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Statue of St Rita

St Rita is, by far, the best known and best loved of the Augustinian saints.  She has become known as the Advocate of the Helpless, even the Saint of Hopeless Cases.

Part of Rita’s attraction is probably the fact that, during a hard and difficult life, she lived through just about all states of life any Christian woman can experience – from girlhood, through married life and widowhood, to the Religious Life of an enclosed Augustinian nun.

Rita was born about 1381 in the village of Roccaporena, near Cascia, a significant city in the mountainous area of Umbria in central Italy. Her elderly parents, Antonio and Amata Lotti, christened their only child Margherita, Rita in its familiar form.

“Umbria, a region that has given many popular saints to the Church, including Francis and Clare of Assisi, as well as Rita of Cascia, was also at the time a region of poverty, earthquakes and natural disasters it was also prone to constant violence and civil unrest where the law of the vendetta, or family vengeance, was ever-powerful.

As was normal at the time, Rita’s parents arranged her marriage to a young man of the locality named Paul Mancini.  No doubt, Rita was a dutiful and loving wife, though the accounts of her saintly forbearance and patience with a wild and cruel husband may have grown in the telling without much historical evidence.  Two sons were born to Paul and Rita and for a while they enjoyed a reasonably happy, if hard, family life.  But all was soon to change.

The Cascia area was frequently the scene of feuds and faction fights, vendettas between families that lasted years or even generations, political and civil unrest, particularly the constant rivalry between Guelphs and Ghibellines that then divided much of Italy.  A Pope at a slightly later date is quoted as saying “Cascia is a place full of factions and vendetta” (Martin V). 

Paul Mancini was involved in some way in the unrest, possibly as a result of his job as a city watchman.  One evening, as he returned to his family in Roccaporena, he was stabbed and killed.  Rita was now a widow with two young sons, in circumstances where vengeance and further bloodshed seemed inevitable.  She worried particularly for her sons and both their physical and moral wellbeing.  She prayed and worked for reconciliation between the sworn enemies. 

Rita felt all the loss and loneliness of her bereavement. But vengeance was not in her heart, however normal it might have seemed at the time.

Tragedy struck again, and a strange answer to her prayers.  Her two sons died while still in their teens,
possibly from one of the many plagues or epidemics so common at the time, rather than through the violence that had been her greatest fear.  Rita, the widow now had no family; she was alone in the world with only her faith and her trust in God to keep her going.

Possibly, this was the time when Rita’s holiness was most clearly seen, when it cost her the greatest pain and heartbreak.  This was no saccharine emotion of a plaster saint, but the lonely, if accepting, emptiness of a widow when all she had was gone, except her faith.  That faith would carry her through, and inspire future generations of Christians with the story of the Saint of Helpless Cases.

Gradually, a new hope came into Rita’s life.  Whether or not she had wished to become a nun as a young girl she now felt strongly called to the life of an Augustinian nun in the convent in Cascia.  She would find peace, security and rest in that convent.  But not yet. 

Nothing was ever easy for Rita.  Some of the nuns in the small convent were related to the murderers of Rita’s husband while others were from her late husband’s side.  They were uneasy at the thought of having the widow among them with the bitterness and division this could bring. Rita was not accepted, and she well knew why.  She turned to prayer again. 

Little by little she worked at bringing the estranged parties together.  Once again she became a peacemaker. 

Eventually peace was agreed between the feuding sides in Cascia, and Rita was finally accepted into the convent. 

Legend would have it that Rita was transported overnight into the locked convent by her patron saints John the Baptist, Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentino, and that it was this miracle that convinced the community to accept her.  No doubt, Rita’s devotion to these saints, who were particularly honoured in the Augustinian churches in Cascia, had much to do with it but their intercession in response to Rita’s prayers in bringing about reconciliation and peace may well have been the real miracle.

For the final thirty years of her life, Rita would be an Augustinian nun in the Cascia convent, living a life of prayer and penance, work and charity. People with all kinds of problems would come to the Sisters for advice, help and consolation.  Rita was always willing, and also well prepared by her own experience of life, to respond to these needs.

Rita shared the popular devotion of the time to the sufferings of Our Lord.  She listened to sermons of the great preachers of the day when they came to Cascia and she spent long hours in personal prayer and meditation. 

One day, she felt a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns wound her own forehead and this was to leave her with a painful stigma for the last fifteen years of her life.  She had been praying before a favourite image, a representation of Christ rising from the grave but still bearing the wounds of his passion.  Rita bore her open wound in the same loving spirit of patient suffering on the way to risen life. 

For the last four years of her life, frailty and illness confined Rita to her room.  There is a tradition that the wound on her forehead healed temporarily to enable her to accompany her sisters on a pilgrimage to Rome.  If so, this may have been for the canonization in 1446 of local Augustinian, and her favourite saint, Nicholas of Tolentino.  Rita died in her seventieth, year on 22nd May 1447.

An incident happened during her final days that, together with the stigma of the thorn, would become a defining element in the story and cult of Rita of Cascia. 

A relative from Roccaporena came to the convent to take her leave of the dying Rita.  When leaving, as visitors to the sick are wont to do, she asked Rita if there was anything she would like.  Rita made the strange request for a rose from the garden at her old home.  Not much to ask, except that it happened to be a very cold January in the mountains round Roccaporena. “The raving of death”, thought the visitor. 

On returning to the village, however, she was to find a lone rose in bloom in the garden.  It was soon in Rita’s room in the convent in Cascia, with that enduring message about simple faith and the granting of “impossible” requests that would come down through the centuries associated with Rita’s name.  Fittingly, the Saint of the Thorn became the Saint of the Rose.

On St Rita’s feast day – 22nd May – every year, roses are blessed for the sick and for devotees of St Rita in Augustinian churches.  Later, dried rose petals are often sent (as from St Rita’s Centre, Honiton) to those who request them.

St Rita was beatified in 1737, canonized in 1900 and her feast day was included in the universal church calendar, as an optional memorial, in 2000.

Her body is preserved in a magnificent basilica, named after her and close to her convent, in Cascia and which has become a very popular centre of pilgrimage.

Rita is an example and inspiration to so many people because, in her own life, she shared the experiences of so many people in several different ways of life – wife, mother, widow, Religious – and always has an encouraging and consoling message for everyone.

BOOK: St. Rita of Cascia - God's Gift To Us  is on sale at St. Rita's Promotions for £3.50 + £1.50 post and packing.  The book offers a new look at the life of St. Rita as a wife, mother and widow.