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”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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