentant sinner who longs to break the chain of sin, the youth beset by some strong temptation, one who has heard the inward voice summoning him to higher paths of virtue, another who is in doubt as to the particular line of life to which he is called, may come, and leave behind them for three, or five, or ten days, as it may be, the busy world, with all its distractions and its agitations, and, free for the time being from temporal cares, the wants of the body provided for, and the mind at rest, may commune with God and their own souls. Here they listen daily, nay hourly, to the instructions of devout priests, who, in the manner prescribed by Saint Ignatius, place before them in turn the most awful truths and the most consoling mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Resolutions are thus taken, conversions often effected, good purposes strengthened in a way which often seems little short of miraculous. The means are marvellously adapted to the end; and though many a wave may sweep over the soul, when it again returns to the world, a mark has been stamped upon it not easily effaced.
Over the Casa dei Esercizii Pii the sweet spirit of Francesca seems still to preside. On the day of her festival its rooms are thrown open, every memorial of the gentle saint is exhibited, lights burn on numerous altars, flowers deck the passages, leaves are strewn in the chapel, on the stairs, in the entrance-court; gay carpets, figured tapestry and crimson silks hang over the door, and crowds of people go in and out, and kneel before the relics or the pictures of the dear saint of Rome, and greet on each altar, and linger in these chambers, like kinsfolk met on a birthday to rejoice together. The well-dressed and the ragged, the rich and the poor, without distinction, pay their homage to her sweet memory whose living presence once adorned the spot which they visit. It is a joyous and touching festival, one which awakens tender thoughts, and brings the world of memory into close connection with that of hope. The mind is forcibly carried back to the day when the young bride of Lorenzo Ponziano entered these walls for the first time, in all the sacred beauty of holiness and youth -
“Pure as the virgin snow that dwells
Upon the mountain’s crest,
Cold as the sheet of ice that lies
Upon the lake’s deep breast.”
Pure from the least taint of worldly vanity, cold to all that belongs to human passion; but with a heart burning with love to God, and overflowing with charity to every creature of His.
She was received tenderly and joyfully by Lorenzo himself, by his father Andrew, his mother Cecilia, and Vannozza, the wife of his elder brother. Francesca smiled sweetly as she returned their caresses; but the noise, and the gaiety, and the visiting, that attended a wedding in those days weighed heavily on her spirits; and though she never complained, Vannozza perceived that her little heart was oppressed with some secret sorrow, and tenderly inquired into its cause. Francesca could not resist the gentle appeal, and disclosed her grief to her kind sister. She told her that the world had never given her pleasure, that her affections were elsewhere set, that she longed to live for God alone, and felt sad, in spite of all her efforts, at the tumult and dissipation, which was now her portion. “If such are your feelings, my beloved little sister,” exclaimed Vannozza, “my sympathy may serve to console you; for neither do I find any delight in the vanities of the world, but only in prayer and meditation. Let us be friends, Francesca; I will help you to lead the life you desire, and together we shall arrive at the end we have in view.”
These kind words filled Francesca’s heart with joy; and from that day forward there sprung up a friendship between these two young women, which lasted for eight-and-thirty years, and was a source of the greatest consolation to them through all the trials they had to encounter, at the same time that it edified all those who beheld that tender affection.
In her new home Francesca followed the same mode of life which she had pursued in her father’s house; but her zeal was tempered with so much wisdom and prudence, that she offended no one, and contrived to win the affection of all her relations. Her good sense, her sweetness of temper, her earnest piety, charmed them all; and they were astonished that so young a girl could at once assume the part and fulfil the duties of a devoted wife and a noble matron. Anxious in every way to conform herself to Lorenzo’s wishes, she received the visits of the high-born ladies her equals and companions, and returned them with punctuality. She submitted to appear in public with all the state which belonged to her position, and accepted and wore the costly dresses and the splendid jewels which her husband lavished upon her; but under those gorgeous silks and rich brocades a hair-shirt was concealed. Always ready to comply with any observance which duty or propriety required, she at the same time steadily abstained even from the innocent amusements in which others indulged; and never danced or played at cards, or sat up late at night. Her manner was so gentle and kind, that it inspired affection in all who approached her; but there was also a profound and awful purity in her aspect and in her demeanour, which effectually checked the utterance of a free or licentious word in her presence. Faithful to her early habits of piety, she continued every Wednesday her visits to Santa Maria Nuova; and after confessing to Don Antonio, she went to communion with such fervent devotion, that those who saw her at the altar absorbed in adoration, foresaw that God would ere long bestow extraordinary graces on her soul. Rising betimes in the morning, Francesca devoutly said her prayers, made her meditation, and read attentively out of a spiritual book. In the course of the day, whenever she had a moment’s leisure unclaimed by any of the duties of her state, she withdrew into a church or into her own room, and gave herself up to prayer. Every Saturday she had a conference with Fra Michele, a Dominican monk, the prior of San Clemente, and an intimate friend of her father-in-law. He was a learned theologian, as well as a man of great piety and virtue, and instructed her with care in all the doctrines of religion.
At the same tune, so austere and devout a life in a young person of twelve years old could not fail to attract the attention and draw down the censures of the worldly. Many such began to laugh at Francesca, and to turn her piety into ridicule. They intruded their advice on Lorenzo Ponziano, and urged him to put a stop to what they termed his wife’s eccentricities. But happily for Francesca, he was not one of those men who are easily influenced by the opinion of others. He formed his own judgment, and pursued his own line of conduct undisturbed by the comments and animadversions of his would-be advisers. His young wife was much too precious to him, much too perfect in his sight, her whole life bore too visibly the stamp of God’s dealings with her, for him to dream of interfering with the course she had taken. On the contrary, he looked upon her with that affectionate veneration which the presence of true sanctity always awakens in a noble and religious mind. His father and mother were of the same way of thinking, and all but idolised the holy child who had come amongst them as an angel of peace. They regarded her as the blessing of their house, and the comfort of their old age. Paluzzo, Lorenzo’s brother, delighted in encouraging the intimacy that had arisen between his young sister-in-law and his own wife Vannozza. There was not a single member, friend, or servant, of that noble family, that did not look with delight upon Francesca. She was the joy of every heart, the sweet consoler of every sorrow, the link that bound them all by the sacred cord of love. Day by day her influence – her tender, noiseless, gentle influence – was felt, subduing, winning, drawing them all to God.
The happiness which the family of Ponziano had enjoyed since Lorenzo’s marriage was interrupted by the sudden and dangerous illness of his wife, which baffled all medical skill, and soon brought her to the verge of the grave. The affliction of her husband and of his whole family was extreme. Their pearl of great price seemed about to be taken from them. No remedies afforded the slightest relief to her sufferings; she was unable to rest, or to retain any nourishment; and every day her strength declined. The consternation of her friends knew no bounds; her father was inconsolable. He secretly reproached himself with the constraint he had placed on her inclinations, and considered her illness as a Divine chastisement. Francesca alone remained unmoved amidst the general affliction. She placed her life in the hands of God, and waited the event with perfect submission. Unable to speak, or even to move, the sweet expression of her earnest eyes alone spoke her gratitude to those who nursed her and wept over her sufferings. At other times they were fixed on the Crucifix with an unutterable look of trust and love. Once only she was disturbed, and indignation gave her strength to protest against the guilty suggestions of some friends of the family, who, according to the notions of that time, persisted in believing that a spell had been cast upon her, and proposed to have recourse to some persons in Rome who dealt, or pretended to deal, in magic arts. Francesca declared herself ready to die, rather than countenance so impious a proceeding. After all medical resources had been exhausted, when despair had succeeded to hope, Almighty God restored her health for a while; and the news of her recovery was hailed with rapture within and without the palace.
Her sufferings, however, returned with double violence; she endured the most excruciating pains; and was again considered to be at the point of death. During a whole year she remained as it were on the brink of eternity: her soul prepared to take its wing; continually sustained by the Sacraments of the Church, her only remaining thought was to soothe the anguish of her husband and parents. Once again, those persons who had previously proposed to resort to magic arts for her cure, managed to thrust into her room, on some pretence or other, a woman celebrated in that line. Francesca, enlightened by a divine inspiration, instantly detected the fraud; and raising herself in her bed, with a voice, the strength of which astonished the bystanders, exclaimed, “Begone, thou servant of Satan, nor ever venture to enter these walls again!” Exhausted by the effort, she fell back faint and colourless; and for a moment they feared that her spirit had passed away. But that very day God was preparing a miracle in her behalf; and as she had refused to hold any communication with the Evil One, He was about to send His young servant a heavenly messenger, with health and healing on his wings. It was the eve of the Festival of Saint Alexis, – that noble Roman penitent, who passed so many years at the threshold of his own palace, unpitied, unrecognised by his own relations, who went in and out at the gate, and stopped not to question the silent, lonely, patient beggar, who lay there with his face hid in a poor cloak, finding peace in the midst of bitterness.
The Ponziani had all withdrawn to rest for a few hours; the women who attended on the dying Francesca had fallen asleep. She was lying motionless on her couch of pain. Her sufferings had been sharp; they were sharper than ever that night. She endured them in the strength of the Cross, from which neither her eyes nor her thoughts wandered. The whole house, and apparently the city also, was wrapt in slumber; for not a sound marred the stillness of the hour, – that stillness so trying to those who watch and suffer. Suddenly on the darkness of the silent chamber a light broke, bright as the day. In the midst stood a radiant figure, majestic in form and gracious in countenance. He wore a pilgrim’s robe; but it shone like burnished gold. Drawing near to Francesca’s bed, he said: “I am Alexis, and am sent from God to inquire of thee if thou choosest to be healed?” Twice he repeated the words, and then the dying one faintly murmured, “I have no choice but the good pleasure of God. Be it done unto me according to His will. For my own part, I would prefer to die, and for my soul to fly to Him at once; but I accept all at His hands, be it life or be it death.” “Life, then, it is to be,” replied Saint Alexis; “for He chooses that thou shouldest remain in the world to glorify His name.” With these words he spread his mantle over Francesca and disappeared, leaving her perfectly recovered.
Confounded at this extraordinary favour, more alive to the sense of God’s wonderful mercy than to her own sudden freedom from pain, Francesca rose in haste, and prostrate on the floor, made a silent and fervent thanksgiving; then slipping out of her room without awaking her nurses, she hurried to the bedside of her friend and sister. Putting her arm round her neck and her cheek next to her’s, she exclaimed, “Vannozza cara! Vannozza mia!” (My dear Vannozza, my own Vannozza.) And the bewildered Vannozza suddenly awoke out of her sleep, and distrusting the evidence of her senses, kept repeating, “Who calls me? Who are you? Am I dreaming? It sounds like the voice of my Cecolella.” [Footnote: The Italian diminutive for Francesca.] “Yes, it is your Cecolella; it is your little sister who is speaking to you.” “My Francesca, whom I left an hour ago at the point of death?” “Yes, the very same Francesca who now holds you to her breast; you, you, my beloved companion, who day and night have comforted and consoled me during my long illness, and who must now help me to thank God for His wonderful mercy.” Then sitting upon her bed, with her hands clasped in her’s, she related to her her vision, and the instantaneous recovery that had followed it; and then, as the light was beginning to break into the chamber, she added with eagerness, “Now, now the day is come. Let us not delay a moment longer, but hasten with me to Santa Maria Nuova, and then to the church of Saint Alexis. I must venerate his relics, and return him my thanks, before others learn what God has done for me.”
This pious purpose fulfilled, they returned home, where Francesca was looked upon as one risen from the dead. The affection she inspired was mingled with awe; every one considered her as the special object of the Divine mercy, and venerated her accordingly. Not so joyfully had Lorenzo received her on their bridal-day, as when she came to him now, restored to his arms by the miraculous interposition of a merciful God.
CHAPTER III – FRANCESCA PROCEEDS IN HER MORTIFICATIONS AND WORKS OF CHARITY – HER SUPERNATURAL TEMPTATIONS AND CONSOLATIONS
Not in vain had Francesca been brought so near to death, and so wonderfully restored to perfect health. A favour such as she had received could not fail of producing signal results in one who so well corresponded with every degree of grace vouchsafed to her. This last manifestation of God’s mercy disposed her to meditate deeply and earnestly on the designs of Providence in her regard. She seemed now to discern, in a clear and overpowering manner, the nature of the particular judgment which she had been about to undergo, the amount of responsibility incurred by every grace conferred on her soul, the severe account which would be demanded of every talent committed to her charge; and at the sight she shuddered, as a man draws back affrighted at the distinct appearance of a precipice which he has skirted in the night, or at the waves dashing wildly on a beach on which he has been landed in safety. Her meditations at that time assumed a very solemn character; every moment that she could spare was spent in the neighbouring church of Saint Cecilia or in her own oratory, and employed in a minute review of her past life, and in forming heroic resolutions for the future.
The government of the tongue is one of the most difficult and important points in the spiritual life. From this time forward Francesca avoided all unnecessary conversations, and became habitually silent. There was no moroseness in her silence; it never interfered with the kindnesses or the courtesies of life; but as in childhood she had been remarkable for it, so in womanhood it distinguished her, and especially since her illness and miraculous recovery. Vannozza inquired of her one day what it was that made her so habitually silent, and she answered, “God expects more of us than heretofore;” and then she proposed to her a still stricter mode of life than they had yet adopted. Vannozza willingly assented, and they agreed to give up all useless amusements, fashionable drives, and diversions, and to devote to prayer and to good works the hours thus withdrawn from the service of the world. They resolved to observe with the most exact punctuality every law of God, and every precept of the Church; to obey their husbands with the most attentive and Christian-like submission; to be invariably docile to their ghostly father, and submit to him their actions, their words, and even their thoughts; and thus to secure themselves against the deceits of the evil one. They then proceeded to arrange for themselves a place of retreat, where they could withdraw to pray at any hour of the day or of the night. It was not easy to accomplish this in a palace inhabited by a numerous family and a large number of servants; but in a sort of cave at one end of the garden, and in a little room that happened to be unoccupied under the roof of the house, they established two oratories, which they furnished with crucifixes, images of our Blessed Lady, and pictures of saints, as well as with various other objects of devotion and with instruments of penance. These two little cells became their comfort and delight; whenever their domestic duties or their religious observances out of doors left them at liberty, they were in the habit of retiring into the garden oratory, and at night they frequently spent whole hours in prayer in the upper chamber. The first dawn of day often found them at their orisons. The hours that were not devoted to prayer or to the duties of their state, they employed in works of charity. Almost every day they went to the hospital of San Spirito, and nursed the sick with the kindest attention; consoling them by their gentle words and tender care, bestowing alms upon the most needy, and above all, tending affectionately the most disgusting cases of disease and infirmity. Throughout their whole lives they never omitted this practice. To serve Christ in His afflicted brethren was a privilege they never consented to forego.
Francesca was at this time very anxious to lay aside the insignia of wealth and rank, and to dress as simply as the poor she so much loved; but, always obedient, she would not attempt to do so without the permission of her spiritual guide. Don Antonio Savello would not give her leave to relinquish the splendid robes then worn by persons of her rank; he feared it might annoy her husband, and that there might be danger of ostentation in any thing that attracted public attention; but he allowed both the sisters to wear a coarse woollen garment under their magnificent dresses, and to practise in secret several other austerities. Their fasts and abstinences became more rigid than ever; but were carried on with so much simplicity, and such a total absence of display, that the very persons who habitually took their meals in company with them, scarcely remarked their mortifications, or else attributed them to a peculiarity of taste or the observance of a regimen. Disciplines and other bodily penances of a very severe nature were by this time habitual to Francesca, and she persevered in them to the end of her life. With whatever care they concealed all these things, it was not possible that the city of Rome should remain ignorant of their piety and their generosity to the poor. The common people looked upon Francesca and Vannozza as two saints; and their example began to tell beneficially upon the women of their own class. Several noble ladies were inspired with the desire to walk in their steps, and to imitate their virtues. But it was not likely that Satan should behold unmoved the work of grace thus advancing in the hearts of these two young servants of God, and through them on many others. He chafed at the sight; and now began that long series of attacks, of struggles, and of artifices, by which he endeavoured to mar the glorious progress of these heroic souls. Almighty God seems to have granted to the prince of darkness, in San Francesca’s case, a permission in some respects similar to that which He gave him with regard to His servant Job. He was allowed to throw temptations in her way, to cause her strange sufferings, to persecute her by fearful manifestations of his visible presence, to haunt her under various shapes, some seductive in their appearance, others repulsive and terrific in their nature; but he was not permitted (as, thanks be to God, he never is permitted,) to deceive or to injure His faithful servant, who for every trial of the sort obtained some divine favour in compensation; who for every vision of diabolical horror, was allowed a glimpse into the world of glory; and to whom at a later period was appointed a heavenly guardian to defend her against the violence of her infernal foe.
The first time that Satan presented himself in a visible form to Francesca’s sight, God gave her an earnest of His protection in the strife about to be waged between her and the old serpent by miraculously revealing to her the character of her visitor. It was under the aspect of a venerable hermit, emaciated with fasts and watchings, that he entered the Ponziano palace: his intention was, by some artful words, to inspire Francesca with aversion and disgust for the solitary life, and at the same time for that hidden life which she so zealously practised in the midst of the world. He was shown into a large room, where the assembled family were sitting and conversing together. No sooner had Francesca set her eyes upon him, than she was supernaturally enlightened as to his true character; she knew at once the dreadful enemy, thus for the first time made manifest to her sight; and, suddenly changing colour, she rose and left the room. Vannozza followed (alarmed at her hasty departure), and found her in the oratory kneeling before the Crucifix, and as pale as death. She inquired into the cause of her emotion; but Frances simply desired her to return to the sitting-room, and request Lorenzo to dismiss the hermit. As soon as he was departed, she re-appeared amongst them as serene and calm as usual; and to no one but to her confessor did she mention the circumstance. Yet it was a most awful moment, that first initiation into the supernatural world, that first contact with the powers of darkness, that opening of the visible war between her and the great enemy. No wonder that she was habitually silent; her soul must have lived in very close communion with the invisible world, and the presence of God must have been realised in an extraordinary decree by one whose spiritual discernment was so miraculously keen.
A more ordinary snare was the tempter’s next resource, and he chose as his instrument a person of piety and virtue, but whose human fears and affections were too strong for her faith. He suggested to Cecilia, the mother-in-law of the two saints, who was most fondly attached to them, and maternally solicitous about their healths, that the ascetic life which they led must necessarily impair it; that amusements were essential to young persons; and that the singularity of their conduct reflected discredit on the family. Under this impression, she strove by every means in her power to counteract their designs, to thwart them in their devotional and charitable practices, and to induce them to give up more of their time and of their attention to the world. She thus gave them occasion to practise a very peculiar kind of patience, and to gain the more merit in the eyes of God, in that they had daily to encounter a sort of opposition particularly trying to young and ardent spirits. It is related, that one day, when they had gently but steadily refused to pay some visits which, far from being absolute duties, were only pretexts for gossip and the most frivolous conversations, Francesca and Vannozza had retired into the garden oratory; and after spending some time in prayer, began conversing together on the life which the early Fathers were wont to lead in the deserts, and of the happiness it must be to live entirely devoted to the service of God, and to commune with Him above, far from the distracting thoughts and cares of the world. They went on picturing to themselves the manner in which they would have divided their time and arranged their occupations under similar circumstances, and together they made out a complete rule of life.
Absorbed in the subject, Vannozza exclaimed, with childlike simplicity, “But what should we have to eat, sister?” and Francesca replied, “We should search for fruits in the desert, dearest; and God would surely not let us seek in vain.” As she said these words they rose to return home, and from a tree which grew out of a ruined wall on one side of the garden there fell at her feet a quince of the largest size and most shining colour, and another similar to it was lying in Vannozza’s path. The sisters looked at each other in silent astonishment; for the time of the year was April, and nothing but a miracle could have brought these apples to maturity at this unwonted season. The taste of the fruit was as excellent as its colour was beautiful. They were divided amongst the members of the family, who wondered at the marvels which seemed continually to attend the steps of Francesca. She was profoundly grateful for such favours, but probably marvelled less than others at their occurrence. Her youth; the simplicity of her faith; her total abstraction from worldly thoughts; her continual study and meditation of the Holy Scriptures and of the lives of the Saints, – must have necessarily familiarised her mind with such ideas. It could not seem incredible to her, that the God who in less favoured times, and under a severer dispensation, had so often suspended the laws of nature, in order to support, to guide, and to instruct His people; that the Saviour who had turned water into wine by a single word, and withered the unprofitable fig-tree by a look, – should at all times display the same power in favour of His children, in ways not a whit more marvellous or mysterious.
Cecilia made one more effort to check what she considered exaggeration in the mode of life of her daughters-in-law. She urged their husbands to interfere, and by their authority to oblige them to mix more with the world. But Paluzzo and Lorenzo had too deep an esteem for their wives, and too great a sense of the advantages they derived from their singular virtues, to be persuaded into putting a restraint on their actions. Since they had come into the family, and united their pious efforts for their own and others’ spiritual improvement, disputes and quarrels had given way to the most edifying concord. The servants, moved by their example, performed their duties with exemplary zeal, frequented the churches and the sacraments, and abstained from profane or idle words. They accordingly entreated their mother to give up her fruitless attempts, and allow the two young women liberty to follow the rule of life they had adopted; and thus put an end to the kindly meant but trying persecution they had gone through.
About this time the devil, thwarted in his designs, but always on the watch, was permitted to vent his anger against Francesca and her sister-in-law in a way to which he often had recourse, and which, while it seemed to display a momentary power over their bodies, only proved in the end that a stronger one than he was always at hand to defeat his malice, and snatch from him his prize. Francesca and Vannozza had gone to Saint Peter’s on an intensely hot day in July, in the year 1399. Absorbed in prayer, they had hardly noticed the lapse of time, and twelve o’clock had struck when they set out on their way home. In order to avoid observation, and the marks of veneration which the people lavished upon them as soon as they set eyes on the two saints (as they always called them), they chose the most unfrequented streets they could find. The heat grew intolerable. The sultry air seemed on fire, and not a breath stirred it. Exhausted with fatigue, their mouths parched with thirst, they reached the church of Saint Leonardo; and holding each other’s hands, approached the brink of the river, in order to cool their burning lips and throbbing heads with a little water. As they bent over the stream for that purpose, a violent blow from an invisible arm was aimed at Francesca, and hurled her into the Tiber. Vannozza fell with her; and, clasped in each other’s arms, they were rapidly carried away by the current, and saw no means of escape. “They were lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided,” might well have been said of them, had the watery grave, which seemed inevitable, swallowed up on that day the two brides of the Ponziani. But it was not the will of God that they should perish. Human aid was not at hand; the stream was rapid, the current deep, and the eddies curled around them; but they called upon God with one voice, and in an instant the waters, as if instinct with life, and obedient to a heavenly command, bore them gently to the shore, and deposited them unhurt on the green margin of the river.
About this time also a supernatural favour of the most extraordinary nature was vouchsafed to Francesca. Her guardian angel, who was one day to accompany her, not by an invisible presence only, as in the case of all Christians, but, by a rare privilege of grace, in a visible form, ever manifest to her spiritual sight, now began to reveal himself to her by the most watchful observance of her conduct. At all times and in all places, by day and by night, her slightest faults were noticed and punished by this still invisible, but now evidently present monitor. At the least imperfection in her conduct, before she had time to accuse and to condemn herself, she felt the blow of a mysterious hand, the warning of an ever-attentive guardian; and the sound of that mystical chastisement was audible to others also. Great was the astonishment of those who could thus discern something of God’s dealings with this chosen soul. Once, when she had abstained through human respect from interrupting the course of a very frivolous and useless conversation, the warning was inflicted with such severity that she bore the mark of the blow for several succeeding days.
Such a rapid advance in holiness, such new and ever-increasing virtues, were the results of this supernatural tuition, that Satan now attempted to seduce her by the wiliest of his artifices, the master-piece of his art, his favourite sin, – “the pride that apes humility.” So many miracles wrought in her favour, such strange revelations of God’s peculiar love for her soul, awakened in Francesca’s mind, or rather the devil suggested to her the thought, that it might be better to conceal them from her director, or at least to acquaint him with only a portion of the wonders that were wrought in her behalf; and accordingly, the next time she went to confession she refrained from mentioning the signal grace which had been vouchsafed to her. At the very instant she was thrown prostrate on the ground, and recognised the hand of her heavenly monitor in the blow which thus warned her of the grievous error into which she was falling. In that short moment she had time to perceive and acknowledge it; and with intense contrition she confessed to her director the false humility which had beguiled her into a dangerous reserve, with perfect openness revealed to him the whole of God’s past and present dealings with her soul, and explained to him the meaning of what had just taken place. Don Antonio listened with astonishment and gratitude, and thus addressed her: “You have just escaped from a great danger, my daughter; for those who aim at perfection cannot conceal any thing from their spiritual guide without running the risk of delusion. By your mistaken silence you were complying with the suggestions of Satan, who, under the semblance of humility, was seeking to awaken in you a secret and baneful pride. You would have been led by degrees to over-estimate these supernatural favours, to deem them not merely means of grace, but rewards due to your merits; to despise those to whom God does not grant them; and to give yourself up to extravagant and unauthorised austerities in order to secure their continuance, and to distinguish yourself in your own and others’ sight. I should have forbidden you to practise them; you would have been tempted to renounce my guidance, to take one confessor after another, until you had found one weak or blind enough to approve your self-will; and then the arch-enemy of mankind, under the garb of an angel of light, would have made you the prey of his delusions, till at last you might have fallen from one error into another, and made shipwreck of your faith. Such has been the downward course of many a soul, that has begun by yielding to a false humility – the offspring of pride – and has ended in sin and perdition.”
From that time forward, Francesca was on her guard against every species of pride and self-reliance, however disguised and refined. She related her faults and temptations, the graces she received and the favours she obtained, with the same childlike openness and simplicity. It was at the age of sixteen that she was thus advanced in the science of the saints; and every day her virtues and her piety increased.
CHAPTER IV – THE BIRTH OF FRANCESCA’S FIRST CHILD – HER CARE IN HIS EDUCATION – SHE UNDERTAKES THE MANAGEMENT OF HER FATHER-IN-LAW’S HOUSEHOLD – A FAMINE AND PESTILENCE IN ROME – FRANCESCA’S LABOURS FOB THE SICK AND POOR – THE MIRACLES WROUGHT IN HER BEHALF
The year 1400 was opening under melancholy auspices. Boniface IX was at that moment in possession of the pontifical throne, and celebrating the jubilee, the periodical recurrence of which at the end of every fifty years had been decreed by Clement VI. in 1350; but Rome was even then in a lamentable state, and presages were not wanting of still more disastrous times. The wars for the succession of the kingdom of Naples, between Louis of Anjou and Ladislas Durazzo, were agitating the whole of Italy; and the capital of the Christian world was exposed to all the fury of the contending parties. The powerful faction of the Colonnas, in arms against the Pope, invaded the Capitol at the head of a numerous body of insurgents on horseback and on foot; and the air resounded with the cries of “Long live the people! Death to the tyrant Boniface IX.!” On that day the signal was given for a division of parties, which led shortly afterwards to the appalling tragedy which decimated the nobility of the Eternal City and deluged her streets with blood.
Lorenzo Ponziano, from his rank and his great possessions, as well as from his fidelity to the Church and the Sovereign Pontiff, was especially marked out as an enemy by the adverse faction. But while on every side the storm was brewing, and the aspect of public affairs each day more gloomy, a blessing was granted to him which for the last five years he had ardently desired. The expectation of an heir to the family of Ponziano filled him and his parents with inexpressible delight. Francesca, in the meantime, was incessantly occupied in recommending to God the child she was about to bear; and offered up her every little act of devotion in its behalf, with the hope of drawing down the Divine blessing on its future existence. In the same year she was happily delivered of a son, who was immediately baptised in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and received the name of Giovanni Baptista. It was not at that time the custom for ladies of rank to nurse their children; but Francesca set aside all such considerations, and never consented to forego a mother’s sacred privilege. She did not intrust her child for a moment to the care of others, afraid that, in her absence, the utterance of unworthy sentiments, bad manners and habits, which even in infancy may cause impressions not easily eradicated, should taint with the least evil the heart and mind of her son. It is remarkable how careful the holy mothers which we read of in the lives of the Saints appear to have been of the circumstances attending the infancy of their children, – that period during which we are apt to suppose that no impressions can be given or received. Are we not perhaps in error on that point? – As much that we read and apparently forget leaves notwithstanding a certain deposit in our minds, which comes into play when called forth by association, so, may not certain sights, sounds, and words, not understood at the time, impart a certain colour, stamp certain images on the mind of an infant, which, however dim and confused, deepen and grow with it as it expands? There have been curious psychological instances of names, of languages, of dormant recollections, reawakening as it were under a peculiar condition of the nervous system, and which could only be traced to impressions received in the earliest stages of existence.
Francesca, in obedience to her director, as well as guided by her own sense of duty, modified for the time being her usual mode of life, and occupied herself with the care of her child in preference to all other observances of charity or of devotion. She did not complain or regret that she had to give up her habitual religious exercises, in order to tend and to nurse the little creature whom she looked upon as the gift of God, and whose careful training the best offering she could make in return. The joy which she had felt in her infant’s birth was marred by the death of her father, who, when his grandson was placed in his arms, exclaimed in the words of Saint Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace;” and the words seem to have been prophetic, for he died almost immediately afterwards, and was buried in the vaults of Santa Agnese, in the Piazza Nuova. At a later period, when that church was reconstructed, his remains were transported to the cloisters of Tor Di Specchi, where the simple inscription, “Here lies Paul Bussa,” remains to this day. Francesca, in pursuance of her desire, not only to exclude evil, but to infuse good dispositions at the earliest possible period into her baby’s soul, lost no opportunity of imparting to him the first notions of religion. Before he could speak, she used to repeat to him every day the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, clasp his little hands together, and direct his eyes to heaven, and to the images of Jesus and Mary, whose names were of course the first words he learned to utter. She checked in him by grave looks, and slight punishments fitted to his age, every ebullition of self-will, obstinacy, and anger; and later, of deceit, envy, and immodesty. Though she had the most tender mother’s heart, she seldom indulged in passionate caresses, and never left unchastised any of his faults, or gave way in any instance to his tears and impatience. When others objected that it was absurd to expect self-command from a creature whose reason was not developed, she maintained that habits of self-control are to be acquired at the earliest age, and that the benefit thus obtained extends to the whole of life. The child thus trained lived to prove the wisdom of her views, and became in difficult times the support of his family and an honour to their name.
About a year after the birth of Giovanni Baptista, Cecilia, Lorenzo’s mother, died. Andreazzo Ponziano, and both his sons, fully conscious of the prudence and virtue of Francesca, resolved to place her at the head of the house, and to commit to her alone the superintendence of their domestic affairs and the whole management of the household. Distressed at the proposal, she pleaded her youth and inexperience, and urged that Vannozza, as the wife of the eldest brother, was as a matter of course entitled to that position. Vannozza, however, pleaded with such eagerness that it was her most anxious desire not to occupy it, and that all she wished was to be Francesca’s disciple and companion, that, overcome by the general importunity, she found herself obliged to comply. Now it was that her merit shone conspicuously. Placed at the head of the most opulent house in Rome, no symptom of pride, of haughtiness, or of self-complacency, ever revealed itself in her looks or in her actions. She was never heard to speak a harsh or impatient word. Firm in requiring from every person in her house the proper fulfilment of their duties, she did it in the gentlest manner. Always courteous to her servants, she urged them to serve God with diligence, and watched over their souls redeemed by His precious blood. Her address was so winning and persuasive, that it seldom failed of its effect. She contrived to arrange the hours of their labour with so much order and skill, that each had sufficient leisure to hear Mass, to attend the parochial instructions on Sundays and holidays, to frequent the Sacraments, and join every day in family prayer, – fulfilling the whole of a Christian’s duty. If by any chance (and it was a rare one in a house thus governed) a quarrel arose between any of the servants, she was always ready to come forward, appease angry passions, and reconcile differences. If, in so doing, she had occasion to speak with what she considered undue severity to one of the parties, she would immediately apologise with tears, and in the humblest manner entreat forgiveness. This extreme sweetness of disposition, however, did not degenerate into weakness; and she could testify the utmost displeasure, and reproved with energy when offences were committed against God. It was intolerable to her that His Divine Majesty should be insulted in her abode; and she, the gentlest and most unassuming of women, could display on such occasions the greatest firmness.
One day, it is recorded, several gentlemen had been dining with Lorenzo; and one of them after dinner drew from his pocket a book which contained a treatise on magic. Lorenzo took it up, and was examining it with some curiosity, when his wife stole noiselessly behind him, took it out of his hands, and threw it into the fire. Nettled by this proceeding, her husband reproached her in rather bitter terms for her incivility to their guest; but she, who was habitually submissive to his least word, only replied that she could not regret the destruction of what might have proved to many an occasion of sin. She inexorably consigned to the flames in the same manner every bad book that came in her way.
Her tender charity was evinced when any of the inmates of the palace were ill. She was then the affectionate nurse of the sufferers, and spent whole nights by their bedside. Nothing ever discouraged or wearied her; the lowest servant in the house was attended to, as if she had been her own mother or sister. More anxious still for their soul’s health than their body’s, she was known to go out herself alone at night in search of a priest when a sudden case of danger had occurred beneath her roof. Her charity was in one instance miraculously rewarded by a direct interposition of Providence, in a matter apparently trifling, but on which, humanly speaking, her dear sister Vannozza’s existence seemed to turn. She was dangerously ill, and had been for days unable to swallow any food; the very sight of it caused her intolerable nausea; and from sheer exhaustion her life was reduced to so low an ebb, that the worst was apprehended. On Francesca’s inquiring if she could think of any thing which she could imagine it possible to eat, she named a certain fish, which was not in season at that time. The markets were scoured by the servants, but naturally in vain, and they returned empty-handed to the dejected Francesca, who, kneeling by the bedside of her friend, betook herself, with arduous faith and childlike simplicity, to prayer. When she raised her head, the much-wished-for article of food was lying before her; and the first morsel of it that Vannozza eat restored her to health.
She had been about a year at the head of her father-in-law’s house, when Rome fell under the double scourge of famine and pestilence. The Ponziani were immensely rich, and their palace furnished with every kind of provisions. Francesca forbade her servants to send away a single poor person without relieving their wants; and not content with this, she sought them out herself, invited them to come to her, and made them continual presents of corn, wine, oil, and clothing. She exhorted them to bear their sufferings with patience, to return to God and to their religious duties, and to strive by fervent prayer to appease the Divine wrath, provoked by the crimes of mankind. Vannozza and herself were indefatigable in their visits to the hospitals and the out-of-the-way corners of the city.
Andreazzo Ponziano, a good man, but not a saint, was alarmed at the excessive liberality of his daughter-in-law, and feared that it would end in producing a famine in his own house. He began by prudently withdrawing from their hands the key of the granary; and then, for greater security, afraid perhaps of yielding to their entreaties, which he was not accustomed to resist, he took to selling whatever corn he possessed beyond what was required for the daily consumption of the family. Nothing, therefore, remained in the corn-loft but a huge heap of straw. The provident old man followed the same plan with his cellar, and sold all the wine it contained, with the exception of one cask, which was reserved for his own and his children’s use.
Meanwhile the scarcity went on increasing every day, and the number of starving wretches in proportion. Franceses, unable to meet their demands, and still more incapable of leaving them to perish, braved at last all false shame and repugnance, and resolved with Vannozza to go into the streets and beg for the poor. Then were seen those two noble and lovely women standing at the doors of the churches, knocking at the gates of the palace, following the rich in the public places, pleading with tears the cause of the sufferers, gladly receiving the abundant alms that were sometimes bestowed upon them, and not less gladly the sneers, the repulses, the insulting words that often fell to their share in these pilgrimages of mercy. At last the famine reached its height. At every side, – on the pavement, in the corners of the streets, – were lying crowds of persons, barely clothed with a few tattered rags, haggard with hunger, wasted with fever, and calling upon death to end their sufferings. It was a grievous, a horrible sight, – one that well-nigh broke the heart of our saint. The moanings of the dying were in her ears; the expression of their ghastly faces haunted her day and night. She would have gladly shed her blood for them, and fed them with her life. A sudden inspiration came over her one day: “Come to the corn-loft,” she exclaimed, turning to Vannozza, and to Clara, a favourite and pious servant of theirs; “Come with me to the corn-loft; let us see if amongst the straw we may not succeed in finding a few grains of corn for the poor.” And on their knees for several hours those patient, loving women sifted the straw, and by dint of labour collected about a measure of corn, which they were bearing away in triumph, when the God who caused the widow’s oil not to fail, and made her barrel of meal last through a scarcely more grievous famine, was preparing their reward. Lorenzo had entered the granary just as they were carrying off their hard-earned treasure, and, looking about him, beheld in place of the straw which was lying there a moment before, 40 measures of bright yellow corn, so shining and so full, says Francesca’s earliest biographer, that it seemed as though it had been raised in Paradise, and reaped there by angels. In silent astonishment he pointed out to them the miraculous supply, and must have felt in that hour what such virtue as his wife’s and his sister’s could even in this world win of mercy at God’s hands. But corn was not enough; the sick wanted wine. They came, poor pallid ghosts, just risen from their beds of suffering, to beg it of Francesca; aged men and delicate children, mothers with infants at their breasts, poor worn-out priests sinking with exhaustion, and yet willing to assist others, they had recourse to her for a little wine to strengthen them in their works of mercy, and she had no wine to give, save out of the single cask in the cellar. She gave it, nevertheless; and day after day drew from it, till not a drop was left. Andreazzo, provoked, waxed very wroth; he had never before been angry with Francesca, but now he stormed and raved at her; he had been to the cellar to see the wine drawn for that day’s use, and not a drop was in the cask. “Charity indeed!” he exclaimed, “charity begins at home; a pretty sort of virtue this, which, under the pretext of assisting strangers, introduces penury and privation into the midst of a person’s own family.” He vented his anger in bitter reproaches; Lorenzo and Paluzzo were also inclined to take his part, and joined in severely blaming Francesca. She the while, with a gentle voice and quiet manner, breathing most probably a secret prayer to her who at the marriage-feast of Cana turned to her Son and said, “They have no wine,” doubtless with an inward assurance that God would befriend her in an extraordinary, but not to her an unprecedented manner, thus addressed them: “Do not be angry; let us go to the cellar; may be, through God’s mercy, that the cask may be full by this time.” They followed her with an involuntary submission; and on reaching the spot, saw her turn the cock of the barrel, out of which there instantly flowed the most exquisite wine, which Andreazzo acknowledged to be superior to any he had ever tasted. The venerable old man turned to his daughter-in-law, and, with tears in his eyes, exclaimed,
“Oh, my dear child, dispose henceforward of every thing I possess, and multiply without end those alms that have gained you such favour in God’s sight.”
The report of this miracle spread far and wide; and, in spite of her humility, Francesca did not object to its being divulged, as it testified to the Divine virtue of almsgiving, and encouraged the rich to increase their liberality, and minister more abundantly to the suffering members of Christ.
A kind of religious awe seems to have taken possession of Lorenzo’s mind, at the sight of so many wonders wrought in his house. The great esteem in which he had always held his wife, now took the form of a profound veneration. He recommended her to follow in every respect the divine inspirations she received, and left her entirely free to order her life and dispose of her time in any way she thought fit. Francesca, after consulting with her director, took advantage of this permission to execute what had been her long-cherished desire. Selling all her rich dresses, her jewels, and her ornaments, she distributed the money amongst a number of poor families, and from that time forward never wore herself any other gown than one of coarse dark-green cloth. Her mortifications became so continual and severe, her fasts so rigid, that it is difficult to conceive how her health could have sustained them without miraculous support, or how she can have found time for all her duties, and the incredible number of good works which she daily performed. When we consider that she was unremitting in her attention to her children, that she was never known to neglect the diligent superintendence of household affairs, that she repeatedly visited the hospitals and the poor sick in their houses, that morning and evening she went to the churches where indulgences were to be gained, recited numerous vocal prayers, often spent hours in contemplation, and in the garden oratory, where with Vannozza, Clara, and Rita Celli, a devout young person who was admitted into their intimacy, she read spiritual books or conversed on religious subjects, – our admiration is quickened; for that zeal and strong will could work wonders all but incomprehensible to those who have not put their shoulder to the wheel in good earnest, or learnt to appreciate the priceless value of every minute of this short life.
CHAPTER V – THE BIRTH OF FRANCESCA’S SECOND SON – HIS SUPERNATURAL GIFTS – THE BIRTH OF HER DAUGHTER – SATANIC ATTACKS UPON FRANCESCA – -TROUBLES OF ROME – FRANCESCA’S HUSBAND IS SEVERELY WOUNDED – HER ELDEST SON, WHEN GIVEN UP AS A HOSTAGE TO THE NEAPOLlTANS, IS MIRACULOUSLY RESTORED TO HER
Francesca had just attained the age of twenty when her second son was born. He was baptised on the day of his birth, and received the name of Giovanni Evan – gelista. The contemporary biographer, some of whose sayings have been already quoted, mentions of this child that he was endowed with wonderful gifts of grace, and that the love of God was manifested in him even before he could speak. In his quaint language he thus describes him: “Evangelista was old in sense, small in body, great in soul, resplendent in beauty, angel-like in all his ways.” He might well have been termed, in familiar language, his mother’s own child; for in his veriest infancy his only pleasure was to be carried into churches, or to give alms to the needy, especially to the poor religious, for whom he had a special predilection. Francesca’s delight in this lovely little infant was indescribable. He was to her as one of God’s own angels, and tears of joy filled her eyes as she mused on the extraordinary signs of grace which he daily evinced. Supernatural had been the mother’s virtues, supernatural were the qualities of the child; at the age of three years old he was endowed with the gift of prophecy, and the faculty of reading the un-uttered thoughts of men’s hearts.
Singular instances of this power are on record. He was in his mother’s arms one day, when two mendicant friars approached the Ponziano Palace. Instantly stretching out his little hands, Evangelista took from Francesca the alms she was wont to bestow on such visitors, and held it out to them; but at the same time looking steadfastly at one of the monks, he said to him, “Why will you put off this holy habit? you will wear a finer one; but woe to you who forget your vow of poverty.”
The friar coloured and turned away; but it was soon evident that the words were prophetic, for within a short time, and after obtaining a bishopric through a simoniacal act, the unhappy man died a violent death. That same year, Evangelista was in his parent’s room one day; and his father taking him up on his knees, was playing with him, and devouring him with kisses. In the midst of his sport, the child turned suddenly pale, and laying hold of a dagger which had been left on the table, he placed the point of it against Lorenzo’s side, and said to him as he looked up into his face with a strange melancholy smile, “Thus will they do to you, my father.” And it so happened that at the time of the invasion of Rome by the troops of Ladislas Durazzo, the lord of Ponziano was dangerously wounded in the exact place and manner which his little son had pointed out.
Evangelista was not quite three years old when his little sister Agnese was born, who in beauty, heavenly sweetness of temper, and precocious piety, proved the exact counterpart of her brother. Soon after her confinement, Francesca had a vision which impressed her with the belief that God would one day claim this child as His own. She saw a dove of dazzling whiteness, bearing in its beak a tiny lighted taper, enter the room; and after making two or three circles in the air, it stooped over Agnese’s cradle, touched her brow and limbs with the taper, gently fluttered its wings, and flew away. Looking upon this as a sign that the little maiden would be called to the monastic life, she brought her up as a precious deposit only lent her for a time, and to be delivered up at no distant period. With even stricter care than she had used with her brother, if that were possible, she watched over the little girl; never leaving her for a single moment, and performing towards her the offices of a servant as well as of a mother. She kept her in complete retirement, never taking her out of doors except to church; teaching her to love Jesus supremely – better even than her parents – and entertaining her with descriptions of that dear Saviour’s adorable perfections. She encouraged her to observe silence, to work with her hands at stated times, and taught her to read in the lives of the saints of holy virgins and martyrs. Agnese’s character and turn of mind answered precisely to her mother’s wishes; and the perfection of her conduct was such, that she was generally designated by all who knew her as the little saint or the little angel.
The years of Evangelista’s and Agnese’s infancy had been most disastrous ones to the unhappy inhabitants of Rome. The factions which had arisen in consequence of the schism, and of the intrigues of Ladislas of Naples, had banished all security, and converted the town into a field of battle, where bloody conflicts were daily taking place. The principles of union seemed banished from the world. The nations and sovereigns of Europe, given up to the most selfish policy, ceased to acknowledge the chief pastor of the Church; and the Eternal City, beyond any other place, had become an arena for ferocious struggles and sanguinary conspiracies. The year 1406 brought with it a momentary semblance of peace, and Francesca and Vannozza availed themselves of that breathing-time to revisit some of the distant churches, and attend the Italians as before. They used to walk to them on foot at the earliest break of day, accompanied by Rita Celli, the young person already mentioned, and Lucia degli Aspalli, a devout married woman nearly related to the Ponziano family. They repeated psalms and litanies on their way, or spent the time in pious meditation, and remained some hours in prayer before the altars which they visited in turn, – taking care to be at home again by the time that their presence was required. In that troubled epoch the voice of the preacher was seldom heard; sermons, however, were occasionally delivered by the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the churches of Ara Coeli and Santa Maria sopra Minerva; and at these our saints never failed to assist. Their spiritual guide had given them leave to go to communion several times a week. This was a privilege seldom granted and seldom sought for in those distracted times. The blessed practice of daily communion, which universally prevailed amongst the early Christians, – that practice which turns earth into heaven, and converts the land of exile into a paradise of peace and joy, – was all but entirely neglected, or only kept up in some few cloisters. The two sisters habitually communicated in the church of Santa Cecilia, the nearest to their house. One of the priests of that parish was scandalised at the frequency of their communions, and persuaded himself that it was incredible that young women of their age, and in such a position of life, could possibly be in possession of the requisite dispositions. This unhappy man ventured one day to give Franeesca an unconsecrated wafer; God instantly revealed to the saint the sin of the priest, and she informed her director of the fact. Don Antonio disclosed to the astonished offender the secret which had been confined to his own breast. He confessed his fault with the deepest contrition, implored God’s pardon, asked forgiveness of the saint, and received the humiliation as a warning against rash judgments.
The warfare which Satan was permitted to carry on against Francesca became more and more violent at this period of her life. In actual outrages, in terrific visions, in mystical but real sufferings, which afflicted every sense and tortured every nerve, the animosity of the evil spirit evinced itself; and Almighty God permitted it, for she was of those chosen through much tribulation to ascend the steep path which is paved with thorns and compassed with darkness, but on which the ray of an unearthly sunshine breaks at times. She was to partake of the miraculous gifts of the saints; to win men’s souls through prayer, to read the secrets of their hearts, to see angels walking by her side, to heal diseases by the touch of her hands, and hold the devils at bay, when they thought to injure the bodies of others or wage war with her own spirit. But such heights of glory are not gained without proportionate suffering; the cup of which Jesus drank to the dregs in His agony she was to drink of, the baptism of horror with which He was baptised was to be her’s also in a measure; and that mysterious weakness, that divine helplessness of His, which allowed Satan to carry Him, the Lord of all, to the pinnacle of the temple or the brow of the mountain, was not unshared by His servant. Strange and bewildering were the assaults she endured, but still more wonderful the defeats of the evil one. Of her triumph, as of those of her Lord, it may be said, “that when the devil left her, then angels came and ministered unto her.” Strange, that those who believe the history of Jesus should turn incredulously away from that of His saints; for did He not expressly say, that what He suffered, they should suffer; that where He had overcome, they would triumph; and that the works that He performed, aye and greater works still, they should accomplish?
On one occasion, when on the point of setting out for the Basilica of Saint Peter’s, Vannozza was violently precipitated down the stairs of the palace by the power of the evil spirit, and fell at her sister’s feet, who at that instant heard a voice whispering in her ear, “I would kill thy sister, and drive thee to despair;” but at the same moment an inward revelation bade Francesca raise up the prostrate form of her friend, and apply to her bruised limbs an ointment which instantly relieved the pains of her fall. Another time our saint was lifted up by the hair of her head, and suspended over a precipice for the space of some minutes; with perfect calmness she called upon Jesus, and in a moment found herself in safety within her room. Her first act was to cut off her beautiful hair, and, offer it up as a thank-offering to Him who had saved her from the hands of the infernal enemy. These are only specimens of the trials of this nature to which Francesca was more or less subjected all her life, but to which it will not be necessary again to make more than casual allusion.
In the year 1409, when she was about twenty-seven years old, her temporal calamities began. After Ladislas of Naples, befriended by the enemies of the Pope, and in 1408 gained possession of Rome by fraudulent means he left behind him as governor of the city the Count Pietro Traja, a rough and brutal soldier, well fitted to serve the fierce passions of his master. He was continually looking out for occasions to persecute those Roman nobles who remained faithful to the cause of the Church. He was abetted in this by the faction of the Colonnas, and some other powerful families, who supported the pretensions of the anti-Popes Gregory XII. and Benedict XIII. against the legitimate pontiff Alexander V., recently elected by the Council of Pisa. The troops of Lewis of Anjou, the rival of Ladislas in the kingdom of Naples, had in the mean time entered that portion of Rome which went by the name of the Leonine City, and gained possession of the Vatican and the castle of Saint Angelo. Several skirmishes took place between the forces of the usurper and the troops of the Pope and of Lewis of Anjou. Lorenzo Ponziano, who from his birth and his talents was the most eminent man of his party, and an ardent supporter of the legitimate cause, commanded the pontifical army on one of these occasions, and was personally engaged in a conflict with the Count of Traja’s soldiers. In the midst of the fray he was recognised by the opposite party, and became the special mark of their attacks. Fighting with heroic courage, he had nearly succeeded in dispersing his assailants, when, as Evangelista had foretold the year before, a dagger was treacherously thrust into his side, and inflicted so deep a wound that he fell to the ground, and was taken up for dead. The terrible news was carried to the Ponziano palace, and announced to Francesca. The anguish that her countenance revealed filled the bystanders with compassion; but it was only for an instant that she stood as if transfixed and overwhelmed with grief.
Repressing by a strong effort her bursting sobs and the cries that were breaking from her heart, she soon raised her eyes to heaven with a steadfast gaze, forgave the assassin, offered up Lorenzo’s life and her own, and murmured the words of Job, “The Lord had given him, the Lord has taken him away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then, calm, composed, braced for endurance, she courageously advanced to meet the slow approach of those who were bringing back to his home the body of her murdered husband. As they laid him in the hall of the palace, she knelt by his side, and putting her face close to his, she discerned in the apparently lifeless form the faint symptoms of lingering vitality. The sudden revulsion of hope did not overcome her presence of mind. She instantly desired those about her to send for a priest and for a doctor; and then, bending over Lorenzo, she suggested to him, in words which found their way to the understanding of the dying man, whatever the most affectionate tenderness and the most ardent piety could devise at such a moment, – to prepare the soul for its last flight, pardon for his foes, and especially for his assassin, a firm trust in God, and the union of his sufferings with those of his Lord.
The palace presented a scene of wild confusion. Armed men were moving to and fro; the clash of arms was mingled with the groans of the servants: the weeping and waitings of the women and of the children, vows of vengeance, curses deep and loud, frantic regrets, were heard on every side. Francesca alone was as an angel of peace, in the midst of the uproar of passion and the outpouring of grief. Her’s was the keenest sorrow of all; but it was kept under by the strength of a long-practised faith, and thus it interfered with no duty and staggered at no trial. Day and night she watched by Lorenzo’s couch. Her experience in nursing the sick, and in dressing wounds, enabled her to render him the most minute and efficacious assistance. Her watchful love, her tender assiduity, received its reward; God gave her that life, far dearer to her than her own. Contrary to all expectation, Lorenzo slowly recovered; but for a long time remained in a precarious condition.
Meanwhile the Count of Traja, pressed on every side, began to foresee the necessity of leaving Rome; but, in his exasperation, resolved previously to wreak his vengeance on the families most devoted to the Pope, and especially on that of the Ponziani, which was especially obnoxious to him. He accordingly arrested Paluzzo, Vannozza’s husband, and kept him in close confinement; and understanding that Lorenzo had a son of eight or nine years old, he commanded that he should be given up into his hands as a hostage, and swore that in case of a refusal he would put Paluzzo to death. Now, indeed, is Francesca tried almost beyond the power of endurance: now is her cup of anguish filled to the brim. She can ask counsel of none: Lorenzo she dares not consult: it might kill him to hear the fearful truth. Others would say, “Give up the child;” and she looks at his fair face, at his innocent eyes, at the purity of his spotless brow; and she cannot, she will not, she must not give him up. Oh, that she had the wings of a dove to fly away and carry him hence! She takes him by the hand, and, like a second Hagar, goes forth, whither she knows not. It is an instinct, an impulse, an inspiration. It is the mother’s heart within her that bids her fly from the horrible dilemma, and save her child from the tyrant who seeks more than his life, – who would ruin his soul. Through out-of-the-way streets, into the deserted corners of the city she goes, clasping the boy’s hand with an agonising grasp, with but one thought – to hide him from every eye. Suddenly she stops short; before her stands Don Antonio, her long-trusted director, who has led her through the green pastures in which her spirit has found rest. He questions her, and hears the incoherent account of her fears, her anguish, and her flight. By a supernatural light he sees the drift of this trial, and puts her faith to the test. “Francesca,” he said, “you fly to save the child; God bids me tell you that it is to the Capitol you must carry him – there lies his safety; and do you go to the Church of Ara Cceli.” A fierce struggle rose in Francesca’s heart – the greatest storm that had ever convulsed it. “To the Capitol!” she is about to cry. “It is at the Capitol that the tyrant awaits him!” But ere the words are uttered, they die away on her lips. Grace has gained the mastery; the faith of the saint has asserted its power. The wild expression passes away from her eyes; she bows her head in silence, and with a firm step retraces her steps, in obedience to him who has spoken in God’s name. In the mean time the report of the event had spread through Rome, and in the more crowded streets which she had to pass through a cry of pity and of terror arose. Crowds press about her, and bid her turn back; they tell her she is mad to surrender the child, they try to take him from her, and to carry him back by force to his father’s palace; but in vain. She waves them off, and pursues her way till she has reached the Capitol. She walked straight up to the place where the Neapolitan tyrant was standing, and surrendered up the boy to him; and then, without once looking back, she hurried into the Church of Ara Coeli, fell prostrate at the feet of the Mother of Mercy, and before that sacred image, dear to this day to every Catholic parent, she made the sacrifice of her child, of her life, of her soul, of all that in that hour she had felt to give up. Then, for the first time, a torrent of tears relieved her tight-bound heart; and gazing on the picture, she saw the dove-like eyes of the Blessed Virgin assume the tenderest and most encouraging expression, and in her ears were whispered words welcome as the dew to the thirsty ground; sweet as the notes of the bird when the storm has subsided: “Be not afraid; I am here to befriend you.”
She was at peace; she felt sure that her son was safe; and on her knees, in speechless prayer, she waited the event. Nor did she wait long. When she had left the Count of Traja’s presence, he had ordered one of his officers to take the little Baptista on his horse, and carry him away to a place he appointed; but, from the instant that the child was placed on the saddle, no efforts could induce the animal to stir from the spot. In vain his rider urged him with spurs and whip: neither the severest blows, nor the accustomed voice of his master, succeeded in moving him an inch from the place, where he stood as motionless as a statue. Four of the knights of Naples renewed the attempt. Four successive steeds were tried for the purpose, and always with the same result. There is a strength greater than man’s will; there is a power that defeats human malice. Struck with a secret terror and dismay by the evident prodigy, the Count of Traja gave up the unequal contest, and ordered the child to be restored to his mother. Before the altar of the Ara Coeli, at the foot of that image, where in her anguish she had fallen and found hope when hope seemed at end, Francesca received back into her arms the son of her love, and blessed the God who had given her strength to go through this the severest of her trials.
CHAPTER VI – SUFFERINGS OF ROME FROM THE TROOPS OF LADISLAS – DEATH OF FRANCESCA’S SON EVANGELISTA – THE FAMINE AND PLAGUE IN ROME – FRANCESCA’S LABOURS FOR THE STARVlNG AND SICK – HER MIRACLES
Pope Alexander V died at Bologna in 1410. Sixteen cardinals assembled in that city, and chose for his successor Balthazar Cossa, who took the name of John XXIII. While they were proceeding with the election, Ladislas seized the opportunity of the interregnum once more to advance upon Rome; and from Veletri he threatened it with a second invasion. The new Pope renewing the alliance with Lewis of Anjou, they combined their forces against Ladislas, and endeavoured to drive him back from the position he had taken. Their arms proved successful in a first battle; but Lewis having withdrawn his troops immediately after the victory, Ladislas deceived the Holy Father by a pretended peace, gained possession of Rome, and gave it up to pillage. The horrors of this invasion, and of the sack that followed it, surpassed in atrocity almost all those which had previously afflicted the capital of the Christian world. A number of palaces and houses were destroyed, the basilicas were despoiled of their treasures and desecrated by the most abominable orgies, the churches turned into stables, and many of the faithful adherents of the Church subjected to the torture or barbarously put to death.
The Ponziani were amongst the principal of the Pope’s supporters; and Lorenzo, scarcely recovered from his long illness, was persuaded by his friends to withdraw himself by flight from the fury of the conqueror, and conceal himself in a distant province. It had been impossible to remove his wife and children; and Francesca remained exposed to a succession of the most trying disasters. The wealth of the family chiefly consisted in their country possessions, and the immense number of cattle which were bred on those broad lands; and day after day intelligence was brought to her that one farm-house or another was burnt or pillaged, the flocks dispersed or destroyed, and the shepherds murdered by a ruthless soldiery. Terrified peasants made their escape into the city, and scared the inhabitants of the palace with dreadful accounts of the death of their companions, and of the destruction of property which was continually going on. A cry of despair rang from Mount Soracte to the Alban Hill, extended to the shores of the Mediterranean, and resounded in the palaces of Rome, carrying dismay to the hearts of its ruined and broken-spirited nobles.
Francesca received the tidings with an aching heart indeed; for her compassion for the sufferings of others did not permit her to remain unmoved amidst such dire misfortunes. Still she never lost her habitual composure; her only occupation was to console the mourners: her first impulse on these occasions to bless God, and accept at His hands all that His providence ordained. It was well that she was resigned, and had learned the lesson of courage at the foot of the Cross; for, like a flood at spring-tide, her afflictions were increasing every day, threatening to overwhelm all landmarks but those of an indomitable faith. One fatal morning, a troop of savage ruffians, drunk with rage, and vociferating blasphemies, broke into the palace, clamouring after Lorenzo, and threatening to torture the servants if they did not instantly reveal his place of concealment; and ended by carrying away Baptista, who clung in vain to his mother’s neck, and was only parted from her by force. When they had succeeded in tearing him away from her arms, they proceeded to pillage, and all but to destroy, the time-honoured residence of the Ponziani. In the space of a few hours that gorgeous abode was turned into a heap of ruins. Bereft of her husband, of her son, and of all the conveniences of life, Francesca, with her two younger children, remained alone and unprotected; for her brother-in-law, Paluzzo, who might have been a support to her in that dreadful moment, was still a prisoner in the tyrant’s hands, and her innocent boy shared the same fate. It is not exactly known how long his captivity lasted; but it may be supposed that means were found of effecting his release, and sending him to Lorenzo; for it is mentioned that, at the period when the troubles were at an end, and peace restored to the city of Rome, the father and the son returned together.
In the mean time, Francesca took shelter in a corner of her ruined habitation; and there, with Evangelista and Agnese, she managed to live in the most complete seclusion. These two children were now their mother’s only comfort, as their education was her principal occupation. Evangelista, as he advanced in age, in no way belied the promise of his infancy. He lived in spirit with the angels and saints, and seemed more fitted for their society than for any earthly companionship. “To be with God” was his only dream of bliss. Though scarcely nine years old, he already helped his mother in all the pains she took with Agnese’s education
The hour for another sacrifice was, however, at hand. It was not long delayed. The second invasion of Rome had been succeeded by a dreadful famine, which was followed in its turn by a severe pestilence. Already one or two cases of the prevailing epidemic had appeared in the Ponziano Palace, and then Evangelista sickened with it; and one morning Francesca was told that the son of her love was dying. No sooner had he felt the first symptoms of the plague, than he asked for a confessor. He never doubted that his last hour was come; and she believed it too. Don Antonio hurried to the bed-side of the boy, who, after he had made his confession, sent for his mother, and taking her hand in his, addressed her in some such words as follow:
“Mother mine, I have often told you that God would not leave me with you long; that He will have me dwell with His angels. Jesus is my treasure, my hope, and my joy. I have ever lived with Him in thought, in desire, in unutterable longings. Every day I have said ‘Thy kingdom come;’ and now He calls me to it. There is a crown prepared for me, my beloved mother. The Lord is about to give it me, and we must part for awhile. But bless His name, oh my mother. Praise Him with me; for He delivers me from all that your love dreaded for me upon earth. There is no sin, no sorrow, no sickness where I am going. Nothing but peace and joy and the sight of God in that better land where the blessed are expecting me. I must not see you weep. I will not have you grieve. Rejoice with your child; for I see them even now, my holy advocates, Saint Anthony and Saint Vauplerius. They are coming to fetch me away. Dearest mother, I will pray for you. Evangelista will love you in heaven as he has loved you on earth, and you will come to him there.”
The dying boy then remained silent for a few moments. Then a sudden light illumined his face; his features seemed transformed. Raising his eyes with a look of rapture, he exclaimed, “Here are the angels come to take me away. Give me your blessing, my mother. Do not be afraid. I shall never forget you. God bless you and my dear father, and all who belong to this house. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then crossing his little arms on his chest, he bowed down his head, a last smile passed over his face – “she had her meed, that smile in death,” and his young spirit passed to the regions of endless bliss.
A touching prodigy, well adapted to cheer the heart of our saint, took place that very day in a house adjoining her own. A little girl, who had been dangerously ill for a long time, and had completely lost the power of speech, at the very moment that Francesca’s son had expired suddenly raised herself in her bed, and exclaimed several times in a loud voice, and in a state of evident rapture, “See, see! how beautiful! Evangelista Ponziano is going up into heaven, and two angels with him!” The mortal remains of the young boy were deposited in the family vault in the church of Santa Cecilia, in Trastevere. A monument was erected there with the simple inscription, “Here lies Evangelista Ponziano;” and a figure in stone, clothed in a long robe, was carved upon it.
Francesca wept over the loss of her dearly-beloved child, but did not grieve for him. How could she have done so? He was in bliss; and had only preceded her to that heaven for which she was day by day preparing. Nor was it a time for the idle indulgence of sorrow. Want and sickness were turning Rome into a charnel-house. Wild voices were screaming for bread on every side. The streets were encumbered by the victims of contagious disease; their frantic cries and piteous moanings re-echoed in each piazza and under every portico. Old men were dying surrounded by the corpses of their children; mothers pressed to their milkless bosoms their starving infants. Others crept about bereft of all their family, and haunting like pale ghosts the scenes of their past happiness. No carriages shook the public ways. The grass grew in the deserted streets; one mournful equipage alone slowly pursued its course through the doomed city, gathering as it passed the dead at every door; and when the dreadful cargo was completed, bearing it away to the crowded cemetery. The ruin of private property, the general penury occasioned by the cruelties of Ladislas, and the sacking of Rome by his soldiers, had cut off almost all the resources of private charity. Anxiety for self, and the fear of contagion, had worked so deeply on the mind of the multitude, that many persons abandoned even their near relatives and friends when they were attacked by the plague. Nothing but the charity which is of divine not of natural origin could meet such an emergency, or cope in any degree with the awful misery of those days. Francesca, bereaved of every thing but her one little girl, and lodged with Vannozza and Rita in a corner of their dismantled house, had no longer at her command the resources she had formerly possessed for the relief of the poor. A little food from their ruined estates was now and then supplied to these lonely women; and they scarcely partook of it themselves, in order to bestow the greatest part on the sick and poor. There was a large hall in the lower part of the palace which had been less injured than any other portion of the building. It was at least a place of shelter against the inclemencies of the weather. The sisters converted it into a temporary hospital; but of the shattered furniture that lay scattered about the house, they contrived to make up beds and covering, and to prepare some clothing for the wretched creatures they were about to receive. When all was ready, they went in search of the sufferers. If they found any too weak to walk, they carried them into the new asylum; there they washed and dressed their putrefying sores, and by means which saints have often employed, and which we could hardly bear even to think of, they conquered in themselves all repugnance to sights and employments against which the senses and the flesh rise in rebellion. They prepared both medicine and food; watched the sick by day and by night; laboured incessantly for their bodies, and still more for their souls. Many were those who recovered health through Francesca’s care, and many more who were healed of the worst disease of the soul, – a hardened impenitence under the just judgment of God. She had the art of awakening their fears, without driving them to despair; to make them look upon their sufferings as a means of expiation (that great secret of Catholic consolation), and bring them by degrees to repentance, to confession, to the practice of long-forgotten duties, and of those Christian virtues which her own example recommended to their hearts.
The example which the ruined and bereaved wives of the Ponziani had given kindled a similar spirit among the hitherto apathetic inhabitants of Rome. The magistrates of the city, struck at the sight of such unparalleled exertions where the means were so slender, were roused from their inaction, and in several parts of the city, especially in the parishes of Saint Cecilia and of Santa Maria in Trastevere, hospitals and asylums were opened for the perishing multitudes. Often and often Francesca and Vannozza saw the morning dawn, and not a bit of food of any description did they possess for themselves or for their inmates. They then went out to beg, as they had done before; but not merely as an act of humility, nor dressed as heretofore as became their rank, or in those places only where their names secured respect, and generally a favourable answer; but in the garb of poverty, in the spots where beggars were wont to congregate and the rich to bestow alms, they took their stand, and gratefully received the broken bits that fell from the tables of the wealthy. Each remnant of food, each rag of clothing, they brought home with joy; and the mouldiest piece of bread out of their bag was set aside for their own nourishment, while the best was bestowed on their guests.
In our own time, in our own rich and luxurious city, there is a counterpart to these deeds of heroic charity. There are young and well-educated women, who in their homes never lacked the necessaries or the comforts, nay perhaps the luxuries of life, who do the same; who receive into their abode the aged, the maimed, the crippled, and the deformed; lodging them in their best rooms, and themselves in cellars or garrets; tending them as their servants, and feeding them as their mothers; begging for them from door to door the crumbs from the tables of the rich, and carrying along their basket, rejoicing when it is heavy, even though their arms ache and their cheeks grow pale with the labour; like Francesca, feeding upon the remnants of the poor feast where the poor have sat before them.
Francesca was insulted in her career of mercy through the streets of Rome, when civil war and anarchy were raging there in the wildest epoch of lawless strife and fiercest passion; and the gentle sisters of the poor, the servants of the helpless, who have abandoned home and friends and comforts, and, above all, respectability, that idol of the English mind, that wretched counterfeit of virtue, for the love which they bear to Christ in His suffering members, have been insulted and beaten in the streets of London in the face of day, and only because of the habit they wore, – the badge of no common vocation, – the nun’s black dress, the livery of the poor. The parallel is consoling to them, perhaps also to us; for is not Francesca now the cherished saint of Rome, the pride and the love of every Roman heart? And may not the day come when our patient, heroic nuns will be looked upon as one of God’s best blessings, in a city where luxury runs riot on the one hand, and starvation and misery reign on the other? Will not the eye follow them with love, and many rise up to call them blessed? Their course is like hers; may their end be the same!
The historians of our saint relate that on one of the occasions above alluded to, when her only resource was to beg for her sick charges, she went to the Basilica of San Lorenzo without the walls, where was the station of the day, and seated herself amongst the crowd of beggars who, according to custom, were there assembled. From the rising of the sun to the ringing of the vesper-bell, she sat there side by side with the lame, the deformed, and the blind. She held out her hand as they did, gladly enduring, not the semblance, but the reality of that deep humiliation. When she had received enough wherewith to feed the poor at home, she rose, and making a sign to her companions, entered the old basilica, adored the Blessed Sacrament, and then walked back the long and weary way, blessing God all the while, and rejoicing that she was counted worthy to suffer for His dear sake.
Those who are well acquainted with Rome, who have frequented the stations and love the basilicas, and especially that venerable old pile of San Lorenzo, with its upper and lower chapel, its magnificent columns, its beautiful pulpit, its wide portico with half-effaced frescoes, and its rare mosaics – those paintings in stone which time itself cannot destroy; those whose eyes have gazed with delight on the glorious view as they approached it, and whose ears are familiar with the sound of the mendicant’s voice, to whom the remembrance of Francesca’s story may have won, perchance, an additional dole, – can form to themselves with ease a picture of the scene; and when they visit it again in reality, may be tempted to look out for some saintly face, for some sweet, angel-like countenance, amongst the sordid and suffering groups before them, and wonder if ever again such charity as Francesca’s will animate a woman’s heart. Not long ago, for a few short years, in Francesca’s city, there was one who bade fair to emulate the virtues of the dear saint of Rome; but as she was rapidly treading in her footsteps, and her name was becoming every day more dear to the people amongst whom she dwelt, death snatched her away. Her memory remains, and the poor bless it even now. May God grant us such in our own land! Saints are sorely needed in these busy, restless, money-loving times of ours; as much as, or more than, in the wild middle ages, or the troubled centuries that followed.
Francesca possessed a small vineyard near the church of Saint Paul without the walls; and in that time of scarcity, when every little resource had to be turned to account for the purposes of charity, she used to go there and gather up into parcels and faggots the long grass and the dry branches of the vines. When she had collected a certain number of these packets, she laid them on an ass, and went through the town, stopping at various poor dwellings to distribute the fruits of her labours. On one of these occasions her donkey stumbled and fell, and the wood which he was carrying rolled to a considerable distance. Francesca was looking about her in considerable embarrassment, not able to lift it up again, when a Roman nobleman, Paolo Lelli Petrucci, a friend of her husband’s, chanced to pass by. Astonished at seeing her in such a predicament, he hastened to her assistance; and she received it with as much serenity and composure as if her occupation had been the most natural thing in the world.
By this time her virtues were destined to receive a wonderful reward, and God bestowed upon her the gift of healing to a miraculous degree. Many a sick person given over by the physicians was restored to health by the single touch of her hands, or the prayers which she offered up in their behalf. More than sixty of these cases were well attested at the time of her canonisation. Francesca was profoundly sensible of the blessedness of this gift, and grateful for the power it afforded her of relieving the sufferings of others; but at the same time her humility prompted her to conceal it as much as possible. She endeavoured to do so by making up an ointment composed of oil and wax, which she applied to the sick, whatever their disease might be, in the hope that their recovery would always be ascribed to its efficacy. But this holy subterfuge did not always succeed. The physicians analysed the ointment, and declared that it possessed in itself no healing qualities whatsoever. One day, upon entering the Hospital of the Trastevere, Francesca found a poor mule-driver, who had just been carried in, his foot having been crushed by the fall of a scythe; it was in such a horrible and hopeless condition, that the surgeons were about to amputate the limb. Francesca, hearing the cries of the poor wretch, bent over him, exhorting him to patience; and promising him a speedy relief, applied some of her ointment to his mangled foot. The wounds instantly closed, the pain vanished, and a short time after the mule-driver returned to his customary occupation.
Some days afterwards, the two sisters were returning home from the basilica of Saint John Lateran; and passing by the bridge of Santa Maria, now the Ponte Rotto, (the very ancient little church opposite to the Temple of Vesta), they saw extended on the pavement a man whose arm had been severed by a sword-cut; and unable to procure medical assistance, the poor wretch had lain there ever since in excruciating tortures, which had reduced him to the last extremity. Francesca, full of compassion for his miserable condition, carried him with Vannozza’s aid into her house, put him in a warm bath, cleansed his wound with the greatest care, and dressed it with her ointment. In a short time, and without any medical assistance, the severed limb was restored to its usual position, and a complete recovery ensued.
The bowl in which San Francesca compounded this miraculous remedy is preserved in the convent of Tor di Specchi. During the novena of the saint, when the doors are thrown open to crowds of devout persons, it stands on a table in the entrance-chamber, and is daily filled by the nuns with fresh sweet-smelling flowers – violets, primroses, anemones, and the like. The visitor may bear away with him some of these fragrant remembrances, and cherish them for her sake, the odour of whose virtues will last as long as the seasons return, and the spring brings back to our gladdened sight those
“Sweet nurslings of the vernal skies,
Bathed with soft airs and fed with dew.”
A still more wonderful miracle than these occurred about this time. Francesca and her faithful companion Vannozza had been visiting several churches in that part of Rome which goes by the name of the Rioue de Monti. Passing before a mean-looking dwelling, they heard the most heart-rending sobs and cries. Stopping to inquire into the cause of this despair, they found a mother frantically weeping over the body of a child, who had died a few hours after its birth without having received baptism. Francesca gently reproved the woman for the delay which had endangered her son’s salvation; then, taking the little corpse into her arms, she uttered a fervent prayer, and in a moment gave back the baby to its mother, fully restored to life and health. She desired her to have it instantly baptised, and then made her escape, trusting that she should remain undiscovered; and indeed the woman whose child she had been the means of saving had never seen her, and wondered awhile if an angel had visited her in disguise; but the description of her dress, and the miracle she had worked, convinced all who heard of it that the visitor was no other than the wife of Lorenzo Ponziano.
Compassionate to others, Francesca was mercilessly severe to herself; her austerities kept pace with her increasing sanctity. She was enabled to carry on a mode of life which must have ruined her health had it not been miraculously sustained. She slept only for two hours, and that on a narrow plank covered with nothing but a bit of rough carpet. The continual warfare which she waged against her body brought it more and more into subjection to the spirit; and her senses were under such perfect control, that natural repugnances vanished, and the superior part of the soul reigned supremely over the meaner instincts and inclinations of the flesh. Such was her spiritual proficiency at the early age of twenty-nine.
CHAPTER VII -EVANGELISTA APPEARS TO HIS MOTHER-AN ARCHANGEL IS ASSIGNED TO HER AS A VISIBLE GUARDIAN THROUGHOUT HER LIFE
Evangelista had been dead about a year. His image was ever present to his mother’s heart; she saw him in spirit at the feet of his Lord. Never, even in her inmost soul, was she conscious of a wish to recall him from the heaven he had reached to the earthly home which he had left desolate; but not for one moment could she forget the child of her love, or cease to invoke him as a celestial guardian akin to those who had so long hovered about her path. Her faith and resignation were richly rewarded. God gave her a sight of her child in heaven, and he was sent to announce to her one of the most extraordinary favours that was ever vouchsafed to a daughter of Adam. Francesca was praying one morning in her oratory, when she became conscious that the little room was suddenly illuminated in a supernatural manner; a mysterious light shone on every side, and its radiance seemed to pervade not only her outward senses, but the inmost depths of her being, and to awaken in her soul a strange sensation of joy. She raised her eyes, and Evangelista stood before her; his familiar aspect unchanged, but his features transfigured and beaming with ineffable splendour.
By his side was another of the same size and height as himself, but more beautiful still. Francesca’s lips move, but in vain she seeks to articulate; the joy and the terror of that moment are too intense. Her son draws near to her, and with an angelic expression of love and respect he bows down his head and salutes her. Then the mother’s feelings predominate; she forgets every thing but his presence, and opens her arms to him; but it is no earthly form that she encloses within them, and the glorified body escapes her grasp. And now she gains courage and addresses him, – in broken accents indeed, but with trembling eagerness.
“Is it you, indeed? (she cries) O son of my heart! Whence do you come? who are your companions? what your abode? Angel of God, hast thou thought of thy mother, of thy poor father? Amidst the joys of Paradise hast thou remembered earth and its sufferings?”
Evangelista looked up to heaven with an unutterable expression of peace and of joy; and then, fixing his eyes on his mother, he said, “My abode is with God; my companions are the angels; our sole occupation the contemplation of the Divine perfections, – the endless source of all happiness. Eternally united with God, we have no will but His; and our peace is as complete as His Being is infinite. He is Himself our joy, and that joy knows no limits. There are nine choirs of angels in heaven, and the higher orders of angelic spirits instruct in the Divine mysteries the less exalted intelligences. If you wish to know my place amongst them, my mother, learn that God, of His great goodness, has appointed it in the second choir of angels, and the first hierarchy of archangels. This my companion is higher than I am in rank, as he is more bright and fair in aspect. The Divine Majesty has assigned him to you as a guardian during the remainder of your earthly pilgrimage. Night and day by your side, he will assist you in every way. Never amidst the joys of Paradise have I for an instant forgotten you, or any of my loved ones on earth. I knew you were resigned; but I also knew that your heart would rejoice at beholding me once more, and God has permitted that I should thus gladden your eyes. But I have a message for you, my mother. God asks for Agnese: she may not tarry long with you; her place is ready in the New Jerusalem. Be of good comfort, nay, rather rejoice that your children are safely housed in heaven.” Evangelista communed a short while longer with his mother, and then, bidding her tenderly farewell, disappeared; but the archangel remained, and to the day of her death was ever present to her sight.
She now understood the sense of the vision that had been sent her at the time of Agnese’s birth. It was not for the cloister, but for heaven itself, that God claimed her young daughter; and during the few remaining days of her earthly life she waited upon her with a tenderness mingled with veneration; looking upon her as one who scarcely belonged to the rough world she was so soon to leave. And the chosen child of God, the little maiden on whom the mystic dove had rested in its flight, soon drooped like a flower in an ungenial air, – soon gave her fond mother a last kiss and a last smile; and then her gentle spirit went to seek her brother’s kindred soul. They were buried together; and the day was now come for Francesca, when earthly happiness altogether vanishes, when life has its duties but has lost all its joys, – and then, what a lesson is in the story! God’s angel henceforward stands visibly by her side, and never leaves her!
When Evangelista had parted from his mother, she had fallen prostrate on the ground, and blessed God for His great mercy to her, the most worthless of sinners, for such she deemed herself; and then, turning to the angel, who stood near her, she implored him to be her guide and director; to point out the way she was to tread; to combat with her against Satan and his ministers; and to teach her every day to become more like in spirit to his and her Lord. When she left the oratory, the archangel followed her, and, enveloped in a halo of light, remained always visible to her, though imperceptible to others. The radiance that surrounded him was so dazzling, that she could seldom look upon him with a fixed gaze. At night, and in the most profound darkness, she could always write and read by the light of that supernatural brightness. Sometimes, however, when in prayer, or in conference with her director, or engaged in struggles with the Evil One, she was enabled to see his form with perfect distinctness, and by Don Antonio’s orders thus described him: – “His stature,” she said, “is that of a child of about nine years old; his aspect full of sweetness and majesty; his eyes generally turned towards heaven: words cannot describe the divine purity of that gaze. His brow is always serene; his glances kindle in the soul the flame of ardent devotion. When I look upon him, I understand the glory of the angelic nature, and the degraded condition of our own. He wears a long shining robe, and over it a tunic, either as white as the lilies of the field, or of the colour of a red rose, or of the hue of the sky when it is most deeply blue. When he walks by my side, his feet are never soiled by the mud of the streets or the dust of the road.”
Francesca’s conduct was now directed in the most infallible manner. By a special privilege, a companion had been assigned to her from the heavenly hierarchy; and if she committed any faults, error could not now be pleaded in excuse. Her actions, her words, and her thoughts, were to be ever on a par with those of the sinless Being who was to be her guide throughout her earthly pilgrimage. It was an awful responsibility, a startling favour; but trusting in God’s grace, though fully aware of her own weakness, she did not shrink from the task. Her greatest wish had always been to attain a perfect conformity with the Divine Will, and now this mysterious guidance furnished her with the means of knowing that Will in its minutest details. In her struggles with the Evil One, the archangel became her shield of defence; the rays of light which darted from his brow sent the demons howling on their way. Thus protected, she feared neither the wiles nor the violence of Satan.
The presence of her heavenly guide was also to Francesca a mirror, in which she could see reflected every imperfection of her fallen, though to a great extent renewed, nature. Much as she had discerned, even from her earliest childhood, of the innate corruption of her heart, yet she often told her director, that it was only since she had been continually in the presence of an angelic companion that she had realised its amount. So that this divine favour, far from exalting her in her own eyes, served to maintain her in the deepest humility. When she committed the slightest fault, the angel seemed to disappear; and it was only after she had carefully examined her conscience, discovered her failing, lamented and humbly confessed it, that he returned. On the other hand, when she was only disturbed by a doubt or a scruple, he was wont to bestow on her a kind look, which dissipated at once her uneasiness. When he spoke, she used to see his lips move; and a voice of indescribable sweetness, but which seemed to come from a distance, reached her ears. His guidance enlightened her chiefly with regard to the difficulty she felt in submitting to certain cares and obligations which belonged to her position as mistress and head of a family. She was apt to imagine that the hours thus employed were lost in God’s sight; but her celestial guardian corrected her judgment on this point, and taught her to discern the Divine will in every little irksome worldly duty, in every trifling contradiction, as well as in great trials and on important occasions. The light of the angelic presence gave her also a marvellous insight into the thoughts of others. Their sins, their errors, their evil inclinations, were supernaturally revealed to her, and often caused her the Keenest sorrow. She was enabled through this gift to bring back to God many a wandering soul, to frustrate bad designs, and reconcile the most inveterate enemies. Francesca used sometimes, to say to Don Antonio, when she requested his permission for some additional austerities which he hesitated in granting, “Be not afraid, father; the archangel will not allow me to proceed too far in that course. He always checks me when I am tempted to transgress the bounds of prudence.” And Don Antonio believed it, for his penitent always spoke the exact truth; and in the miraculous manner in which she over and over again read his most secret thoughts, and manifested them to him, he had a pledge of her veracity, as well as of her extraordinary sanctity.
Four long years had elapsed, during which Rome had been given up to dissensions and civil discord, while epidemics of various kinds were continually succeeding each other, and carrying off many of its inhabitants. At the opening of the year 1414, Sigismund, king of the Romans, and John XXIII., had agreed to convene a council at Constance; and the faithful were beginning to cherish a hope that the schism which had so long desolated the Church might be drawing to a close. But this distant prospect of relief was not sufficient to counterbalance the actual sufferings of the moment; and Francesca beheld with ever-increasing pain the amount of sin and of misery which filled the city of her birth. Her exertions, her labours, her bodily and mental trials, told at last upon her enfeebled frame, and about this time she fell dangerously ill. Almost all her acquaintances, and even her own family, fled from her, terrified, it would seem, by the idea of contagion. Vannozza alone remained, and never left her bed-side. Some there were who came to visit, but not for the purpose of consoling her; on the contrary, it was to reproach the dying saint with what they called her absurd infatuation, which had introduced the plague into her abode, and endangered her own life, for the sake of a set of worthless wretches. She listened with her accustomed gentleness, without attempting to defend herself from the charge. Her soul was perfectly at peace; she could joyfully accept the death that now appeared inevitable; she could thank God earnestly that the struggle was past, and Evangelista and Agnese safely lodged in His arms. She looked forward to a speedy reunion with these beloved ones; and marked the progress of her disease as the prisoner watches the process by which his chains are riven. A few words or love and faith she now and then whispered to Vannozza; at other times she remained absorbed in divine contemplation. Overshadowed by an angel’s wing, calm in the midst of severe suffering, she performed her habitual devotions in as far as her strength permitted, and only gave up painful penances by the express order of her director. She who had healed so many sick persons cared not to be healed herself.
It was not, however, God’s will that she should die so soon. After passing several months in prolonged sufferings, her health was suddenly restored. It was at this period of her life that she had the awful and detailed visions of hell which have remained on record, and in which many salutary and fearful lessons are conveyed. She was rapt in spirit, and carried through the realms of endless woe. What was once chosen by the genius of man as a theme for its highest poetic effort – a journey through “the mournful city, amongst that lost people” [Footnote: Per me si va nella citta dolente, Per me si va tra la perduta gente." - DANTE.] – was given to the saint in mystic trance to accomplish. An angel led her through these terrific scenes; and an intuitive perception was given to her of the various sufferings of the condemned souls. So deep was the impression which this tremendous vision left on Francesca’s soul, that never afterwards, as long as she lived, could she speak of it without tears and trembling; and she would often emphatically warn those persons who, trusting too implicitly to God’s mercy, forgot in their reckless security the terrors of His justice. Some of the fresco paintings in the convent of Tor di Specchi represent this vision, and are visible to this day. The Pope John XXIII., and Sigismund, king of the Romans, had at last succeeded in forming a league, with the object of delivering Italy from the intolerable yoke of Ladislas, king of Naples. This tyrant had assembled a numerous army, and was marching upon Bologna; but the measure of his iniquities was now full, and the hand of death arrested him on his way. An illness, occasioned by his incredible excesses, seized him between Nurni and Perugia, and he died on the 5th of August, 1414. The sovereign Pontiff, free from the terrors which this fierce usurper had inspired, and yielding to the importunities of the cardinal, set out for Constance, where he was to meet the Emperor Sigismund. This same Council of Constance was eventually to be the means of making void his election, and of ending the great schism of the West, by placing in the chair of Saint Peter the illustrious Pontiff Martin V. The death of Ladislas restored peace to the states of the Church, and in particular to the city of Rome. With the cessation of civil broils the famine disappeared; and with it the grievous pestilence that had so long accompanied it. The fields were cultivated once more; the peasants gradually returned to their farms; the flocks grazed unmolested in the green pastures of the Campagna; and the whilom deserted provinces smiled again under the influence of returning prosperity.
The sufferings of the Ponziani were also at an end. They were recalled from banishment, and their property was restored. Lorenzo and his son – now his only son – Baptista. returned to their home, and to the wife and mother they had so longed to behold again. But mixed with sorrow was the cup of joy which that hour seemed to offer. Lorenzo, who a few years back was in the prime of life – strong, healthy, and energetic, – he who had met every foe and every trial without shrinking, was now broken by long sufferings; aged more through exile and grief than through years. We are told that when he entered his palace and looked upon his wife, deep sobs shook his breast, and he burst into an agony of tears. The two beautiful children which he had left by her side, where were they? Gone! never to gladden his eyes again, or make music in his home by the sound of their sweet voices. And Francesca herself, pale with recent illness, spent with ceaseless labours, she stood before him the perfect picture of a woman and a saint, with the divine expression of her beloved face unchanged; but how changed in form, in bloom, in brightness, in every thing but that beauty which holiness gives and time cannot efface!
Long and bitterly he wept, and Francesca gently consoled him. She told him how Evangelista had appeared to her; how their children were only gone before them, companions now of those angels they had so resembled upon earth. She whispered to him that one of these was ever at her side; and when he looked upon her, and remembered all she had been to him, doubtless he found it easy to believe. Taught by adversity, more than ever influenced by his admirable wife, Lorenzo henceforward adopted a more thoroughly Christian mode of life than he had hitherto followed. Not content with praising her virtues, he sought to imitate them, and practised all the duties of religion with the utmost strictness. On one point alone his conduct was inconsistent with the principles he professed, and this was, while it lasted, a source of keen anxiety to Francesca. There was a Roman nobleman who, several years before, had grievously offended the lord of Ponziano, and with whom he absolutely refused to be reconciled. This had formerly been, and was again after his return, an occasion of scandal to many. The more eminent were his virtues, the higher his religious profession, the more glaring appeared such an evident inconsistency. Francesca herself was blamed for it; and people used to wonder that she who was so often successful in reconciling strangers and promoting peace in families, had not the power of allaying an enmity discreditable to her husband and at variance with the dictates of religion. At last, however, by dint of patience and gentleness, she accomplished what had seemed for a long time a hopeless endeavour. The hearts of both parties were touched with remorse. Lorenzo, who was the aggrieved party, granted his enemy a full and free pardon, and a perfect reconciliation ensued. This triumph over himself on the one point where the stubborn natural will had so long held out, resulted, as is almost always the case, in a rapid advance towards perfection.
Lorenzo, from this time forth, withdrew more and more from public life, refused those posts of honour and of responsibility which a friendly government pressed upon him, and surrendered himself almost entirely to the duties and exercises of a strictly religious life. In his conversations with his wife, he daily gained a deeper insight into the secrets of the spiritual life. Far from complaining of the amount of money which she spent in charity, of the existence of an hospital within the walls of his palace, of her various and laborious works of mercy, or of the length of time which she spent in prayer, he renewed his request that she would, in every respect, follow what seemed to her the will of God, and the most perfect manner of life. Francesca gratefully complied with this his desire. She watched more strictly than ever over the conduct of those committed to her charge, and recommended to them by her example even more than by her precepts an exact observance of the commandments of God and of the Church. What money was exclusively her own, she regularly divided into two parts: with one-half she bought food for the poor, with the other clothing and medicine for the sick. Her own dress cost her next to nothing; she continued to wear her old green gown patched-up with any odd bits of cloth that fell in her way. Almost every day she went to her vineyard and gathered wood for the faggots which she gave away on her return. Her relations, her friends, and even her servants, were annoyed at her employing herself in such labour, and bitterly complained of the humiliation it occasioned them to meet her so meanly dressed and so meanly occupied. Lorenzo did not share those feelings; on the contrary, he used to look upon her on these occasions with an increase of affection and veneration; and supported by his approval, by the approbation of her director, and the dictates of her own conscience, she cared little for the comments of others.
The kind of apostolate which by this time she exercised in Rome was very remarkable; and her power over men’s minds and hearts scarcely short of miraculous. There was a subduing charm, an irresistible influence in her words and in her manner, which told on every variety of persons. The expression of her countenance, the tones of her voice, her mere presence, worked wonders in effecting conversions, and in animating to virtue those whom she approached. Her gift of reading the thoughts of others, which had increased ever since the archangel had become her companion, enabled her in several instances to bring about conversions, several of which are related at length by her biographers.
Amongst them was that of a young woman who was lying dangerously ill in one of the hospitals of the city. Francesca had been distributing food to the sick, and was then attending the death-bed of a young man, who was about to receive the last Sacraments, when a piercing cry from one of the adjoining wards reached her ears. She hastened to the spot, and found a young woman stretched on one of the narrow beds, and dying in all the agonies of despair. No sooner had she looked upon the poor creature than her dreadful history was supernaturally revealed to her. She had some time before had an illegitimate child, and, under the pressure of shame and terror, had destroyed it. The consciousness of this crime was driving her to despair, and she had not courage to confess it. But now words were whispered in her ear, which went straight to the point on which the awful straggle turned; which spoke of the horrible misery of dying impenitent and unabsolved, and of the boundless mercy which has provided a remedy for the deepest stains of sin, the blood of Jesus applied to the soul by the grace of the Sacrament. For a long time the poor creature resisted, turned her head away, and refused to be comforted. But when Francesca, in still more pressing terms, alluded to the intolerable burden of an unacknowledged crime, of the life-giving humiliation of a sincere confession, of the dire confusion of an unforgiven soul on the day of Judgment; of the love of Jesus, of the tenderness of Mary, of the indulgence of the Church, the sweetness of pardon, the peace of reconciliation; then the stubborn heart yielded, the seared spirit was softened. Bursting into tears, the dying sufferer exclaimed, “A priest! a priest!” and one was at hand at the first call of contrition, and answered that expiring cry, as Matthew did the royal prophet’s confession: “The Lord forgives; thou shalt not perish.” And shortly after in Francesca’s arms the pardoned sinner breathed her last.
About the same time, Francesca was the means of converting one who would doubtless have turned with contempt from the poor criminal on the hospital-bed with horror, from the guilty destroyer of her own child, and deemed that to breathe the same air as such a wretch was in itself contamination. And yet, in God’s right, Gentilezza may have been as, or perhaps more guilty than the sorely-tempted, unprotected, miserable being, who in weakness first, and then in terror, almost in madness, had rushed into crime; for she was rich, noble, and beautiful; had been nursed in pomp and pleasure; hunger had never tempted, and scorn never pursued her. Her life had been one continued scene of amusement and of splendour. She cared for nothing but the homage of men, the incense of admiration, the intoxication of pleasure. There was not a duty that she did not neglect, nor one sacred obligation that she felt herself bound to observe. We are not told that she committed what men call crimes; but her husband she treated with open contempt, and ridiculed him on account of his attachment to religious duties; her children she altogether neglected, and abandoned them to the care of servants, while her days and nights were devoted to amusements and frivolities of every description. Several of the Roman ladies, who used to be her companions, had been induced, by Francesca’s example and exhortation, to give up a life of dissipation, and adopt one better befitting the Christian profession; but Gentilezza laughed at her and at them, and used to say, with insolent derision, that she had no vocation for wearing rags and carrying faggots. Perfectly indifferent to the ridicule with which she sought to cover her, Francesca prayed incessantly for the vain and haughty woman, who seemed beyond the reach of reproach or of persuasion. One day, however, moved by a prophetic impulse, she thus addressed her: “You scorn my warnings, Gentilezza; you laugh at the advice of your confessor. But remember that God is powerful, and not to be mocked with impunity. The day is at hand when you will rue the stubbornness of your heart.”
A few days afterwards, as Gentilezza, who was with child at the time, was descending the stairs of her palace, her foot slipped, and she fell headlong to the bottom. Her servants raised her in their arms, and found her all but dead. The physicians, who were summoned in haste, judged unfavourably of her case, and pronounced that her child must infallibly have been killed by the fall. The wretched woman burst into tears, but it was not so much her own danger, or the death of her infant which she deplored, as the ruin of her beauty, which had been her pride and her snare. Her features had been so injured by this accident, that her face was completely disfigured, and with rebellious anger she wept over her lost loveliness. Francesca, upon hearing of this event, hurried to the spot, and nursed the suffering woman with the tenderest care. With the utmost kindness she reminded her of the duties she had neglected, and of the means of grace she had despised, and exhorted her to recognise the hand of a merciful God in the chastisement she had received. She spoke to her of her husband, of her children, of the true and sweet vocations of a wife and a mother, of the transitory nature of all earthly enjoyments; and into the heart subdued by pain and disappointment her words made their way. It was as if scales had fallen from the eyes of the sufferer. “God is just,” she exclaimed at last; “I deserved even a greater punishment than I have met with. Pray for me, Francesca Ponziano; pray for me; and oh, hear me promise, that if my life is spared, I will give up all my evil ways, and henceforward become a Christian wife and a Christian mother; so help me God, whom I have so grievously offended!” Francesca bent over her and embraced her; she saw that her repentance was sincere, and bade her be of good comfort, and that her penitence would be accepted. And so it turned out; for Gentilezza was safely delivered of a healthy little girl, and in time recovered not only her health but the beauty which she had once turned to such bad account; and, while faithful to her promise, she ceased to abuse the gifts of God, and devoted herself to the diligent performance of her duties, became a chosen friend of Francesca’s, and one of the most pious and exemplary matrons in Rome.
Among the relatives of the saint, there was a young man whose name was Giovanni Antonio Lorenzi, whose temper was fierce and violent in the extreme. Having been, as he considered, insulted by another Roman nobleman, he vowed that he would take his life, and resolved to have him assassinated. Francesca’s angel revealed to her his criminal design, which was as yet confined to his own breast. She instantly sent for the object of his enmity, and charged him, as he valued his existence, not to leave his own house for a certain number of days; and without informing him of the reason, obtained his promise to that effect. In the mean time she disclosed to Lorenzi her knowledge of his guilty project, and induced him to abandon all idea of revenge. Her influence over Angelo Savelli, on a similar occasion, was still more remarkable. He had quarrelled with a young man of his acquaintance, and a duel had ensued, in which he had been severely wounded. His anger was excessive; he did nothing but threaten and curse his adversary. Neither his own family nor that of his foe could succeed in appeasing him, and he was dying with vengeance in his heart, and accents of rage on his lips. Francesca was informed of his condition, and went, straightway to his bed-side. She had no sooner uttered a few words, than he bade her bring his enemy to him, that he might forgive and embrace him. He was himself astonished at the change thus wrought by her presence, and declared that the Holy Spirit had moved him by her means. He received the last Sacrament with the best dispositions, and died soon after, full of peace and hope, and repeatedly assured his family that God, in mercy to his soul, had sent the wife of Ponziano to save him from the ruin which was so nearly overtaking him.
One more instance amongst many of Francesca’s powers of persuasion may be adduced, in addition to the preceding. She was, as we have seen, a constant attendant at the church of Santa Maria Nuova, where her confessor, Don Antonio Savello officiated. It so happened that one of the monks of his order, Don Ippolito, who subsequently played a part in the history of the saint, and who had been now residing ten years in the convent, was about this time appointed to the office of sacristan, although he had previously filled with distinction divers important functions in the monastery. He had accepted this appointment out of obedience and humility of spirit; but after a while the devil sorely tempted him to regret having done so; to repine at what he began to consider as an act of tyranny and injustice; and these reflections, gradually indulged in, made sad havoc of his peace of mind. An oppressive melancholy beset him; and at last he came to the resolution of abandoning his habit and the monastery, if the obnoxious appointment were not cancelled. But one day that he had been invoking Mary, our Lady of good counsel, he felt a sudden inspiration to go and communicate to Francesca his discontent, his restlessness, and the resolution he had formed. She listened attentively to his statement, and then quietly addressed to him some questions which placed the subject in its true light. She asked him with what purpose he had entered the religious state; whom he had intended to serve in doing so; which he preferred, the God who descends and dwells on the altar, or the servants who wait upon Him elsewhere? Which was the highest post, that of watching over the sanctuary, in company with the angels, or of ministering to men, however holy and eminent they might be, as would be his lot in another office? The wisdom and simplicity of this answer went straight to Don Ippolito’s heart. He instantly acquiesced in its justice, and went directly to confession. With earnest benevolence he betook himself to the duties of his at once humble and exalted office, edified all his brethren by his unfeigned humility, and became in time the model of his order. He was afterwards successively named sub-prior, and then prior of the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova; and was later the associate and support of Francesca in the foundation of her congregation of the Noble Oblates of Tor di Specchi.
CHAPTER IX – FRESH SUPERNATURAL EVENTS IN FRANCESCA’S HISTORY – HER OBEDIENCE TO HER HUSBAND AND TO HER CONFESSOR REWARDED BY TWO MIRACLES – MARRIAGE OF HER SON, AND ILL CONDUCT OF HIS WIFE – HER CONVERSION THROUGH FRANCESCA’S PRAYERS – FRESH MIRACLES WORKED BY FRANCESCA
Francesca’s obedience to her director in spiritual matters, and to her husband in other respects, continued to be exemplary. In both instances she received a miraculous proof that God regarded with especial favour that humble submission of spirit in one whom He endowed with such marvellous gifts. The story of these miracles mighht well furnish a subject to a painter or a poet. One day that she and Vannozza had asked permission to visit the shrine of Santa Croce in Gierusalemme, Don Antonio had given them leave to do so; on condition that, as an exercise of self-control, and a test of their obedience, they should walk there and back without once raising their eyes to look about them. He wished them to employ all the time of that long walk in mental prayer and meditation. They proceeded on their way without interruption, till, on approaching the hospital adjoining the church of Saint John of Lateran, a sudden rush of people overtook them, and sounds of terror were heard on every side. A bull had escaped from its leaders, and driven frantic by the cries of the multitude, it was dashing savagely along. Francesca and Vannozza stood directly in his path. Loud shouts warned them to get out of the way; but, faithful to the obedience they had received, and probably inwardly assured that they would be protected against the danger, whatever it was, they advanced calm and unmoved with their eyes fixed on the ground. The bystanders, who were cowering at a distance, shuddered; for it seemed that the next moment must see them under the feet of the bellowing animal. But no; the same influence that tamed the lions in Daniel’s den was at work with the savage beast. At sight of the two women, it suddenly stopped in its course, became perfectly tranquil, stood still while they passed, and then resumed its flight; while they proceeded to the church without having experienced the slightest emotion of fear. There is an ancient saying, that a wild beast is appeased by the sight of a maiden in her purity; and there can be no doubt that those saints who have regained in some measure, by mortification, penance, and heroic virtue, the purity of man’s original nature, have at the same time recovered, in a certain degree, the power which Adam possessed over the animal creation. It is a fact of frequent occurrence in their lives, that mysterious homage paid to them by the wild inhabitants of the desert, or the gentle denizens of the grave. Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Rose of Lima, amongst others, were singularly endowed with this gift. There are few more touching thoughts, or any better calculated to make us understand the true character of sanctity, and the gradual restoration of a fallen nature to one akin to that of the angels.
The other miracle was one attested by Vannozza, who witnessed its occurrence. Francesca devoted all her leisure moments to prayer, but never allowed her delight in spiritual exercises to interfere with her duty as a wife. Her attention to Lorenzo’s slightest wants and wishes was unceasing. She never complained of any amount of interruption or of trouble which his claims upon her time might occasion. One day that she was reciting in her room the office of the Blessed Virgin, he sent for her. Instantly rising from her knees, she obeyed his summons. When she had performed the trifling service he required, she returned to her prayers. Four successive times, for the most insignificant of purposes, she was sent for: each time, with unwearied good humour, she complied, and resumed her devotions without a shadow of discontent or annoyance. On resuming her book the last time that this occurred, great was her astonishment in finding the antiphon, which she had four times begun and four times left unfinished, written in letters of gold. Vannozza, who was present, witnessed the miracle; and the archangel whispered to Francesca, “Thus the Lord rewards the virtue of obedience.” The gilded letters remained in the book to the day of her death.
Her prayers were frequent; her fervour in proportion. Beginning with the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary,” it was her practice to recite them slowly, and to ponder on each word as she pronounced it. The Office of the Blessed Virgin she repeated daily at the appointed hours, and almost always on her knees; the Rosary also, and a great number of psalms besides, as well as various devotions for the holy souls in purgatory. As to mental prayer, her whole life was one continued orison; ever in communion with God, she never lost the sense of His presence. From this time forward (she was now thirty-two years old), her life grew more and more supernatural. The mystical wonders that have manifested themselves in so many saints were displayed in her to an eminent degree. When she approached the tribunal of penance, but, above all, in going to communion, her body sometimes emitted a fragrant odour, and a halo of light surrounded her head. Often and often, after receiving the Bread of Life, she fell into a long ecstasy, and for hours remained motionless, and wrapt up in silent contemplation, unable to move from the spot but at the command of her director; the virtue of obedience overcoming even the mystical insensibility to all outward objects. Her intimate intercourse with heaven during those moments; the prophecies which she uttered; the manner in which distant and future occurrences were made manifest to her spiritual perceptions, testified to the supernatural nature of these ecstasies. An intimate union established itself between her and the objects of her incessant contemplation. When she meditated on the glorious mysteries, on the triumphs of Mary, or the bliss of the angelic spirits, an intense joy beamed in her face, and pervaded her whole person. When, on the other hand, she mused on the Passion of our Lord, or on the sorrows of His Mother, the whole expression of her face was changed, and bore the impress of an unutterable woe; and even by physical pains she partook in a measure of the sufferings of her God. The anxious torments of the Passion were rehearsed as it were in her body; and ere long a wound in her side manifested one of the most astonishing but indubitably established instances of the real though mystical share which some of the saints have had in the life-giving agonies of the Lord. None but Vannozza, who used to dress that touching and awful wound, and Don Antonio, to whom she revealed it in confession, were acquainted with this extraordinary token of union between the crucified Redeemer and His favoured servant. She suffered intense pain while it lasted, but it was a joyful suffering. Love made it precious to her. She had desired to drink of His cup, and be baptised with His baptism; and He destined her one day to sit at His side and share His glory. She had drunk to the dregs the cup of earthly sorrow; the anguish of bereavement, the desolation of loneliness, the torments of fear, the pangs of sickness and poverty. And now the most mysterious sufferings fell to her lot, of a nature too sacred for common mention, for man’s investigation, but not the less real and true than the others. The relief was as miraculous as the infliction. In a vision she saw herself transported into the cave of Bethlehem, and into the presence of the Infant Jesus and of His Mother. With a sweet smile, the Blessed Virgin bade Francesca discover the wound which love had made, and then with water that flowed from the rock, she washed her side, and dismissed her. When her ecstasy was over, she found that the miraculous wound was perfectly healed.
It was at this time that she predicted in the most positive manner, and when appearances were all against such a result, that the papal schism was about to end. The Council of Constance was sitting, and new difficulties and conflicts continually arose. War was on the point of bursting out again, and every body trembling at the thought of fresh disasters. Contrary, however, to all expectations, the last weeks of the year 1415 saw the conclusion of the schism. The assembled fathers, with a courage that none had foreseen, and indifferent to the threats of Frederick of Austria on the one side, and of the King of France on the other, who were each advocating the cause of an anti-pope, – the former supporting John XXIII., the latter Benedict XIII., – they deposed these two usurpers, obliged Gregory XII. to renounce his pretensions also, and on the 11th of November unanimously elected Otto Colonna, Cardinal Deacon of Saint George in Velabro, who took the name of Martin V.; and by his virtues and his talents succeeded in restoring: peace to Rome itself, and to the whole Catholic world. It was generally supposed, even during her lifetime, and much more after her death, that Francesca’s prayers, her tears and her sufferings, had accelerated that blessed event, and drawn down the mercy of God on His afflicted Church.
The son of Lorenzo and Francesca. Baptista Ponziano, had now arrived at the age of eighteen, and was considered the most promising of the young Roman noblemen. The excellent education he had received was bearing its fruits. In appearance and in manners, in talents and in character, he was equally distinguished. Lorenzo, anxious to perpetuate his family, and secure heirs to his large possessions, pressed his son to marry. It was with the greatest satisfaction that Francesca seconded his wishes. She longed to give up to a daughter-in-law the management of domestic affairs, and to be more free to devote her time to religious and charitable employments. The young person on whom the choice of Baptista and of his parents fell was Mobilia, a maiden of whom it is recorded that she was of noble birth and of singular beauty, but her family name is not mentioned. Immediately upon her marriage, according to the continental custom of the time, the bride came to reside under the same roof as her father and mother-in-law. She was received as a beloved daughter by Francesca and Vannozza; but she neither returned their affection nor appeared sensible of their kindness. Brought up by an excellent mother in a very strict manner and entire seclusion, her head was completely turned at suddenly finding herself her own mistress: adored by her husband, furnished with the most ample means of gratifying all her fancies, she was bent on making up for the somewhat austere life she had led as a young girl, and gave no thought to any thing but her beauty, her dress, and all the amusements within her reach. Wholly inexperienced, she declined to ask or to receive advice, and chose in every respect to be guided by her inclinations alone. Imperious with her equals, haughty with her superiors, she gave herself all the airs imaginable, and treated her mother-in-law with the most supreme contempt, hardly paying her more attention than if she had been the lowest menial in the house. In the gay societies which she frequented, it was her favourite amusement to turn Francesca into ridicule, to mimic her manners and her style of conversation; and she often declared herself perfectly ashamed of being related to a person so totally ignorant of the ways of the world. “How can one feel any respect,” she used to ask, “for a person who thinks of nothing but the poor, dresses as one of them, and goes about the streets carrying bread, wood, and old clothes?” It was not that Mobilia’s disposition was absolutely bad; on the contrary, she was naturally sweet-tempered; but never having been left before to her own management, and tasting for the first time the exciting pleasures of the world, the contrast which her mother-in-law’s appearance, manners, and whole mode of life presented to that which seemed to her so attractive, irritated her beyond measure, till at last her dislike amounted to aversion; she could hardly endure Francesca in her sight. Vain were the remonstrances of her husband and of her father-in-law, vain their entreaties and their reproofs; unavailing also proved the interference of some mutual friends, who sought to convince her of the culpability of her conduct, and to persuade her that she was bound to show Baptista’s mother at least the attentions of ordinary civility. The headstrong young woman persisted in exhibiting the utmost contempt for her. The Saint endured all her frowardness with unvarying gentleness and patience, never uttering a sharp or unkind word in return, and spending long hours in prayer that the heart so closed against her, and so given up to the world, might through God’s mercy be softened and changed. One day, when she was renewing these petitions with more than common fervour, she heard the following words distinctly pronounced in her hearing: “Why do you grieve, Francesca? and why is your soul disquieted? Nothing takes place without My permission, and all things work together for the good of those who love Me.” And her trial was even then about to end. It happened a few days afterwards, when all the inhabitants of the palace were assembled round the fire in the hall (for it was in the winter season), that Mobilia began as usual to attack her mother-in-law, and to turn her mode of life into ridicule, with even greater bitterness than usual; and turning to her husband and to his father, she exclaimed impatiently that she could not understand how they allowed her to follow her mean and degrading pursuits, to mix with the refuse of the rabble, and draw down upon the whole family not only merited disgrace, but intolerable inconveniences. She was going on in this way, and speaking with great violence, when all of a sudden she turned as pale as death, a fit of trembling came over her, and in a moment she fell back senseless. Francesca and Vannozza carried her to her bed, where, recovering her consciousness, she was seized with most acute pains. The intensity of her sufferings drew from her the most piteous cries. Then her conscience was roused; then, as if suddenly awakened to a sense of the enormity of her conduct, with a faltering voice she murmured: “My pride! my dreadful pride!” Francesca bent over her gently, entreated her to bear her sufferings patiently, assured her they would soon subside. Then Mobilia burst into an agony of tears, and exclaimed before all the bystanders, “They will subside, my dear mother, if you ask it of God; but I have deserved more, much more, by my horrible behaviour to you. Forgive me, dear mother; pray for me. I acknowledge my fault. Henceforward, if God spares my life, your daughter will be to you the most loving, the most obedient of handmaids. Take me in your arms, mother, and bless your child.” Francesca pressed to her bosom the beautiful young creature in whom such a change had been suddenly wrought, and while she fervently blessed her, Mobilia felt that all her pains had left her.
From that day forward the whole tone of her mind was altered; her conversion was complete. Francesca became to her an object of the most affectionate veneration; she consulted her about all her actions, and communicated to her her most secret thoughts. Utterly despising the vanities of the world which had led her astray, she adopted her views and opinions, and set entirely at naught the seductions of worldly grandeur. The sanctity of Francesca was now so evident to her that she began to watch her actions, her words, every detail of her life, with a mixture of awe and of interest; and kept a record in writing of all that she observed, and of the miraculous occurrences which were so often taking place through her instrumentality, as well as in her own person. The forementioned particulars she attested upon oath after the Saint’s death, when the depositions were taken which served at a later period for the process of her canonisation. The most intimate friendship established itself between Baptista’s wife and his mother; nothing could exceed the devoted and affectionate reverence of the one, or the tenderness with which it was repaid by the other. Francesca, with the most watchful love, attended to Mobilia’s slightest wants or wishes: nursed her assiduously in her confinements, and bestowed upon her grandchildren the same cares that she had lavished on her own children. It was a great relief to her that Mobilia, who was now only occupied with her duties, assumed at her request the management of the house, and the regulation of all domestic affairs. She was thus enabled to devote herself more unreservedly to the service of the poor and of the hospitals. The hospital which she visited most constantly was that which her father-in-law had founded near the Chiesa del Salvatore, called at a later period Santa Maria in Cappella. The miracles wrought by the laying on of her hands became more numerous than ever, and her fame increased in proportion. The degree in which her assistance was sought, her prayers implored, and the reputation of her sanctity extended, was painful to her humility; but her supernatural gifts were too evident to be concealed from others or from herself, and there only remained to her to humble herself more deeply at the feet of the God who thus showed forth His power in one whom she deemed the most worthless of His creatures.
A great work was preparing for her hand to do; the first stone of a spiritual building was to be laid; she was growing ripe for the work; and God was drawing men’s eyes upon her with wonder and with awe, that when that day came they might listen to her voice. The warnings which she gave to persons threatened by secret dangers were innumerable; her insight into the condition of their souls marvellous. One day she sends word to her confessor that he will be “sent for on the following night to attend a sick person, but that he must on no account leave his house;” and it turns out that assassins were lying in wait for him in the street, and that the pretended sick man was a lure to draw him out. Another time a youth of sixteen, Jacopo Vincenzo, is lying dangerously ill in the Piazza Campitelli. His mother hastens to the Saint, who smiles when she enters the room, and bids her go in peace, for her son has recovered; and on her return she finds him in perfect health. She sees a priest at the altar, and he appears to her sight as if covered with a frightful leprosy. By her confessor’s order she relates her vision to the object of it; and, confounded and amazed, the unhappy man acknowledges that he was celebrating in a state of mortal sin. He repents, confesses, and amends his life. Two men pay a visit together to the Ponziano Palace; one is the nephew of Vannozza, a pious and exemplary priest; the other a young man of twenty, whom he has adopted. Anger is working in the bosom of the youth; he has suffered from his benefactor some imaginary wrong, and he is planning his revenge, and is about to utter a calumny which will affect his character. Francesca takes him aside: what can she know of what is passing in his soul: how read what has not been revealed to any human creature? She tells him what he designs, and awakens him to a sense of his ingratitude, he no sooner has left the house than, falling at the feet of his companion, he confesses to him his crime, and implores his forgiveness. Cecca Clarelli, a relation of the Ponziani, is delivered of a little girl in such apparent good health that no one thinks of baptising her; a grand ceremony for the purpose is preparing in a neighbouring church, to take place the following day; but in the middle of the night Francesca arrives, and entreats that the child may be instantly baptised. The parents and the priest object, but the Saint is urgent; she will take no denial; with reluctance her request is complied with, and no sooner has the sacrament been conferred than the infant expires. A child of the same parents, a lovely little girl, is dumb; she is four years old, and not a single word has she ever pronounced. Andreozzo, her father, entreats his wife to carry her to the Saint, and implore her assistance. Francesca’s humility cannot endure this direct appeal, and she tries to put them off; but, deeply affected by their tears, she at last touches with her finger the tongue of the little Camilla, and says, “Hope every thing from the mercy of God; it is as boundless as His power.” The parents depart full of faith and comfort; and ere they reach their house, the child has uttered with perfect distinctness the blessed names of Jesus and Mary; and from that day forward acquires and retains the power of speech.
No wonder that the name of Francesca grows every day more famous, and that she is every day more dear to the people amongst whom she dwells; that hearts are subdued, sinners reclaimed, mourners consoled by the sight of her blessed face, by the sweet sound of her voice. Many rise about her and call her blessed; but children, and more especially her own spiritual children, are soon to call her mother. A new epoch is now at hand in her career. God had placed in her heart many years ago a hope which she had nursed in secret, and watered with her tears, and fostered by her prayers. Never impatient, never beforehand with God’s providence, she waited: His time was she knew to be her time; His will was the passion of her heart, her end, her rule, and God had made her will His, and brought about by slow degrees its accomplishment. Permission to labour first, – the result far distant, but clear, the vision of that result, when once He had said to her, “Begin and work.” To tarry patiently for that signal, to obey it unhesitatingly when once given, is the rule of the saints. How marvellous is their instinct! how accordant their practice! First, the hidden life, the common life; the silence of the house of Nazareth; the carpenter’s shop; the marriage-feast, it may be, for some; and at last, “the hour is come,” and the true work for which they are sent into the world has to be done, in the desert or in the cloister, in the temple or in the market-place, on Mount Thabor or on Mount Calvary; and the martyr or the confessor, the founder or the reformer of a religious order, comes forth, and in an instant, or in a few years, performs a work at which earth wonders and angels rejoice.
CHAPTER X – FRANCESCA LAYS THE FOUNDATION OF HER FUTURE CONGREGATION – HER PILGRIMAGE TO ASSISI
Lorenzo Ponziano’s admiration and affection for his wife had gone on increasing with advancing years; the perfection of her life, and the miracles he had so often seen her perform, inspired him with an unbounded reverence. His continual prayer, the ardent desire of his heart, was to have her by his side as his guide and his guardian angel during the remainder of his life and at the hour of his death. Perhaps it was to win, as it were, from Providence the favour he so earnestly implored, that he resolved in no way to be a clog on her actions, or an obstacle in the way of God’s designs upon her. Taking her aside one day, he spoke to her with the greatest affection, and offered to release her from all the obligations imposed by the state of marriage, to allow her the fullest liberty of action and the most absolute control over her own person, her own time, and her own conduct, on one only condition, – that she would promise never to cease to inhabit his house, and to guide him in the way in which her example had hitherto led him. Francesca, profoundly touched by his kindness, did not hesitate to give this promise. She accepted his proposal joyfully and gratefully, in so much as it conduced to the accomplishment of God’s will and of His ulterior designs upon her; but she continued to devote herself to her excellent husband, and with the most attentive solicitude to render him every service in her power. He was now in very declining health, and she rendered him by day and by night all the cares of the tenderest nurse. The religious life, the natural complement of such a course as hers had been, often formed the subject of her meditations; and God, who destined her to be the foundress of a new congregation of pious women, suggested to her at this time the first steps towards its accomplishment.
It will be remembered that from her childhood upward she had been used to frequent the church of Santa Maria Nuova, on the Foro Romano; her mother had done so before her, and had intrusted her to the spiritual direction of one of the most eminent members of the order by whom that church was served. Santa Maria Nuova is one of the oldest churches in Rome. It had been destroyed and rebuilt in the eighth century; and in 1352 had been given up to the Olivetan monks of Saint Benedict. As the congregation which Francesca instituted was originally formed on the model, and aggregated to that of the religions of Mount Olivet, it will not be irrelevant to give some account of their origin and the life of their illustrious founder.
Bernard Ptolomei or Tolomei, who was supposed to be descended from the Ptolemies of Egypt, was born in 1272. Distinguished by his precocious abilities, he became, at the early age of twenty-two, chief-magistrate (gonfaloniere) of his native town, Sienna; and at twenty-five attained to the dignity of doge. Soon after he was suddenly struck with blindness, and the material darkness in which he found himself involved opened his mental sight to the light of religious truth. He turned with his whole heart to God, and irrevocably devoted himself to His service and to a life of austerity and meditation. The Blessed Virgin miraculously restored his sight, and his purpose stood firm. Dividing his fortune into two equal parts, he bestowed one half on the poor, and the other to the foundation of pious institutions. With a few companions he retired into the mountainous deserts of Accona, about fifteen miles from Sienna, where they gave themselves up to a life of asceticism and prayer, which attracted to their solitude many devout souls from various parts of the world. Satan, as usual, set his batteries in array against the new anchorites, and trials of various sorts assailed them in turn. They were even denounced to Pope John XXII. as persons tainted with heresy; but Tolomei, with Piccolomini, one of his companions, made their way to Avignon, and there, in the presence of the sovereign Pontiff, completely cleared themselves from the calumnious imputation. Their order was approved, and they returned to Accona, where they took the name of “Congregation of Mary of Mount Olivet of the Benedictine Order.” This was by the express desire of the Blessed Virgin, who had appeared to the saint, and enjoined him to adopt the rule of Saint Benedict, promising at the same time her protection to the new order. On the 26th of March, 1319, the new religious received their habits; and Mount Accona took the name of Mount Olivet, in honour of the agony of our Lord. Terrible were the conflicts of the holy founder with the Evil One; but out of them all he came victorious. His expositions of Scripture were wonderful, and derived, it was said, from his mystical colloquies with the archangel Saint Michael. The austerity of his life was extreme; his penances severe and continual. In 1348 Saint Benedict appeared to him and announced the approach of the pestilence which was soon to visit Italy, and warned him of his own death, which speedily followed. Many of his disciples had visions of the glorious translation of his soul to heaven; and numerous miracles wrought at his tomb bore witness to his sanctity. His monks inhabited the church and the cloisters of Santa Maria in Dominica, or, as it is more commonly called, in Navicella, from the rudely-sculptured marble monument that stands on the grass before its portal, a remnant of bygone days, to which neither history nor tradition has given a name, but which has itself given one to the picturesque old church that stands on the brow of the Coelian Hill. As their numbers afterwards increased, they were put to great inconvenience by the narrow limits of their abode; and Cardinal Beltorte, titular of Santa Maria Nuova, obtained for them from Pope Clement VI. possession of the church of that name. They accepted the gift with joy; for not only did it owe its origin to the first ages of Christianity, but it contained many valuable relics; and amongst other treasures one of those pictures of the Blessed Virgin which tradition has ascribed to Saint Luke the Evangelist; to this day it is venerated in that spot; and those who kneel at the tomb of Saint Francesca Romana, on raising their eyes to the altar above it behold the sacred image which has been venerated for so many generations.
Through prosperity and adversity Francesca had never ceased to frequent that church. At its confessional and at its altars she had been a constant attendant. Other women, her friends and imitators, had followed her example; bound by a tender friendship, bent on the same objects, united by the same love of Jesus and of Mary, often and often they had been there together, those noble women who had resolved to glory in nothing but the Cross, to have no rank but that of handmaids in the house of the Lord. Francesca was their model, their teacher, their cherished guide: they clung to her with the tenderest affection; they were, according to an Eastern poet’s expression, a row of goodly pearls, and she the silken cord which bound them together. They were coming out of the church one evening, when Francesca gave them the first intimation of her hopes of their future destiny. They were not shown the distant scene, only the first step they were to take.
It was one of those small beginnings so trifling in men’s sight, so important in their results, – the grain of mustard-seed hereafter to grow into a tree. Francesca spoke to them, as they walked along, of the order of Saint Benedict, of the sanctity of its founder, of the virtues, the piety, the good works of its members, and submitted to them that by taking the name of “Oblates of Mount Olivet,” and observing conjointly certain rules, such as might befit persons living in the world, they might participate in their merits, and enjoy their privileges. Her companions hailed this proposal with joy, and begged her to use all her efforts to carry it into effect. Don Antonio, to whom Francesca communicated their pious wishes, lent a favourable ear to the request, and in his turn brought it under the notice of the Vice-Prior Don Ippolito, who, in the absence of the superior, was charged with the government of the monastery. He was the same who at one time formed the project of leaving the order, and was deterred from so doing by Francesca’s advice. He readily received their overtures, and obtained for her and for her companions from the General of the Order permission to assume the name of “Oblates of Mary,” a particular aggregation to the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova, and a share in the suffrages and merits of the order of Saint Benedict.
Greatly rejoiced at the happy result of their application, they gave themselves to fasting, prayer, and penance, in preparation for their special consecration to the Blessed Virgin. It took place on the Feast of the Assumption of the year 1425.
At break of day, in the church of Santa Maria Nuova, Francesca, Vannozza, Rita de Celli, Agnese Selli, and six more noble Roman ladies, confessed, received the pious instructions of Don Antonio, and communicated at a Mass which Don Ippolito said before the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin. Immediately after the holy sacrifice, they dedicated themselves to her service, according to the formula used by the Olivetan monks; only that the phrase “me offero” was substituted for “profiteor;” and that instead of taking solemn vows, they were simply affiliated to the Benedictine Order of Mount Olivet. Such was the first beginning of the congregation of which Francesca was the mother and foundress. In these early times, Don Antonio, their director, did not assign them any special occupation, and only urged them to the most scrupulous obedience to the commandments of God and of the Church, to a tender devotion to the Mother of God, a diligent participation in the Sacraments, and the exercise of all the Christian virtues, and the various works of mercy. The link between them consisted in their constant attendance at the church of Santa Maria Nuova, where they received communion on all the Feasts of our Lady, and in a tender veneration for Francesca, whom they looked upon as their spiritual mother. They had incessant recourse to her advice; and her simplest words were as a law to them, her conduct their example. She assumed no power, and disclaimed all authority; but the sovereign empire of love was forced into her reluctant hands. They insisted on being governed by one they held in such affection, and gave up every pleasure for the sake of being with her, and sharing in her pursuits.
It was in the summer of the following year that Francesca decided on performing a pilgrimage to Santa Maria, or, as it is more commonly called “La Madonna degli Angeli,” in honour of our Lady and of the seraphic Saint of Assisi. Vannozza and Rita eagerly agreed to accompany her; and they resolved to set on on the 2d of August, in order to arrive in time for the celebrated indulgence “del Perdono.” It was in poverty, not only of spirit but of actual reality that they wished, to perform their journey to the tomb of the great apostle of poverty, – to go on foot, and unprovided with money, provisions, or comforts of any sort. Lorenzo and Parazza, who had readily consented to the proposed pilgrimage, demurred for a while at this mode of carrying it out; but Francesca prayed in her oratory that God would incline their hearts to consent to it; and soon, with a reluctant smile, they consented to all she proposed, and both only ejaculated, “Go on your way in peace; do as you list, and only pray for us.” Out of the gates of Rome they went, through that country so well known to those who have often visited the Eternal City; up the hill from whence the first sight of its domes and its towers, of its tombs and of its pines, is hailed with rapture, from whence a long last lingering look of love is cast upon what the heart whispers is its own Catholic home. It was the first, and as it would seem the only occasion (at least none other is mentioned in her life) in which Francesca left its walls, and trod other ground than that which the steps of so many martyrs have hallowed, the blood of so many saints has consecrated. The valleys of Veii on the one hand, the heights of Baccano on the other, the beautiful and stately mountain of Soracte, met their eyes as they do ours: would that we looked upon them with the same earth-abstracted gaze as theirs! The Gothic towers of Civita Castellana looked down upon the humble pilgrims as they passed by in pious meditation. The sound of their sweet voices, reciting prayers or chanting hymns, mingled with the murmurs of the stream that bathes the old walls of Nurni; and then through the wild defile of Monte Somma into the lovely Umbrian Vale they went, through that enchanting land where every tree and rock wears the form that Claude Lorraine or Salvator Rosa have made familiar to the eye and dear to the poetic mind; where the vines hang in graceful garlands, and the fireflies at night dance from bough to bough; where the brooks and the rivers are of the colour of the sapphire or the emerald, and the purple mountains smile rather than frown on the sunny landscape; where the towns and the convents, the churches and the cottages, are set like white gems in the deep verdure that surrounds them. There is no land more fair, no sky more tenderly blue, no breeze more balmy, than the land where Spoleto and Toligno and Assisi rise in their picturesque beauty, than the sky which spreads its azure roof over the Umbrian traveller’s head, than the airs which are wafted from the heights of Monte Falco, or the hill of Perugia. Beautiful is that country! fair these works of God! – but more beautiful still is the invisible world which Francesca and her companions contemplated, the while, with weary patient feet, in the sultry August weather, they trod the lengthening road from one humble resting-place to another. Fairer the inward perfection of a soul which God has renewed, than all the gorgeous but evanescent loveliness of earth’s most lovely scenes.
At length their pilgrimage is drawing to a close; the towers of the Madonna degli Angeli are conspicuous in the distance; half unconsciously they hasten in approaching it; but the heat is intense, and their lips parched with thirst; they can hardly speak, for their tongues cleave to the roof of their mouths, when a stranger meets them, one of striking and venerable appearance, and clothed in the religious habit of Saint Francis. He hails the travellers, and straightway speaks of Mary and of Jesus, of the mystery of the Passion, of the wonders of Divine love. Never have such words of fire met the ears of the astonished pilgrims. Their hearts burn within them, and they are ready to exclaim, “Never did man speak like to this man.” Francesca sees her angel assume his brightest aspect. Hays of light seem to dart from his form, and to envelope in a dazzling halo the monk who is addressing them. She knows him now; and makes a sign to her companions. It is Saint Francis himself. It is the seraphic saint of Assisi. He blesses the little troop, and touching a wild pear-tree by the road-side, he brings down to the ground a fruit of such prodigious size, that it serves to allay the thirst and restore the strength of the exhausted travellers.
That day they reached the shrine where they had so longed to kneel; that little hut, once the abode of the saint, which stands in its rough simplicity within the gorgeous church; where the rich and great of the world come daily to do homage to the apostle of poverty, the close imitator of Him who had not often where to lay His head. There they received communion the next morning; there they prayed for their absent friends; there Francesca had a vision, in which she was encouraged to persevere in her labours, to accomplish her pious design, and the protection of Jesus and His Mother was promised to her. Let us follow them in thought up the steep hill to Assisi – to the church where the relics of the saint, where his mortal remains are laid. Let us descend into the subterranean chapel, pause at every altar, and muse on the records of that astonishing life, the most marvellous perhaps of any which it has ever been permitted to mortal man to live. Let us go with them to the home of his youth, where his confessorship began in childish sufferings for the sake of Christ. Let us venerate with them the relics of Saint Clare, the gentle sister spirit whose memory and whose order are linked with his; and for a moment think what prayers, what vows, what acts of faith, of hope, of charity, must have risen like incense from those devoted hearts in such scenes, amidst such recollections. Doubtless they bore away with them a host of sweet and pious thoughts. Their faces must have shone with heaven’s own light as they retraced their steps to the home where loving hearts were awaiting them. Few such pilgrimages can have ever been performed, Francesca at the tomb of Saint Francis of Assisi must have been a blessed sight even for an angel’s eyes.
CHAPTER XI – DEATH OF FRANCESCA’S FRIEND AND DIRECTOR, DON ANTONIO – TROUBLES IN ROME AND ITALY FORETOLD BY FRANCESCA – DEATH OF VANNOZZA, FRANCESCA’S SISTER IN LAW – FOUNDATION OF THE CONGREGATION OF OBLATES OF TOR DI SPECCHI
The extraordinary graces which had attended our Saint during her pilgrimage were the prelude of a trial which was awaiting her in Rome. Her earliest friend, her long-trusted guide, Don Antonio Savello, had died during her absence. Though she accepted this dispensation of God’s providence with her habitual resignation, it cut her to the heart. She had deeply loved and reverenced her spiritual father; he had instructed her in childhood; directed her ever since with wisdom and faithfulness; and his loss was in one sense greater to her than that of any other friend. It occurred, too, at the very moment when she was about to carry out the Divine intimation with regard to the foundation of a new Congregation, when difficulties were every where staring her in the face, and the want of a powerful and willing auxiliary more than ever needful. She did not, however, lose courage, but prayed fervently that God would inspire her choice of a director; and much time she spent on her knees imploring this favour. No doubt the selection she made was the result of these prayers; and one of the proofs that God’s ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts. Her choice fell on Don Giovanni Mattiotti, the curate of Santa Maria in Trastevere, to whom she had already sometimes been to confession. He was a man of irreproachable character and distinguished piety, but of an irresolute and vaccillating disposition, easily disheartened; nor would he at first sight have appeared qualified for the direction of a person as far advanced in perfection as Francesca, on whom God had such great designs, and with whom He chose to deal in such wonderful ways. But the trials which Francesca had to endure from the irresolution of Don Giovanni; the patience with which she submitted to his varying commands; and the supernatural means through which he was taught to recognise her sanctity, and to assist in carrying out her designs, tended in the end to the glory of God, and the praise of the Saint, whose very humility was a trial to her, in those days of small beginnings, and often of painful doubts. Crosses of various kinds arose in connection with the undertaking. Some of the monks of Santa Maria Nuova, for instance, took occasion, on the visits of a father inspector, to complain of Don Ippolito, and to accuse him of transgressing the statutes, and going beyond his powers, in admitting a congregation of women to the name and the privileges of their order; especially considering that several of these women were married, and living in the world. But the visitor was a man of piety and prudence. He closely examined into the question, and satisfied himself that the institution tended to edification, and was pleasing to God; and he sanctioned it accordingly, as far as was in his power, and promised to advocate its cause with the father-general.
In the month of July of 1430 Francesca had a remarkable vision, which indicated to her the events that were speedily to follow, and which she prophesied with an accuracy, that, in the end, occasioned general astonishment. One night, after spending several hours in prayer, she saw a lurid light, through which a number of Satan’s ministers were hurrying to and fro, shaking their torches, and rejoicing with dreadful glee over the impending calamities of Rome. The Saint fell on her knees, and besought the Lord to spare her unhappy country. Then falling into ecstasy, she beheld the Infant Jesus in His Mother’s arms surrounded with angels, and Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint John the Baptist in the attitude of prayer, pleading for mercy to the Eternal City, which they seemed to protect by their fervent supplications. At the same time she heard a voice that said, “The prayers of the saints have stayed the arm of the Lord; but woe to the guilty city if she repent not, for great afflictions are at hand.” Some days afterwards the lightning fell simultaneously on the churches of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and on the shrine of Saint John Baptist in the Lateran Basilica. Francesca shuddered when she heard of it; she felt at once that the day of grace had gone by; and in thrilling words described to her confessor, and to several other persons that were present, the misfortunes that were about to fall upon Rome.
The fulfilment of her predictions was not long delayed, though nothing at the time seemed to give them weight. The unwearied exertions of Martin V. had succeeded in healing the wounds of Christendom. In Rome he had repressed anarchy, recalled the exiled citizens to their homes, rebuilt the churches, given a new impulse to the government, to the administration of justice, to politics, to literature, to science, and to art. He had worked hard to promote a reformation in the manners of the clergy, and effected in many places the re-establishment of the discipline of the Church. The legates whom he sent to all the courts of Europe had restored some degree of union between the Christian princes, and preached a crusade against the Turks and the followers of John Huss. He had called together a council, which was first convened at Pavia, and afterwards removed, first to Sienna, and then to Basle. But before he could him self join the assembly, death overtook him. Worn out with his indefatigable labours for the welfare of Christendom, he went to receive his reward at an unadvanced age, in the month of February of the year 1431.
Gabriel Candalucero succeeded him under the name of Eugenius IV. The first Consistory which he held was marked by a fearful accident, which people chose to consider as an evil omen. The floor of the hall gave way, and in the midst of the confusion that ensued a bishop was killed, and many persons grievously wounded. A discontented monk put about the report that Martin V. had died in possession of a considerable treasure; and the Colonnas, catching eagerly at this pretext, took up arms to make good their claims to this supposed heritage. Once more the adverse factions rose against each other, and blood flowed in the streets of Rome. The Colonnas were constrained to fly; and the monk, convicted of having conspired to deliver up the Castle of Saint Angelo to the rebels, and to get the Pope assassinated, was condemned to death and executed. A temporary reconciliation was effected between Eugenius IV. and the too powerful family of the Colonnas; but their haughty and violent temper soon brought about a rupture. They advanced upon Rome at the head of their troops; a bloody engagement took place under the walls of the city, in which the pontifical troops had the upper hand, but many of the nobles perished in the affray.
Conflicts of a still more harrowing nature now arose between the Pope and the Council of Basle. Duke Philip of Milan availed himself of this opportunity to retrieve the sacrifices he had made in a treaty which the Pope had led him to sign with the Venetians. He forged a decree which, purported to proceed from the fathers of the council, appointing him lieutenant-general of the Church in Italy; and armed with this assumed title, he despatched to the Roman States Francesca Sforza and Nicholas Fortebraccio, two famous adventurers in his pay. The latter advanced upon Rome, and began to devastate its neighbourhood. The Pope, wholly unprepared for defence, warded off the danger by sowing dissension between the two generals, which he effected by giving up to Sforza, for his lifetime, the possession of Ancona, and of the provinces which he had conquered in the states of the Church. Sforza, in consequence, took part with Eugenius, and defeated Fortebraccio at Tivoli; but in the meantime a general insurrection broke out in Rome itself. The Ghibelline party attacked the Pope, laid siege to the church of the Holy Apostles, where he had taken shelter, and from whence he escaped with difficulty disguised as a monk, embarked on the Tiber, and found a refuge first at Pisa and then at Bologna. Rome was given up for five months to all the horrors of anarchy, the pontifical palace pillaged, and new magistrates chosen in lieu of those appointed by the Pope; the garrison of the castle of Saint Angelo alone remaining firm in its allegiance to the sovereign Pontiff. Weary at last of so much disorder, the city of its own accord submitted itself to lawful authority. Eugenius sent a legate, who in some measure succeeded in re-establishing peace; but he himself remained in the north of Italy, engaged in convoking a council, wherewith to oppose the irregular decrees of that assembled at Basle.
These events, which spread over several years, are related in confirmation of the prophetical gifts of Francesca, who accurately foresaw and foretold them when nothing presaged their occurrence. At the time when this storm was about to burst over Italy, and the beginning of sorrow was at hand, she was doomed to experience another of the heavy afflictions that life had yet in store for her. Vannozza, her cherished companion, her sister, her counsellor, her bosom friend, was summoned to receive her heavenly crown; and she herself to add to all her virtues a more perfect detachment from all earthly ties. They had been united by every link that affection, sympathy, and similarity of feeling, tastes, and opinions can create between two hearts devoted to God, and through Him to each other. Their union had not been obscured by the smallest cloud. Together they had prayed, suffered, and laboured; and in trials and joys alike they had been inseparable. Francesca had been warned in a vision of the approaching end of her sister-in-law; and at length, strong in faith, she stands by her dying-bed; and when the Evil One, baffled in life, makes a final effort to disturb the departing soul, she prays for the beloved of her heart, sprinkles holy water on that much-loved form, reads aloud the history of the Passion of our Lord; and Vannozza, supported by those sacramental graces which Satan cannot withstand, followed almost beyond the verge of life by that watchful tenderness which had been her joy on earth, sees the evil spirit retire before the might of Francesca’s angel, and breathes her last in perfect peace. The soul which had served and loved God so fervently upon earth was carried up to heaven in a form visible to the eyes of her friend; a pure flame, enveloped in a light transparent cloud, was the symbol of that gentle spirit’s flight into its kindred skies.
The mortal remains of Vannozza were laid in the church of the Ara Coeli, in the chapel of Santa Croce. The Roman people resorted there in crowds to behold once more their loved benefactress, – the mother of the poor, the consoler of the afflicted. All strove to carry away some little memorial of one who had gone about among them doing good; and during the three days which preceded the interment, the concourse did not abate. On the day of the funeral, Francesca knelt on one side of the coffin, and, in sight of all the crowd, she was rapt in ecstasy. They saw her body lifted from the ground, and a seraphic expression in her uplifted face. They heard her murmur several times with an indescribable emphasis the word, “When? when?” (Quando? quando?) When all was over, she still remained immovable; it seemed as if her soul had risen on the wings of prayer, and followed Vannozza’s spirit into the realms of bliss. At last her confessor ordered her to rise, and to go and attend on the sick. She instantly complied, and walked away to the hospital which she had founded, apparently unconscious of every thing about her, and only roused from her trance by the habit of obedience which, in or out of ecstasy, never forsook her.
From that day her visions grew more frequent and more astonishing. She seemed to live in heaven; and during those hours of mystical intercourse with saints and angels, and with the Lord of angels and of saints, to obtain supernatural lights which guided her in the foundation of her new congregation. The Blessed Virgin revealed to her that Saint Paul, Saint Benedict, and Saint Mary Magdalene were to be its protectors; and that Don Giovanni Mattiotti, her director, Fra Bartolommeo Biondii, of the order of Saint Francis, and Don Ippolito, of the Olivetan Obedience, were to co-operate with her in its establishment. To Don Giovanni a particular message was sent to confirm him in the intention of forwarding the work, and to warn him against discouragement from the many difficulties it would meet with. Wonderful were the sights which it was given her to see in those long ecstasies, during which her soul seemed to absent itself from her all-but spiritualised body. Sometimes a speechless contemplation held all her faculties in abeyance; at others, in burning words, she described what passed before her mental sight. At times her motionless attitude almost wore the semblance of death; while often she moved about and performed various actions in connection with the subjects of her visions. In the churches which she frequented, – in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, in Santa Maria in Trastevere, in the Chapel of the Angels in Santa Cecilia, in her own oratory, – she is favoured with the presence of celestial visitants. The various ecclesiastical feasts of the year bring with them analogous revelations; she spends her time in the cave of Bethlehem and the house of Nazareth, on the mountains, where Jesus was wont to pray, where He was transfigured, where He agonised, and where He died. She adores with the shepherds and the wise men; she listens to His voice with the disciples and the devout multitude; she suffers with the Mother of sorrows, and weeps with the Magdalene at the foot of the Cross. The beauties of the New Jerusalem, the lovely pastures, the fresh waters, the bright flowers, the precious stones, which typify the glories of the world to come, are spread before her in those mystic trances. Deeper and more mysterious revelations are vouchsafed, wonderful secrets disclosed to her under expressive symbols, and Saint Paul is her guide through those regions where he was ravished in spirit while still, like her, an inhabitant of earth. One day that she was in ecstasy a voice of more than common sweetness addressed to her these words – “Thy path is strewn with thorns, Francesca, and many an obstacle will stand in thy way, ere thy little flock can be gathered together in our abode. But remember that hail does not always follow upon thunder, and that the brightest sunshine often breaks through the darkest clouds.”
Encouraged by this intimation, the Saint began in earnest to consider of the means of establishing her congregation. During a short absence which her husband made from Rome, she invited all the Oblates to her house, and having made them share her slight repast, she assembled them around her, and spoke to them to the following effect: “My dear companions, I have called you together in order to impart to you the lights which I have received from the Lord and His blessed Mother with regard to our congregation. For seven years we have been especially consecrated to her service, and have bound ourselves to live in chastity and obedience, and to observe the rules prescribed to us; and I have long thought that as we have been united in spirit and in intention, so ought we to be in our outward mode of life. For a while I fancied that this my desire might only be the result of my maternal affection for you, and of my solicitude for your advancement. But the Lord has at last revealed to me that it is His will that I should found a new spiritual edifice in this city, the ancient stronghold of religion and of faith. It will form an asylum for those persons of your sex and of your rank who have conceived the generous resolution of forsaking the world and its allurements; I have tagged of the Lord to select for His purpose one less unworthy than myself, but I dare no longer withstand the manifestation of His will. I am prepared to accomplish His bidding; but without you, my sisters what can I do? You are the foundations of the building, the first stones of the new spiritual house of His mother. You are the seed from which a plentiful harvest is to spring. Earthly cares, the temporal affairs of life, must no longer take up your time. He summons you to a retreat, where you will live in His presence, imitate His example, and copy the virtues of Mary, where you will pray for Rome, and turn away His wrath from the degenerate and guilty city. Have you not heard how two years ago the thunderbolts fell on her sacred towers? Do you not see how every day fresh miseries are gathering on the devoted heads of her people? But God is full of mercy; when most incensed at our sins, He casts about for souls that will appease His anger. He has turned His eyes upon us. He bids us unite, and stand in the breach between Him and the daring sinners who each day defy Him. Why tarry we longer? why further delay? The arms of the Blessed Virgin are wide open to receive us. Shall we draw back from her embrace? – No, rather let us fly to her feet.”
As she pronounced these last words Francesca fell into an ecstasy, which lasted for some time, and during which she pleaded with God for those who were to belong to the new institute. Her companions gazed upon her with silent veneration; and when she came to herself, all with one accord, and with tears of joy, professed themselves ready to make every sacrifice which God might require of them, and to adopt the mode of life and the rule which Francesca might suggest. But their assent was only a preliminary step in the undertaking. It was necessary to find a house suitable to their purpose, to obtain the consent of the still existing parents of some of the Oblates, to fix in a definitive manner their rule and constitutions, and finally to procure the sanction of the Holy Father, and his approval of the new order. Francesca attended in turn to each of these objects. To the first place she consulted her three coadjutors on the choice of a house; and difficulties without number arose on this point. The priests were alarmed at the sensation which this undertaking would produce, and were quite at a loss to find money for the purchase. Francesca had long since given away almost all that she possessed. What little remained was devoted to works of charity which could not be abandoned, and all agreed that she was on no account to have recourse on this occasion to her husband or to her son. While they were deliberating, Francesca was favoured with a vision, in which the divine assistance was promised to the Oblates, and their protectors (Don Giovanni in particular) exhorted to perseverance. Encouraged by these assurances, they looked out for a house adapted to the requirements of a religious community; and after many researches Don Ippolito proposed to Don Giovanni a building in the Campitelli district, on the spot where the old tower, known by the name of “Tor di Specchi,” used to stand, directly opposite to the Capitol, and not far from the Santa Maria Nuova. Various obstacles arose to the purchase of this house, which was neither as large nor as convenient as might have been wished; but they were finally overcome, and the acquisition completed towards the end of the year 1432. This house, which was at first considered only as a temporary residence, was subsequently added to, and has remained to this day the central house of the order; and in the pontifical bull the congregation is designed by the name of “Oblates of Tor di Specchi.” This matter once arranged, Francesca succeeded in dissipating the objections raised by the parents of some of the younger Oblates, and to reconcile them to the proposed alteration in their daughters’ mode of life. It was doubtless a trial to her that while she was removing all the difficulties in the way of the more perfect life which her companions were about to lead, she herself could only, like Moses, look on the promised land of spiritual seclusion which they, her disciples and her children, were entering on, and after which she had yearned from the days of her childhood. But she never hesitated as to her line of duty; it was clear before her. Lorenzo had released her from all obligations but one – that of residing in his house and watching over his old age. His infirmities were increasing, and her attentions indispensable to his comfort. No one could supply to him Francesca’s care. She offered up to God the daily self-denial of her existence; and by fresh tokens of His favour He rewarded her obedience.
Her next anxiety was the formation of the constitution and of the rules which were to govern the infant congregation; and in frequent conferences with her pious coadjutors the subject was discussed. After many deliberations, during which they could arrive at no conclusion, it was agreed that the matter should be laid before God in prayer; and their hope was not deceived. In a series of visions, – in which Saint Paul in the first instance, and on other occasions the blessed Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, appeared to Francesca, – directions were given her so ample and so detailed as to the rule which her spiritual daughters were to follow, that there remained no room for hesitation. The several fasts which they were to observe; the length of time which they were to devote to prayer, to work, and to sleep; the manner in which their actions were to be performed; the vocal prayers they were to recite; the solitude, the silence they were to keep; the poverty, the community of goods which they were to practise; their dress, their occupations, their separation from the world, their detachment from all earthly ties of interest and kindred which they were at all times to be inspired with; the precautions to be taken in procuring the consent of parents, and securing the free action of the Oblates who might hereafter join the order, were all indicated with the greatest precision; and instructions were transmitted to Don Giovanni and his co-operators to enlighten them as to the guidance and government of the congregation. The miraculous manner in which the Saint had often read their most secret thoughts, the miracles they saw her perform, and the admirable tenour of her life, in which the most active virtues were combined with the deepest humility, and supernatural favours received with the most profound self-abasement, were to them a warrant of the genuineness of her revelations, the substance of which, condensed and reduced into a series of rules, are to this day observed by the Oblates of Tor di Specchi.
CHAPTER XII – PROGRESS AND TRIALS OF THE YOUNG COMMUNITY – IT IS CONFIRMED BY THE POPE – TROUBLES IN ROME AND THE CHURCH TERMINATED THROUGH FRANCESCA’S INTERCESSION AND THE COUNCIL OF FLORENCE
It was on the 25th of March, the Feast of the Annunciation, in the year 1433, that the Oblates, ten in number, met in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where their holy foundress had so long been in the habit of resorting. They all heard Mass, and went to communion with the utmost fervour, and then in procession proceeded to the house they were henceforward to inhabit. That house, which now-a-days is thrown open during the Octave of the Feast of San Francesca, where young women come with their little children, and point out to them the room which they inhabited in their own childhood, when under the gentle care of the Oblates of Mary. It is no gloomy abode, the Convent of Tor di Specchi even in the eyes of those who cannot understand the happiness of a nun. It is such a place which one loves to see children in; where religion is combined with every thing that pleases the eye and recreates the mind. The beautiful chapel; the garden with its magnificent orange-trees; the open galleries, with their fanciful decorations and scenic recesses, where a holy picture or figure takes you by surprise, and meets you at every turn; the light airy rooms where religious prints and ornaments, with flowers, birds, and ingenious toys, testify that innocent enjoyments are encouraged and smiled upon, while from every window may be caught a glimpse of the Eternal City, a spire, a ruined wall, – something that speaks of Rome and its thousand charms. On Holy Thursday no sepulchre is more beautiful than that of Tor di Specchi. Flowers without end, and bright hangings, all sweet and costly things, do homage to the Lord in the hours of His loving imprisonment.
But on the day when Francesca’s companions first entered those walls, there was nothing very fair or beautiful to greet them, though they earned there, however, in their hearts, from the altar they had just left, the source of all light and love; and to the eyes of faith the scene must have been a bright one. With delight they exchanged then ordinary dress for that which the rule prescribed: Francesca alone stood among them no nun in her outward garb, but the truest nun of all, through the inward consecration of her whole being to God. Agnese de Sellis, a relation of hers, and a woman highly distinguished for virtue and prudence was elected superior of the house. There was a truly admirable spectacle presented to the people of Rome; these women were all of noble birth, and accustomed to all the comforts and conveniences of life. Most of them had been wealthy; some of them were still young; and for the love of God they had given op every thing, and made over their possessions to their relations; for it was not to lead a life of ease, of religious quietude, of holy contemplation alone, that they had separated themselves from the world. It was to imitate the poverty of Christ, to place in the common stock, as the first Christians did, the little they had reserved, and to endure all the privations incident on poverty. Their exact and spontaneous obedience to the gentle Agnese was as remarkable as the sweetness and humility with which she ruled. Seldom seen abroad, their hours were divided between prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and works of mercy. (Footnote: The rule which they then adopted remains the same to this day. The Oblates of Tor di Speechi are not, strictly speaking, nuns: they take no vows, and are bound by no obligations under pain of sin; they are not cloistered, and their dress is that which was worn at the period of their establishment by the widows of the Roman nobles.) Francesca, obliged to be absent from them in body, was ever present with them in spirit. She was the tenderest mother to the little flock that had gathered under her sheltering wing: ministering to their necessities; visiting them as often as she could leave her husband’s side; exciting them on to perfection by her words and example; consoling the weak, and confirming the strong.
It was not to be expected that the infant congregation could be free from evil reports, and from the kind of persecution which ever attends the undertakings and tries the courage of God’s most faithful servants. The mode of life of the Oblates became the general subject of conversation; and though the wiser and better portion of the community were filled with respect and admiration for their virtues, there were not wanting persons to raise a cry against them and against their foundress, and to complain that women should be allowed to lend an existence which was strictly speaking neither secular nor religious; a monastery without enclosure, without vows, without revenues, without any security for its permanent support. Their comments were not without effect on the naturally irresolute mind of Don Giovanni Mattiotti and Fra Bartolommeo Biandii. The former, in particular, grew discontented and desponding. The direction of the order was a heavy burden to him; and his faith in Francesca’s revelations was shaken by the many worldly difficulties which he foresaw. The miraculous manner in which the Saint read his thoughts, and transmitted to him and his companion the reproofs and encouragements which were supernaturally addressed to them through the medium of one of her visions, opened their eyes to a sense of their pusillanimity, and made them ashamed of their misgivings.
Another threatened trial was, by the mercy of God, turned into a consolation. One of the youngest of the Oblates, Augustina Coluzzi, was the only child of her mother, who was a widow. This mother had made a generous sacrifice to God in gladly surrendering this beloved daughter to the exclusive service of Him who had called her to that high vocation; but she had miscalculated her sacrifice, or, perhaps, trusted too much to her own strength. When the sacrifice was made, the human feelings rose in her heart with terrible violence, and life appeared to her as one dreary blank, now that her home was shorn of its light, now that the beloved child of her heart had ceased to gladden her eyes. Self-reproach for their vain repinings heightened her misery, and misery at last grew into despair. In an instant of wild recklessness she seized a knife, and was about to destroy herself, when, like an angel at the hour of her utmost need, her daughter was at her side, and arrested her arm. It was so against all rules and all probabilities that she should have come to her at that moment, that she gazed on her in silent astonishment. Francesca was in prayer at the moment, when Satan had been tempting the unfortunate woman; and the dreadful danger she was in was miraculously revealed to her. She instantly ordered Augustina to leave what she was about, and hurry to her mother. The young girl arrived in time; and so great was th” impression which this merciful interposition produced on the mother, so deep her sense of the peril to which her soul had been exposed, that she hastened to throw herself at Francesca’s feet, and with blessings on her and on her daughter, she expressed her gratitude for Augustina’s vocation, and her earnest wish that she should remain faithful to it.
Another trial arose in those early days at Tor di Specchi from the resolution formed by a wealthy young heiress to join the order. She belonged to one of the noblest families in Rome, and was bent on employing her fortune in supporting the infant congregation. Francesca was reluctant to receive her; but, over persuaded by the opinions of others, she gave way. A violent opposition immediately arose; and there was no end to the calumnies and vituperations which were employed on the occasion. Francesca, again enlightened by a divine intimation, insisted on restoring the young person to her family; and a rule was henceforward made that none but persons of a more advanced age should be admitted into the order.
These and many other difficulties rendered it very desirable that the approval of the Holy Father should set its seal on the work, and furnish it with a shield against the malice of the world. The permissions which they sought were as follows: 1st, that the Oblates should be allowed the rights to live in community, and to admit other persons into their society; 2d, that they might elect for themselves a superioress; 3d, that this superioress should have the power of choosing a confessor for the house; 4th, that they should have a chapel in which to hear Mass, to go to confession and to communion, and be exempted from the jurisdiction of the parish and the parish priests. This scheme was fully approved of by the three coadjutors; but it was some time before Don Giovanni could be induced to lay it before the sovereign Pontiff. He alleged that the disturbed state of Rome, and the many distracting cares which were besetting the Holy Father, held out no prospect of success in such a mission; but, urged by various irresistible proofs that God willed that he should undertake it, he at last consented. The petition was framed in the name of the Oblates, Francesca absolutely refusing to be mentioned as the foundress. While he bent his way to the pontifical palace, the Oblates of Tor di Specchi and the monks of Santa Maria Nuova joined in fervent prayer to God for the success of his application. Eugenius IV. received Francesca’s messenger with great kindness, and bade him carry back to her assurances of his favourable disposition towards the congregation, recommending himself at the same time to her prayers and to those of her sisters. He commended the examination of the case to Gaspard, Archbishop of Conza, and enjoined him to verify the facts recited in the petition, and to communicate on the subject with the prior and the monks of Santa Maria Nuova; and if satisfied with the result, to grant the privileges therein requested. The archbishop applied himself with diligence to the execution of these orders; and the original document in which this authorisation is recorded still exists amongst the archives of the monastery. It stipulates that the Oblates shall be subject to the jurisdiction of the superior and of the monks of Santa Maria Nuova, and that they may continue to inhabit the house of Tor di Specchi until such time as they shall have made purchase of another. A short time afterwards the Oblates, full of gratitude and joy at the favours which had been granted them, and every day more satisfied with their abode, solicited and obtained permission to remain in it in perpetuity. This last transaction took place at the very time when Rome was given up to anarchy, and frightful disorders reigned within its walls; when the pontifical magistrates had been thrust aside, and furious demagogues installed in their places. The Pope had taken refuge in Bologna, and it is from that town that is dated the last-mentioned decree. The congregation was successively confirmed by three of the generals of the Olivetan order; and in 1444 Eugenius IV. extended still further the privileges and franchises of the Oblates.
Francesca was deeply impressed with the responsibility she had incurred in the establishment of her congregation, and felt herself bound to advance more and more in virtue herself, as well as further the piety of her spiritual daughters. During her visits to the convent she used to work indiscriminately in the kitchen or in the parlour; waited at table, and cleaned the plates, as it might happen; and could not bear to be treated with the least distinction. In coming in, and in going away, she always reverently kissed the hand of Agnese de Sellis the superioress, and asked for her blessing. She sometimes accompanied the sisters to her vineyard near Saint Paul without the Walls, where they gathered wood, and carried it back to Rome bound in faggots for burning. She gently reproved one of the Oblates who, on one of these occasions, sought to screen her from observation when an illustrious personage was passing by. She took them with her to visit the hospitals and the poverty-houses in the city: and the miraculous cures which she performed in their presence confirmed their faith, and inflamed them with the most ardent desire to imitate her example.
At the time that the misfortunes of Rome were at their height, Francesca appeared one morning at the monastery, and gathering around her her spiritual daughters, she thus addressed them: “What shall we do, my children? The wrath of God is warring fierce against our unhappy country; Rome is in the hands of cruel and lawless men; the Holy Father in exile; his ministers prison, his life sought after as if he were an odious oppressor, and we know not when to look for his return. Immorality is increasing, vice triumphant, hell yawning for souls which Christ’s blood has redeemed, and those who ought to extinguish do but excite the flame, and draw upon us the just judgment of God. The Blessed Virgin requires at our hands more fervent prayers, more tears, more penances. We must supply for the great dearth of love. Mortifications and prayer are the weapons we are furnished with; our hearts are the victims which must he slain for men’s sins; our tears must quench those unholy fires; we shall not be true Oblates until we have made a complete sacrifice of ourselves, of our souls and of our bodies, to the Lord. We are few; but do not doubt the strength of prayer. Let us be fervent and persevere, and soon we shall reap the fruit of our intense supplications, of our long-continued pleadings; and liberty, peace, and all God’s blessings, will be restored to Rome.” Francesca’s exhortations had their effect, and the fervent prayers they drew forth had theirs also; for in the same year the Bishops of Recaunti and of Turpia reassumed, in the Pope’s name, possession of the city; and the Romans, wearied with anarchy, gladly welcomed their rule.
A more terrible evil, a more appalling danger now threatened not only Rome but the whole Catholic world. The undutiful conduct of the Council of Basle, with the violence of their language with regard to the Holy See, brought matters to such a point that a deplorable schism appeared inevitable. Pope Eugenius was divided between the fear of hurrying it on, and that of compromising by undue concessions the legitimate authority of the Chair of Peter. It was at this juncture that the Blessed Virgin appeared one night to Francesca, surrounded by saints and apostles, serenely beautiful, and with a compassionate expression in her countenance. After some preliminary spiritual instructions, she intimated to the Saint that God was waiting to have mercy, and that His wrath had to be softened by assiduous prayers and good works. She named certain religious exercises, certain penitential practices; which were to be observed on the principal feasts of the ensuing year; and recommending to the faithful in general, and more particularly to the Oblates, a great purity of heart, a sincere contrition for past sin, and a spirit of earnest charity, she charged Francesca to see that her orders were complied with; and disappeared after bestowing her blessing. It was in vain, however, that this revelation was communicated by Don Giovanni to the clergy of Rome. They rejected it as the dream of a pious and sickly woman; and even the most earnest amongst them absolutely declined to attach to it the slightest importance. Not so the Vicar of Christ, when Francesca’s confessor carried to him at Bologna the message of the saint; he listened to it with reverence and gratitude, and sent back by his means all the necessary mandates for the execution of the orders which the Blessed Virgin had given. When he arrived at Tor di Specchi, Francesca met him; and before he could open his mouth, she gave him an exact account of all that had taken place on his journey, and of the very words which the Holy Father had used during their interview. The Pope’s directions were attended to, the appointed Masses said, the processions organised; and in a short time it was seen that a favourable result ensued. The Pope was happily inspired to convene the council that met at Ferrara, and subsequently continued its labours at Florence. This at last put an end to the pretensions of the illegal assembly at Basle, and the wounds of the Church were gradually healed. There was but one opinion at the time as to the cause of this favourable change in the aspect of affairs. It was unanimously ascribed to the prayers of Francesca and to the Pope’s compliance with the orders she had received; and in the process of her canonisation this point is treated of at length, and satisfactorily established; and those who are acquainted with the extreme caution observed on these occasions in admitting evidence on such a subject, will he impressed with the conviction that she was used as an instrument of God’s mercy towards His suffering Church.
CHAPTER XIII – DEATH OF FRANCESCA’S HUSBAND – SHE GOES TO RESIDE WITH THE COMMUNITY OF TOR DI SPECCC – HER LIFE AS SUPERIORESS
Francesca had been forty years married to Lorenzo Ponziano; and through her married life, the heart that had been consecrated to God from the first dawn of existence had been faithful in its love to him whom God Himself had appointed to be her chief earthly care: and blessed had been the course of that union; blessed by the tender affection which had reigned between the husband and the wife, and by the exercise of no common virtues, multiplied by the pursuits of one common object. Francesca had led the way; in meekness, in humility, in subjection; but with a single aim and an unwavering purpose. Many and severe trials had been their portion at different epochs of their lives; but the latter part of Lorenzo’s existence had been comparatively tranquil. Lorenzo was the first to be called away. God spared him the trial he had probably dreaded. We seldom are called upon to suffer the particular grief that fancy has dwelt upon. His health had been breaking for some years past, and now it utterly failed, and his disease assumed an alarming character. Francesca, though apparently worn out with toil, with abstinence, and mental and bodily labours, found strength for every duty, and energy for every emergency. During Lorenzo’s prolonged and painful illness, she was always at his side, nursing him with indefatigable tenderness, and completing the work which her example had wrought. His passage from life to eternity appeared but a journey. The efforts of Satan to disturb him on his death-bed, though often repeated, were each time frustrated. Lorenzo had been a just man, and his death was the death of the righteous. Few men would have shown themselves as worthy as he did of such a wife as Francesca. From the moment of his marriage he had appreciated her virtues, rejoiced in her piety, encouraged her good works, and to a great extent shared in them. No mean feelings of jealousy, no human respect, no worldly sentiment of expediency had influenced him. When he saw her renouncing all the pleasures and vanities of the world, dressing like a poor person, wearing herself out in the zeal of her charity, turning the half of his palace into a hospital, he did not complain, but rather rejoiced that she was one of those “whom fools have for a time in derision, and for a parable of reproach; whose life is esteemed madness, and their end without honour; but who are numbered amongst the children of God, and whose lot is amongst the saints.” He had his reward; he had it when his sight failed him and his breath grew short, when he felt that his hour was come. He had it when in his dying ears she whispered words of peace; and Satan, with a cry of despair, for ever fled away from his couch; and when the everlasting portals opened, and the sentence was pronounced at the immediate judgment that follows death. Masses, prayers, fervent communions, and pious suffrages followed him beyond the grave; and when the saint, who had been the model of wives, stood by that grave a widow, her earthly task was, in one sense, done: but work remained; but it was of another sort. From her earliest youth she bad been a nun in spirit; and the heart which had sighed for the cloister in childhood yearned for its shelter in these her latter days. She must go and live in the shade of the tabernacle; she must be alone with her Lord during the few remaining years of life. This must have been foreseen by her children; and yet, like all trials of the kind, however long looked forward to, it came upon them at last as a surprise. When she said, “I must go,” there was a loud cry of sorrow in the Ponziano palace. Baptista, the only son of her love, wept aloud. Mobilia threw herself into her arms, and with impetuous grief, protested against her leaving them. “Are you not afraid for me?” she exclaimed, “if you abandon me, you who have taught me to love God and to serve Him I What am I without you? Too much, too tenderly you have loved me. It cannot be that you should forsake me. I cannot endure existence without you.” Her grandchildren also, whom she was tenderly attached to, clung to her, weeping. Moved by their tears, but unshaken in her resolution, she gently consoled them; bade them recollect that she was still to inhabit Rome; that her affection for them would be unchanged, and that she would always be at hand to advise and to aid them; but that her vocation must now he fulfilled, and the sacrifice completed. Then turning to Mobilia, as to a dearly-beloved child, she fondly said, “Do not weep, my daughter; you will survive me, and bear witness to my memory.” This prediction was fulfilled; for Mobilia was alive at the time that the process for Francesca’s canonisation was commenced, and the testimony she gave to her virtues and to her miracles was on that occasion most important, and the most detailed.
After this, Francesca took leave of her family, and went straight to the Tor di Specchi. It was on the 21st of March, the festival of Saint Benedict, that she entered its walls, not as the foundress but as a humble suppliant for admission. At the foot of the stairs, having taken off her black gown, her veil, and her shoes, and placed a cord around her neck, she knelt down, kissed the ground, and, shedding an abundance of tears, made her general confession aloud in the presence of all the Oblates; described herself as a miserable sinner, a grievous offender against God, and asked permission to dwell amongst them as the meanest of their servants; and to learn from them to amend her life, and enter upon a holier course. The spiritual daughters of Francesca hastened to raise and to embrace her; and clothing her with their habit, they led the way to the chapel, where they all returned thanks to God. While she remained there engaged in prayer, Agnese de Sellis the superioress, assembled the sisters in the chapter-room, and declared to them, that now that their true mother and foundress had come amongst them, it would be absurd for her to remain in her present office; that Francesca was their guide, their head, and that into her hands she would instantly resign her authority. They all applauded her decision, and gathering around the Saint, announced to her their wishes. As was to be expected, Francesca strenuously refused to accede to this proposal, and pleaded her inability to the duties of a superioress. The Oblates had recourse to Don Giovanni, who began by entreating, and finally commanded her acceptance of the charge. His orders she never resisted; and accordingly, on the 25th of March, she was duly elected to that office.
She was favoured with a vision which strengthened and encouraged her in the new task she had before her. The angel who for twenty-four years had been by her side, defending and assisting her on all occasions, took leave of her now with a benignant smile, and in his place another, more refulgent still, was ordained to stand. By day and by night he was continually weaving a mysterious woof, the threads of which seemed to grow out of the mystical palm which he carried. Saint Benedict appeared to Franceses on the day of her election, and explained to her the meaning of those symbols. Gold was the type of the love and charity which was to govern her dealings with her daughters, while the palm implied the triumph she was to obtain over human weakness and human respect. The unceasing labours of the angel was to mark the unwearied efforts she was to use for the right ordering and spiritual welfare of the community intrusted to her care; and truly she laboured with indefatigable zeal in her new vocation. She had ever before her eyes the words of Saint Paul to Timothy and to Titus: “Preach the word. Be patient in season and out of season. Entreat, rebuke, in all patience and doctrine. In all things show thyself an example of good works, in doctrine, in integrity, in gravity.” Preaching far more by her actions than by her words, she gave an example of the most heroic virtues. It would be difficult to imagine any thing mom perfect than her life in the world; but the new duties, the new privileges of her present vocation added each day new splendour to her virtues. She appointed Agnese de Sellis her coadjutress, and begged her to share her room, and watch over her conduct, entreating her at the same time to warn her of every fault she might commit. Her strictness with her spiritual children, though tempered by love, was extreme. She never left a single imperfection unreproved, and allowed of no infractions, however slight, of the rule. Sometimes, when through shyness or false shame, they concealed some trifling offence which they were bound to confess, she read their hearts, and reminded them not to give Satan a hold upon them by such reserve. She was most careful of their health, and sought to procure them as often as she could some innocent recreation. They used occasionally to go with her to one or other of her vine-gardens without the walls, to take exercise in the pure open air. Francesca’s gentle gaiety on these occasions increased their enjoyment; and the labour of gathering wood and grass, of making up faggots, and carrying away their spoil on their heads at night, was a part of their amusement. The conversation that was carried on between them the while was as merry as it was innocent. These young persons, born in palaces and bred in luxury, worked like peasants, with more than a peasant’s lightness of heart.
One fine sunny January day – and those who have inhabited Rome well know how fine a January day can be – Francesca and seven or eight of her companions had been since early dawn in the vine-gardens of Porta Portese. They had worked hard for several hours, and then suddenly remembered that they had brought no provision with them. They soon became faint and hungry, and above all very thirsty. Perna, the youngest of all the Oblates, was particularly heated and tired, and approaching the Mother Superior, with a wearied expression of countenance, she asked permission to go and drink some water at a fountain some way off on the public road.
“Be patient, my child,” Francesca answered; “the fountain is too distant.” She was afraid of these young persons drinking cold water, heated as they were by toil and exposure to the sun. They went on with their work; and withdrawing aside, Francesca knelt down, clasped her hands, and with her eyes raised to heaven, said, “Lord Jesus, I have been thoughtless in bringing my sisters here, and forgetting to provide food for them. Help us in our need.”
Perna, who had kept near to the Mother Superior, probably with the intention of urging her request, overheard this prayer, and, a little irritated by the feverish thirst she was enduring, said to herself with some impatience, “It would be more to the purpose to take us home at once.”
Francesca read the inward thought, and turning to the discontented girl she said, “My child, you do not trust enough in God. Look up and see.” Perna obeyed, and following the direction of Francesca’s hand, she saw a vine entwined around a tree, from whose dead and leafless branches were hanging a number of the finest bunches of grapes, of that purple and burnished hue which the fervid sunbeams of August and September impart to that glorious fruit.
“A miracle! a miracle!” exclaimed the enraptured Perna; and the other Oblates assembled round the tree in speechless astonishment, for they had seen all day the bare and withered branches. Twenty times at least they had passed and repassed before it; and at all events the season for grapes had long gone by.
After kneeling to give thanks to God for this gracious prodigy, they spread a cloth on the grass, and gathered the precious fruit. There were exactly as many bundles as persons present; and with smiling faces and joyful hearts Francesca’s children fed on the supply which her prayer had obtained for them. Obedience was a virtue of which the Saint herself gave a most perfect example, and which she unremittingly required of others. One of the Oblates having refused one day to comply with an order she had received, Francesca fixed her eyes upon her with an expression of so much severity, that the person in question suddenly fainted away, and remained afterwards speechless and in a state of insensibility. The doctors were sent for, and declared that her life was in imminent danger. This was a severe trial to the Saint; she could not reproach herself for a severity which had been a matter of duty, not of passion, but at the same time she trembled for the soul of one who had apparently lost the use of reason at the very moment she was committing a serious fault. After addressing a fervent prayer to God, and invoking the Blessed Virgin, she went straight to the bed-side of the sister, and taking her by the hand with great solemnity, addressed to her these words: “If it be true that our congregation is approved of God, and has His Holy Mother for its foundress, in the name of Holy Obedience, I command you to speak to me.” The Oblate seemed to awake from a long dream, and opening her eyes, she distinctly said, “Mother, what would you have me to do?” From that moment she rallied, and was soon restored to health.
Another time, when an aged member of the congregation was dying, and every moment expected to be her last, Franceses prayed that she might not be allowed to depart in the absence of Don Giovanni, the director of the house. For six days and six nights the sick woman lingered between life and death. On the arrival of her spiritual father she revived, went to confession, and received the last Sacrament Then, as she again sank into insensibility, Francesca bent over her and said, “Sister Catherine, depart in peace, and pray for us;” and in that instant the aged woman expired.
The poverty of the congregration was extreme. The slender means of the first Oblates had been exhausted by the purchase of the house and the erection of a small chapel. Francesca had indeed made over to it her two vineyards of Porta Portese and of Saint Paul without the Walls; but the trifling revenue they furnished was wholly inadequate to the support of fifteen persons; and moreover the religions were so endued with the spirit of their foundress, that they never could bring themselves to turn away a beggar from their doors as long as they had a slice of bread to bestow. They often went a whole day without eating, rather than deny themselves the happiness of feeding the poor. Francesca, happy in the virtues of her children, but tenderly anxious for their welfare, was indefatigable in her efforts to procure them the necessaries of life. She used on these occasions to beg of her relations, or even of strangers; and Almighty God allowed her sometimes to provide for them in a miraculous manner.
One day that the sister whose turn it was to attend to the victualling department found herself unable to put upon the table any thing but two or three small fragments of bread, she went to consult the Saint, who immediately proposed to go out with her and beg. According to her invariable custom, she asked Agnese de Sellis, her coadjutoress, for permission so to do. Contrary to her habit on such occasions, Agnese refused, and said, that if it was necessary for any one to beg, she, with another of the sisters, would undertake it. Then Francesca, after a moment’s thought, replied, “I think that God will provide for us without any one going out of the house;” and calling the Oblates to the refectory, she asked a blessing on the bread, and distributed it in minute portions amongst them. Each on beginning to eat her share saw it multiply apace; and not only were their wants thus supplied at the moment, but enough remained when they had done to furnish them with food for the next day.
The gift of prophecy she also exercised more frequently than ever at this period. Once, when she was praying in her cell, the nuns heard her exclaim, “O King of Heaven, support and comfort that poor unhappy mother;” and some hours afterwards, they heard that at that very moment a young nobleman, Jacobo Maddaleni, had been thrown from his horse and killed on the spot, to the inexpressible grief of his mother. Lorenzo Altieri was dying, and his wife Palozza overwhelmed with sorrow; she had several young children, and was almost in despair at the idea of losing her husband. The physician had declared his case hopeless; and when she sent for Francesca her heart was breaking. The Saint came up to her, and said compassionately, “Dear sister, give up the love and the vanities of the world, and God will take pity upon you. Lorenzo will yet recover; he will be present at my burial.” The prediction was fulfilled, and Lorenzo, restored to health, assisted, as she had said, at the funeral of the Saint; and Palozza, whose heart had been entirely converted at that moment, and who had vowed in case of his death to retire into a convent, whenever her children could spare her, led henceforward, in every respect, the life of a Christian wife and mother.
The Superioress of the Sisters of the third order of Saint Francis consulted her one day on the admission of a young girl, who had requested to be admitted among them. Francesca had not seen or known any thing of the candidate, but unhesitatingly answered, that the vocation was not a real one, and she recommended that she should be refused. “She will enter another monastery,” she added, “and after remaining in it a short time, will return to the world, and soon after she will die.” It happened exactly as the Saint had foretold: Francesca da Fabrica went into the convent of Casa di Cento Finestre, on the shores of the Tiber, gave up the habit before the end of the year, and a sharp fever carried her off soon after her return. Gregorio and Gentilesca Selli had a little girl of four years old, who was paralysed, and up to her waist her frame appeared completely withered. They had often been urged to have recourse to the spells or charms then so much in vogue, but had always refused to seek a blessing through such means. They were carrying the little child to Francesca, full of faith in her prayers, which they were coming to ask, when she exclaimed at the first sight of them: “Happy are you who have not sought your child’s recovery in unlawful ways. In three days, my friends, she will be restored to health;” and the prediction was fulfilled to the letter.
It would be useless to multiply such recitals as these. As she advances in years, especially since her retirement at Tor di Specchi, more and more frequent become the exercise of those supernatural gifts with which God had endowed the gentle Saint of Rome. No day elapses that some new prodigy does not call forth the grateful enthusiasm of the warm-hearted and devout Trasteverini. If a child is trodden under foot by a runaway horse, Francesca is sent for, and at the sight of the Saint he revives. If a young boatman, in the prime of youth, is thrown into the Tiber, and curried away by the stream under the arches of the Ponte Rotto, from whence his afflicted mother receives him into her arms without a symptom of life, she calls out to her friends, “Run, ran to the servant of God: go to Francesca dei Ponziano, and bid her pray for the boy.” And when they return, the mother is weeping still over her apparently lifeless child; but they shout from a distance, “The servant of God says he will not die;” and in a few instants, Paul Guidolini opens his eyes, and smiles on his mother, who some years later becomes one of the Oblates of Tor di Specchi. If Francesca sits down for a moment to rest on the steps of a church, as she did one Good Friday, after the service at Saint Peter’s, a paralytic woman kneels at her feet, and obtains that she should lay her hand on her withered limbs, which are instantly restored. There is no illness on record which her prayers, or the touch of her hand, does not dispel and subdue. She restores sight to the blind, the dumb speak, the deaf hear, the lame walk at her bidding; pestilence and madness and fits and wounds and possession itself disappear before the power with which Almighty God has endued her; and she walks this earth of ours dispensing blessings, as the faithful handmaid of Him who went about doing good.
At the same time, more and more ecstatic grew her prayers, more visible to all eyes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in her soul, more removed from the natural conditions of existence the tenour of her life. At the hours of meals, which she observed in obedience to the rule, her companions notice that she hardly ever eats, but that her face is turned to the window, and her eyes fixed on the sky, while rays of light seem to play around her, and her countenance grows dazzling from the celestial brightness which overspreads it. Longer and longer became her orisons; often in visiting a church she falls into an ecstasy, which lasts till night. The sublimity of her vision, the glimpses of heaven which she enjoys, the sight of angels, and of the Lord of angels, is occasionally exchanged for the terrific apparitions, the renewed assaults of Satan, who attack her at times with redoubled violence, now that her ultimate triumph is at hand, and the crown about to descend on a brow which already shines with the mystic radiance of sanctity. The old frescoes of the original chapel of Tor di Specchi represent some of these mysterious struggles between Francesca and the Evil One; and her cell bears the impress of that strange violence which Satan is permitted to exercise at certain moments, and which is the type of the warfare which is ever waged between him and God’s Church. He can shake it at times by the storms he raises; but vain are his attempts to overthrow it. The mark of Satan’s fury is stamped on the roof of Franceses’s lowly cell; but the relics of the canonised Saint now fill the chamber which, in his impotent rage, the tempter once sought to destroy. But this life of wonders, of trials, and of miracles, was drawing to a close. She who had been the holiest of maidens, of wives, and of widows, had all but finished her course, and many were the intimations she received of her approaching end.
On one of these occasions she selected one of the chapels in Santa Maria Nuova as a place of sepulture for the Oblates, and obtained from the Olivetan Monks that it should be reserved for that purpose. She often spoke of her death to the sisters, and told Rita, one of the companions of her youth, that she would succeed her in the government of the congregation. Don Ippolito, one of her coadjutors in the foundation of the order, had often implored two favours of her, that she would look upon him as her spiritual son, and that she would summon him to her death-bed. She assured him that the prayers of such a worthless sinner as herself were not deserving of a thought; but, moved by his importunities, she promised in the end to comply with his request. Accordingly, towards the end of the year 1439, when he was in Sienna on business, he received a letter from Francesca, in which she reminded him of his desire to be present at her last moments, and in consequence exhorted him to conclude his affairs, and return to Rome as soon as possible, which he accordingly did. On Christmas-day and on the Feast of Saint Stephen she had visions of the Blessed Virgin and of the infant Jesus, which she communicated to Don Ippolito in the church of Santa Maria Nuova, where she had gone on her way back from San Lorenzo without the Walls and Saint John of Lateran, which she had successively visited. The religious said to her with emotion: “Mother, you will now grant me the favour I have so often asked of you.”
“Yes,” replied the Saint, who had been all day in a kind of ecstasy, though she moved from one place to another; “yes; I look upon you now as my father, as my brother, and as my son.” And so saying she left him, and returned to Tor di Specchi, still absorbed in contemplation.
Don Ippolito followed her with his eyes till she had disappeared from his sight, and joy and sorrow were struggling in his heart; for he felt that the time was come for her great gain and her children’s unspeakable loss.
Francesca was fifty-six years old. Her frame, worn out with labour, with fastings, and austerities, was enfeebled also by frequent illnesses; but her activity, her indomitable energy, was still the same. She never flagged, never wearied, never gave way under the pressure of physical or moral sufferings. It was probably a trial of the latter description, one which she had always been keenly alive to, that hurried her end.
A fresh schism broke out in the Church, to the scandal and grief of all the faithful. The refractory bishops assembled at Basle, ventured to decree the deposition of Pope Eugenius, and to elect as anti-pope the aged Amadeus, Duke of Tuscany, who had abdicated in favour of his son, and was living as a hermit on the shores of the Lake of Geneva. The usurper took the name of Felix V., and this unhappy schism lasted ten years. Francesca turned to heaven her weary eyes – she besought her Lord to take her away from this scene of trial: too keenly did she feel the woes of the Church; too deeply did she sorrow over these renewed conflicts, and the consequent dangers to which the souls of Christians were exposed. Perhaps it was given to her in that hour to foresee the fearful storm that was lowering over the Church, – the monster heresy that, in less than a century, was to rise against the Mystical Bride of Christ, and rob her of her children.
On the 3d of March, 1440, Francesca was sent for by her son Baptista, who was laid up with a sharp attack of fever. She instantly obeyed the summons; and, on arriving at the Ponziano palace, found him already much better, and able to leave his bed; but, at the earnest request of the whole family, she agreed to spend the whole day with them, the Oblate Augustina, who had accompanied her, also remaining to return with her at night. Towards evening she grew so weak that she could hardly stand; and Baptista and Mobilia implored her to stay at the palace, or else to let herself be carried in a litter to the convent; but she persisted in setting out on foot. Stopping on her way at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, she went in to ask, for the last time, her spiritual father’s blessing, and found Don Giovanni in the Chapel of the Angels – that spot where she had so often been favoured with divine revelations. As he was inquiring after Baptista, he was struck with the more than habitual paleness of her face, and the evident exhaustion she was labouring under, and commanded her, as a matter of obedience, instantly to return to the Ponziano Palace, and to spend the night there, This order was a severe trial to Francesca, for she felt at once that if she was not now to return to Tor di Specchi, she would never again enter those hallowed walls; but, faithful to the spirit of perfect obedience, she meekly bowed her head in token of submission, and went back to her son’s house.
In the course of the night a virulent fever came on, and in the morning she was as ill as possible. Francesca’s first care was to send for her director, and to request him to apprise her spiritual daughters of her illness. Four of them (Agnese, Rita, Catherina, and Anastasia,) hurried to her side; and when they heard her entreat Don Giovanni not to omit any of the necessary precautions for her soul’s welfare, they all burst into tears, and seemed at once to understand that their beloved mother was about to leave them. Francesca gently consoled them, and dismissed them towards the evening, only keeping with her Augustina, who watched her during the night, and witnessed the ecstasy during which the following vision was vouchsafed to the sufferer: – Our Lord appeared, surrounded with angels and with saints, and announced to her that in seven days she would die, and receive the crown which was prepared for her in heaven. Sister Augustina saw her face shining with supernatural brightness; a radiant smile playing on her lips, and heard her say with ineffable unction: “Be Thou eternally praised and blessed, O my dear Lord Jesus Christ! Thanks be to Thee for the unmerited favours I have received at Thy hands. To Thee, to Thee alone, do I owe all the blessings I have, and have yet to receive.” When Don Giovanni saw her afterwards, he imagined she was rallying; but she related to him her vision, and bade him tell her daughters that her end was approaching. Their tears and their sobs choked their utterance; and the Saint gently reproved that excess of sorrow, and bade them rejoice with her, and bless the Divine goodness for the great mercy that was shown to her. During the next two days she suffered much; but no word or sound of complaint escaped her. Her face was as serene as if her body had been perfectly free from pain; and to those who expressed a hope that she would yet recover, she only answered with a sweet smile, “God be praised, my pilgrimage will end from Wednesday to Thursday next.” She asked for the Sacraments, confessed, went to communion, and received Extreme Unction. Ardent ejaculatory prayers, devout aspirations, burning expressions of love, were ever rising from her heart to her lips. Each day she repeated, as if she had been in perfect health, the Office of the Blessed Virgin, the Rosary, and all her usual prayers. The Oblates watched by her in turns, and Mobilia hardly ever left her side; so that the smallest particulars of that wonderful death-bed were carefully recorded. Francesca allowed all those who wished to see her to come in. She had words of advice, of warning, and of consolation for all.
When the news of her illness was spread in Rome, the heart of the great city was stirred to its very depths, and a mournful, anxious, loving multitude beset the palace and the very bed of the dying Saint. Nowise disturbed or annoyed at this oppressive testimony of their affection, she had a smile, or a look, or a kind word for each. No cloud obscured her understanding; no irritability affected her temper. Peace was within and around her, and heaven’s own calm on her brow and in her heart. The evil spirits, the arch-enemy himself – who, for her sanctification and the glory of God, had been permitted so often to haunt her path and assault her during life – are banished now, and stand at bay, gazing, no doubt, from afar, with envious rage, on that peace which they may no longer mar. Don Giovanni, who had known so well her former trials, often inquired, during her last illness, if Satan’s ministers were molesting her. “No,” she wouldd answer, with a smile; “I see them no more. God has conquered; His foes have fled.” But the bright archangel, whose task is nearly at an end, is still at his post; he weaves the last threads of the mystic woof, and seems to make haste to finish his work. The halo of light which surrounds him grows brighter and brighter, and Francesca’s dying form reflects that splendour.
On the Monday morning she is still in the same state. Glorious visions pass before her; divine forms bend over her, and whisper words of welcome. During Mass, which her confessor says in her room, the Lord Himself appears to her again; and from the consecrated Host He speaks to her entranced soul. The Blessed Virgin and the angels surround her, and the voices of the blest make sweet music in her ears. Late on that day, when her ecstasy was over, the weeping Oblates surround her bed, and with suppliant accents implore her to ask of God yet to leave her upon earth, for the sake of the souls intrusted to her care. It was a hard request: to have had a glimpse of heaven, and to turn back; to have tasted the cup of celestial bliss, and to draw back from its sweetness! Full of love, of pity, of resignation, of holy indifference, she exclaims: “God’s will is my will; His good pleasure mine. If He Chooses me to tarry yet on earth, so be it then. I am ready to remain in this miserable world, if He commands it.”
But it was not ordained. The next day she grew rapidly worse, and from that time slept not again. “I shall soon rest in God,” she replied to those who were urging her to repose. The Oblates once more kneel around her to receive her last instructions: one of them alone, Francesca del Veruli, is kept away by a severe illness, which confines her to her bed. Touching were the last words of the dying mother to her spiritual children; sweet the words of blessing she pronounced on their heads. Love, love, was the burden of her teaching, as it had been that of the beloved disciple. “Love one another (she said), and be faithful unto death. Satan will assault you, as he has assaulted me; but be not afraid. You will overcome him through patience and obedience; and no trial will be too grievous, if you are united to Jesus; if you walk in His ways, He will be with you.” Then with earnest accents she thanked Don Giovanni, in her own name and in that of the order, for all he had done to them; and commended the Oblates to his fatherly care.
At that moment her son Baptista entered the room. His mother sat up in the bed, and gazing upon him with an expression of anxious scrutiny, she said: “And can it be that you quarrel with poor shepherds? And do you rob God of His glory by unlawful dealings with hell?” The persons who were standing around the bed looked at each other in surprise, and imagined that Francesca was delirious; but Baptista’s countenance and actions soon undeceived them. Tears rushed into his eyes, and with great emotion he publicly acknowledged that he had been guilty of striking, in his anger, some peasants who had injured his fields, and had gone to consult in secret one of the persons who dealt in occult sciences, as to the possibility of his mother’s recovery. No one but himself knew of his twofold sin; and the rebuke of the dying Saint came upon him as a direct reproof from God, and an awful warning for the rest of his life. As the day advanced, Francesca grew weaker and weaker; but the flame of love was burning more brightly, as that of life was waning. “What are you saying?” asked Don Giovanni at one moment, on seeing her lips move. “The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin,” she answered in a scarcely audible voice. As an infant almost she had begun that practice; and on the eve of her death she had not yet omitted it. On the seventh day of her illness, as she had herself announced, her life came to a close. A sublime expression animated her face; a more ethereal beauty clothed her earthly form. Her confessor for the last time inquires what it is her enraptured eyes behold, and she whispers, “The heavens open! The angels descend! The archangel has finished his task. He stands before me. He beckons to me to follow him.” These are the last words that Francesca utters; a smile of indescribable brightness beams from her face. The eyes that have so long been closed to the vanities of life are now closed in death, and her spirit has taken its final leave of earth.
CHAPTER XV – FRANCESCA’S FUNERAL, AND HER SUBSEQUENT CANONIZATION
The body of the Saint remained during a night and a day at the Ponziano palace, the Oblates watching by turns over the beloved remains. Their grief was tempered with joy, for they felt she was in heaven; though the pang of separation was keen, and their home on earth desolate. Don Giovanni, Don Ippolito, and Don Francesco dello Schiano recited the prayers of the Church over the corpse; and though deeply affected themselves, strove to console the bereaved sisterhood, chiefly by extolling the rare merits and the heroic virtues of their departed mother. Almighty God vouchsafed, even during the first night of their loving watch, to give them a proof of that sanctity which was so soon to be triumphantly demonstrated. Sister Margaret, of the third order of Saint Frances, had been present at Francesca’s death, and remained by her side during the night that followed. Her arm had been paralysed for six months, and to all appearance withered. Inspired with a lively faith, she touched the body of the Saint, and was instantaneously cured. The Oblates all fell on their knees at the sight of this miracle, and blessed God for the earnest He thus gave of the wonders which Francesca’s intercession was to accomplish. Each moment they were confirmed in the blessed assurance of her immediate admission into heaven; each moment brought with it a new occasion for joyful exultation. The sweet perfume, the “odour of sanctity,” which expression is so often supposed to be simply metaphorical, whereas it often indicates an actual physical and miraculous fact, soon pervaded the room and filled it with fragrance. Francesca’s face, which had recently borne the traces of age and of suffering, became as beautiful again as in the days of youth and prosperity; and the astonished bystanders gazed with wonder and awe at that unearthly loveliness. Many of them carried away particles from her clothes, and employed them for the cure of several persons who had been considered beyond the possibility of recovery. In the course of the day, the crowd augmented to a degree which alarmed the inhabitants of the palace, and Baptista took measures to have the body removed at once to the church and a procession of the regular and secular clergy escorted the venerated remains to Santa Maria Nuova, where they were to be interred.
The popular feeling burst forth on the occasion; it was no longer to be restrained: a sort of pious insurrection, which the Church smiles upon, even though it refuses to sanction it; as a mother can scarcely rebuke a somewhat irregular action in one of her children when it springs from a generous feeling, even though she feels herself bound to check it. “Francesca was a saint – Francesca was in heaven.” Francesca was invoked by the crowd, and her beloved name was heard in every street, in every piazza, in every corner of the Eternal City. It flew from mouth to mouth; it seemed to float in the air, to be borne aloft by the grateful enthusiasm of a whole people, who had seen her walk to that church by her mother’s side in her holy childhood; who had seen her kneel at that altar in the grave beauty of womanhood, in the hour of bereavement, and now in death; carried thither in state, she the gentle, the humble Saint of Rome, the poor woman of the Trastevere, as she was sometimes called at her own desire.
Francesca del Veruli, the Oblate whom illness had detained from the death-bed of her beloved mother, hears from her sick-room the confused hum of voices, the sound of hurrying feet, which indicate the approach of the procession. Full of faith, she starts up, and with clasped hands exclaims, “Oh, my mother! oh, Francesca! I have not seen you die; I have not received your last blessing; obtain for me now that I may visit your remains.” With a violent effort, and leaning on one of her sisters, she contrives to rise and to make her way to the bier. The very instant she has touched it, her health and strength return. Meanwhile the crowd augments, and hurries into the church. They press round the precious body; they refuse to let it be buried. As a favour, as a boon of the greatest price, they obtain that the obsequies be put oft to the Saturday; and in the meantime, day and night, there is no limit to the concourse of people that assemble in the chapel. Still the saintly body exhales its perfume; still the sweet features retain their beauty; and to that spot, in an apparently never-ending succession, come the blind, and the lame, and the halt, and the sick, and the suffering; and each of those who touch the bier, or to whom is carried something that has belonged to Francesca, is instantaneously cured. Truly God was wonderful in this His Saint, and wonderful are the details of the miracles wrought during those days; and not only were the ills of the body relieved by contact with the holy corpse, but grace reaches the souls of many who have been hitherto steeled against its entrance.
Amongst others, two young men of dissolute lives and irreligious spirits, on hearing of the miracles at Santa Maria Nuova, begin to jeer and laugh on the subject, and, moved only by curiosity, go to the church, approach the bier with mock demonstrations of respect. But no sooner have they knelt before it, than their hearts are simultaneously touched; a sudden change comes over them. Having come to scoff, they remain to pray, – they rise from their knees only to seek a confessor; and return home that night converted to God, and ever after lead the lives of pious Christians. The miracles wrought before and after Francesca’s burial are so multifarious, that it might be tedious (a strange word to use on such an occasion, but nevertheless correct) to attempt to relate them all. Great was the moral effect of this singular outpouring of God’s powers through His servant. Faith grew more timid, and hope more strong; charity burned in the hearts of many with an ever-increasing fervour; and the examples which the Saint had given, and which were now dwelt upon with affectionate veneration, induced many to walk in the same path, and look to the same end. It was in Lent that she had died; and from every pulpit in Rome her praises were heard. The most eminent ecclesiastics of the time all foretold her canonisation; and the public voice and the public devotion ratified the burst of popular enthusiasm that had hailed her as a Saint on the very day of her death, and long preceded the formal recognition of her sanctity by the authority of the Church.
A few months after her death, her tomb was opened in order to remove the corpse into a monument which Baptista, Mobilia, and several Roman noblemen had erected in her honour. It was found in a state of perfect preservation, and still exhaling the same fragrance as before. The most exact and detailed examinations were taken in the year of her death, both as to all the particulars of her life, and as to the supernatural and miraculous events which had marked its course, as well as those which had succeeded her death.
From time to time earnest endeavours were made to hasten her formal canonisation. The materials were ample, and the evidence complete; but a variety of circumstances interfered with the conclusion of the process; and though several Popes, namely, Eugenius IV., Nicholas V., Pius II., Innocent VIII., and Julius II., promoted the question, it was not much advanced till the accession of Clement VIII., who had a great devotion to the Saint, and brought the matter nearly to a close; but his death occurring in the meantime, and his successor, Leo XI, only outliving him twenty-seven days, it was Paul V. (Borghese) who decreed the canonisation of Francesca, to the joy of the Oblates of Tor di Specchi, of the monks of Santa Maria Nuova, and of the whole people of Rome. Her festival was appointed to be kept on the 9th of March; and those who have been in Rome on that day can tell how vivid is the devotion that still exists, – the worship that is yet paid to the holy Francesca, the beloved Saint of the Trastevere, the model of Christian matrons; and in the church of Santa Francesca Romana, as the old Santa Maria Nuova is now called, and in the Casa dei Esercizii Pii (the old Ponziano Palace), and in the time-honoured walls of Tor di Specchi, a tribute of love and of devotion is yielded, which touches the heart, and carries the mind back to the days when, amidst the strife of war and the miseries or anarchy, faith, fresh, strong, and pure, asserted its power, and wrought wonders through such feeble instruments as a woman’s heart and a woman’s works.
On the 29th of May, 1608, in the church of Saint Peter, then lately erected, and adorned for the occasion with the utmost magnificence, after a pontifical High Mass, in the presence of the Sacred College, and of an immense affluence of strangers as well as of Romans, the decree was proclaimed which placed Francesca amongst the canonised saints, and sanctioned the worship which a devout people had paid her, with but few interruptions, since the day of her death. Rome was illuminated that night; the fiery cupola of Saint Peter, and the sound of innumerable bells, told the neighbouring plains and hills that “God had regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden,” and that, in her measure, all generations were to call her Blessed.
In 1633, the tomb of Francesca, which, in consequence of some alterations in the church, had remained out of sight for a great number of years, was, through the pious exertions of the Oblates, assisted by the abbot of Santa Maria Nuova, and the Cardinals Borghese, Barberini, and Altiere, discovered in the spot where it had been placed two centuries before. Her bones were exposed to the veneration of the faithful, and a number of religious processions and services took place on the occasion. Various miracles again gave testimony to the virtues of those holy relics, and a magnificent monument was erected beneath that altar where the Saint had so often prayed.
The authorities on which the History of Saint Frances of Rome rests are as follows: Her life by Mattiotti, her Confessor for ten years. Mattiotti enjoined her, as a matter of obedience, to relate to him from time to time her visions in the minutest detail. He was a timid and suspicious man, and for two or three years kept a daily record of all she told him; afterwards, as his confidence in her sanctity and sanity grew complete, he contented himself with a more general account of her ecstasies, and also put together a private history of her life. After her death, he wrote a regular biography, which is now to be found in the Bollandist collection (Venice, 1735, vol. ii.). Early in the seventeenth century, Ursinus, a Jesuit, wrote a life, which was highly esteemed, but which was never printed, and, except in certain fragments, is now lost. In 1641, Fuligato, a Jesuit, wrote the second life, in the Bollandist collection, which contains particulars of events that happened after Mattiotti’s time. Other well-written lives have since appeared: especially a recent one by the Vicomte de Bussiere, in which will be found various details too long to be included in the sketch here presented to the English reader.
- The text of this document was abstracted from the Project Gutenberg text of by Lady Georgiana Fullerton. It was produced as an online text by Juliet Sutherland, David Widger and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.