St. Ignatius Loyola, the great founder of the Jesuit order, a former soldier, taught others that all must listen to the God who gives them “marching orders.”
Two outstanding oblates, a married man, and woman affiliated with monastic abbeys did just that and provide a model for those who will listen. My musings were prompted by the March 9th liturgical commemoration of St. Frances of Rome, considered the founder of Benedictine oblates. As a former director of our own monastery’s oblates, I was interested enough to renew my acquaintance with to this fourteenth-century leader of non-monastics, who make promises, not vows, to follow the Rule of St. Benedict insofar as their state in life permits. The majority are married men or women, but college students and widowed are also frequently inducted. Our monastery even has online oblates. A few years ago a former oblate who was single joined our community and has professed final vows.
So, the 14th century St. Frances, a native of Rome, is credited with the origins of the lay affiliations. Most communities of monks and a number of those of nuns guide the organizations. When, however, I began a recent online search about St. Frances I found the best biography in a French source that, fortunately, I can translate.
Early in life she had been intrigued with the lives of various saints and was fond of gaining indulgences with almost daily visits to various Roman churches. Her mother put her under the guidance of an Olivetan Benedictine, Dom Antonio, that would later lead to her beginning a lay group affiliated with that abbey.
Her father dashed any hopes of her becoming a nun when he arranged that she marry Lorenzo Ponziani. They had several children, but Lorenzo’s brother’s wife, Vanozza, would become her closest friend in the future. She still met with the Benedictine monk weekly to confess and receive spiritual direction. At one point, she hovered between life and death before recovering from an almost fatal illness. After she had a vision of St. Alexis throwing his mantle over her, she immediately recovered.
Allied with her sister-in-law, Vanozza, the two resolved to divest themselves of many of their possessions, and devote themselves to lives of charity to others. Many noble women of Rome began to follow their example. Eventually, during her widowhood, Frances organized a group became a lay community following the Rule of Benedict. She was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI who declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers (and later would also be known as a patron of widows). The auto patronage was based on a legend that her guardian angel used to light her path with a lantern when she went to assist those in need after dark.
Another favorite of mine, St. Thomas More, who lived in the 16th century, that of the Reformation, was also a married individual who had a special affiliation with the Carthusians in London. That order had been founded centuries earlier by St. Bruno of Cologne, who had briefly joined the French Benedictine abbey of Molesmes (an abbey that had earlier sponsored the first Cistercian community of “reformed Benedictines.”)
Bruno composed his statutes to combine the eremitic contemplative with the cenobitic tradition that he had lived at the abbey—but with no more active ministry outside abbey walls. Today the Grande Chartreuse Abbey, that he founded in the French Alps, heads the order. On a past research tour while on a mountain road I could see that isolated monastery (a French abbot accompanying us pointed out) below in the distance but we had a tight schedule and could not detour over there. Yes, it is the abbey for which the wine is named. Like other wines—e.g. champagne, the monastery takes its name from another French region, named for the Province of Champagne where Dom Perignon, the monk who concocted the first combination of grapes resided at an abbey.
His life is portrayed quite well in the film, “Man For All Seasons” that was popular in the early ‘60’s. What that movie doesn’t portray is his attachment to the prayers and the monks at the London abbey—or his following of the Rule insofar as his state in life permitted (he had a family, was a remarried widower, and lived a penitential life behind his public façade).
Thomas was a very pious layman, a married lawyer, knight, and King Henry V111’s appointed Chancellor (1529). Later he became one of that king’s martyrs because he courageously refused to swear a couple oaths, one to recognize the king as head of the church in England, the other to recognize the illegitimate infant Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn as heir to the English throne. He was executed by beheading, after a stay in the Tower of London. His famous last words were “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Regretfully, although his bio was planned for the book on Benedictine oblates, Benedict in the World, where my chapter on Elena Coronaro appears, it was unfortunately not completed, but will by someone sometime who can find, hopefully, the full story from today’s Carthusian monasteries, of which there is only one now in the United States but many in the world as indicated in a recent timeline on the internet. He has been one of my favorites since I was a college freshman and learned about him studying the Reformation in a history class.