Saint Rita of Cascia
Feast Day: May 22
Patronage: Impossible Causes, Bad Marriages, Victims of Spousal Abuse, Widows
Invoked Against: Sterility, Loneliness, Bodily ills, Smallpox
Symbols: Roses, Bees, Figs, Nun with cross receiving wound, Crown of thorns, Crucifix
Margarita Lotti was the answer to the prayers of a devoutly Catholic older couple in Roccaporena, Italy. During the pregnancy, her mother had a vision of an angel telling her “You will give birth to a daughter marked with the seal of sanctity, gifted with every virtue, a helper to the helpless and an advocate of the afflicted.” Her father named the child Rita, as the Angel had called her. After the baby’s baptism, bees would hover over her while she slept. A symbol of divine presence, they never harmed nor woke her.
Rita came of age at the time of a deep schism in the Church – the Pope had fled to Avignon and the future of many religious communities was uncertain. Her true wish was to become a nun but she obeyed her parents and married instead, to support them in their old age. The husband chosen for her, Paolo Mancini, was a good provider though gradually revealed a violent, volatile nature. He was unfaithful, abusive and domineering. Heavily involved in the factional infighting that gripped the Italian landscape, he made many enemies.
Rita prayed fervently that her husband would have a change of heart and become a better husband and father to their twin sons. Paolo experienced a conversion when he was sent a vision of himself as he was seen by others. He begged Rita’s forgiveness for the difficult life he had subjected her to and vowed to change. They had been married for 18 years when Paolo was ambushed on his way to work and murdered, his mutilated body dumped on the family’s doorstep. Their enraged teenaged sons vowed a vendetta. Entreaties by their mother to turn the other cheek were scoffed at. Rita begged God to stop her boys before they also committed murder. Within that year, before they could act on their anger, both boys contracted an illness and died. Rita was distraught at the loss of her entire family, but took some comfort in the fact that her sons died in a state of grace.
Devoting herself to charity, Rita decided to pursue her early wishes of joining a convent. It is said that the local order of Augustinian nuns refused her on the grounds that she was not a virgin. A more probable reason for rejection, several of the nuns came from families of Paolo’s declared enemies and they did not want to inflame the convent with tensions brought in from the outside world. Rita implored her patron saints for help, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. Three times she requested admission to the convent and three times she was denied. One tale of how she was eventually accepted has Rita hearing a knock at her door during her prays to her three patrons. Though no one was there, a voice called to her, “Rita! Rita! Fear not, God will admit you into the cloister as His spouse.” When she resumed praying, John the Baptist appeared to her and told her to follow him to the Convent of Mary Magdalene. Along the way, they were joined by Saints Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentino, radiant in light. The saints blessed her at the convent door then disappeared. Rita was found the next day by the astonished nuns, inside their convent! After she recounted the story of her miraculous entrance, it was decided that she should remain with them. The other tale explains that through prayer and meditation Rita was able to create such an atmosphere of serenity about her that it enabled her to affect a signed truce between her husband’s family and the family of his enemies. Impressed by her dedication and sincerity, the prioress of the convent admitted her.
As a nun, Rita tended the elderly and sick sisters and devoted much time to prayer, and meditation, allegedly sleeping only two hours a night. When she had lived in the convent for 25 years, she heard a sermon on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ which focused on his crown of thorns. While later meditating on this in her cell she felt an intense pain in her head. A wound opened on her forehead. Never healing, it grew foul smelling with infection and eventually filled with little worms. Rita was shunned as repulsive by the rest of the nuns and remained isolated in her cell, praying and meditating with a mystical fervor. In 1450 the Pope declared a Jubilee Year and Rita requested permission to travel to Rome with the other nuns. She was told she could not leave until her wound healed. After a day of prayer all trace of the wound vanished and Rita made the pilgrimage. Upon walking over the convent’s threshold on her return, the festering wound instantly reappeared.
Rita’s parents were known for their ability to make peace between the warring factions of Guelphs and Ghibellines, and she too had a gift for peacemaking. Citizens of Cascia sought her out to mediate arguments and disagreements that seemed impossible to settle. She gained a reputation for the powers of her prayers, healing those beyond the help of medical science. While Rita was dying of tuberculosis, a cousin came to visit her the winter before her death. When asked if there was anything at all that she wanted, she replied, “Bring me a rose from my childhood garden in Roccaporrena.” The cousin assumed that being January, this request was impossible to fill. Yet there in the garden she found two roses in bloom and brought them to Rita. “Would you like anything else?” asked the cousin. Rita requested two figs from the same garden. There they were found, hanging from a tree in the dead of winter.
Upon Rita’s death in May of 1457, the bells of every church in the surrounding villages began to ring of their own accord. Rita’s body exuded the odor of roses and her cell was filled with light. As the town gathered to pay their last respects, spontaneous healing occurred among the mourners. Many reported intense joy and feelings of love, the burdens of life lifted. Her body was preserved and is still on view at the Sanctuary of Saint Rita in Cascia. Because so many women identify with her difficult life, her cult quickly spread throughout Europe and is particularly strong in Italy, Spain and South America, where girls are frequently given the name of Rita. Her feast day brings thousands of pilgrims to Cascia as she is one of the most popular saints in the world.
Though she died in the mid 15th century, Saint Rita of Cascia was the first female saint of the 20th Century. By that time, devotion to this woman who had been an abused wife, a mother who lost her children, a widow of a murdered husband, and finally, a nun, had spread throughout the world. Roses are an important part of the imagery of Saint Rita and on her feast day there is a procession when roses are blessed and their petals distributed. Six centuries after her death a swarm of bees still live in the wall of her cell. Occasionally Rita is depicted with her twin sons, but generally, she is shown as a nun in a black habit with a crown of thorns, a crucifix and a wound in her head.
Novena to Saint Rita
O glorious Saint Rita, your pleadings before the divine
crucifix have been known to grant favors
that many would call the impossible.
Lovely Saint Rita, so humble, so pure, so devoted in your
love for thy crucified Jesus,
Speak on my behalf for my petition which seems so impossible
from my humbled position. (Mention your request).
Be propitious, O glorious Saint Rita, to my petition,
showing thy power with God on behalf of thy supplicant.
Be lavish to me, as thou has been in so many wonderful cases
for the greater glory of God.
I promise, dear Saint Rita, if my petition is granted, to glorify thee,
by making known thy favor, to bless and sing thy praises forever.
Relying then upon thy merits and power before the Sacred Heart
of Jesus I pray. Amen
Excerpted from the book: “Saints: Ancient and Modern” ny Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua.