ST. RITA, WIDOW—1386-1456
Feast: May 22
If St. Rita belongs to that wonderful band of elect who were holy from their cradles, it must be said that she required every available help that sanctity gives, to have enabled her to endure the trials and difficulties with which most of her life was filled! She was the daughter of parents, both nearing middle age at the time of her birth, and the author of the Latin memoir of the Saint says that shortly after this event (1386), a swarm of bees was seen to come and go several times to and from the cradle a portent which was taken as indicating that the career of the child was to be marked by industry, virtue and devotion. The father and mother of Rita were themselves very pious, and from their laudable habit of composing the quarrels and differences among their neighbours, they were known as the "Peacemakers of Jesus Christ." Little Rita as she grew up, seems to have acquired a great deal of this spirit of the supernatural, for she showed little if any inclination for games, seeking her recreation chiefly in prayer and visits to sacred shrines-an exercise, by the way, which-granted the proper disposition-brings with it a wealth of real enjoyment and satisfaction quite wanting to other arid more secular amusements. This being so, it is not surprising to learn that Rita, as she neared womanhood, felt that her vocation lay in the convent rather than in that of domestic life. We are not aware of the circumstances that led her parents to oppose this apparently obvious course, but oppose it they did, and Rita submitted, even so far as to please them by marrying a man whom all accounts describe as exceedingly bad-tempered and something worse! It is the teaching of the Church that the grace of the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony, if corresponded with by a good life, works miracles, almost, in the way of establishing and perpetuating conjugal happiness. Acerbities of temper, temperamental differences, and all the other difficulties arising out of the necessary variations of human nature, are, under God's influence, toned down and adjusted, provided always Holy Mass, prayer and the sacraments are not forgotten—for "wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." So Rita tamed her rough spouse, and for two-and-twenty years lived harmoniously (concorditer) with a husband who, like most quarrelsome individuals in the days when sword and stiletto ever sharp, hung from every Italian gentleman's belt, perished in a feud. Such a death in the Italy of the Decamerone and the Republics, and, indeed, till well into our own time, usually meant a prolonged vendetta, and, of course, the two sons of the dead man at once took up the quarrel. Meantime, poor Rita was in despair, and finding her expostulations useless to prevent further effusion of blood, she had recourse to prayer, earnestly beseeching God to take her boys from this world rather than permit them to live on stained by homicide. The mother's prayer was heard, and the two youths shortly afterwards died edifying deaths, forgiving their father's slayers and resigned to God.

The way was now clear for our Saint to satisfy her long yearning for a conventual life. After due consideration, she applied to be "accepted" by the Augustinian nuns at Cascia, but was informed that the custom was only for women who had never been married, to be received as postulants. The time was to come when not only widows were to enter religious orders of their own sex as a matter of course, but even occasionally to found them, as in the case of St. Jane Francis de Chantal and the Nuns of the Visitation. Again did Rita have recourse to prayer, and it is related that the night following her second great "storming of Heaven," St. John the Baptist, to whom she had a great devotion, appeared to her, accompanied by St. Augustine and St. Nicholas of Tolentino, and these three Saints conducted her to the convent, where the Superiors who had been similarly warned, received her with great kindness. The new postulant entered upon her life in religion with characteristic zeal and thoroughness. She disposed of her family property as alms to the poor, and in addition to the ordinary mortifications prescribed or permitted by the rule, she added others of great severity, wearing a hair shirt, fasting rigorously on bread and water and taking the discipline at intervals. The Passion of Our Lord was her constant meditation, and while recalling the manifold sufferings of the Man of Sorrows, she often seemed to be carried away by mingled grief and devotion.

In the midst of such wonderful progress on the road to perfection, this pattern to the community was afflicted by God after the following mysterious manner. She was meditating one day on the Passion before the crucifix, when she apparently, accidentally, wounded her forehead by striking it against some of the no doubt very realistic thorns in Our Lord's crown. The injury caused by the hurt developed into a serious ulcer, one most painful and unsightly, so unsightly, in fact, that for many years Sister Rita had to make her devotions alone! She accepted this great trial in the light of an additional penance sent her by God, and it was about this time that many spiritual and temporal favours are said to have been granted to various persons as the direct result of the prayers of this wonderful religious, the fame of whose sanctity had already extended far beyond the convent walls. The extraordinary fact, too, that her garden—which, in common with the rest of the nuns, she had allotted to her—produced beautiful roses and ripe figs in the depths of an abnormally severe winter, was taken as an additional sign that the unceasing prayers and heroic virtues of Sister Rita were blessed beyond measure, even in this world. The last years of the Saint were marked by a most painful and lingering illness—cancer doubtless—which as in the case of all her other seeming misfortunes she employed as another means of forwarding her greater sanctification. At the approach of death, she received with wonderful fervour the last rites of the Church, and then, as it is piously believed, at the call of Our Lady, she breathed forth her spotless soul to God on 20th May, 1456.1

The sacred remains long after death yielded a most sweet and refreshing odour, and many miracles have been recorded as the fruit of her powerful intercession. The cultus of the wonderful nun of Cascia spread far and wide, notably in Spain, where she has since been known as "La Santa de los impossibiles!" She was Beatified by Clement XII, though as far back as 1637, a Mass and office were granted in her honour by Urban VIII. Finally, on 24th May, 1900, Pope Leo XIII enrolled her name among the Saints-the Saints it may be added, whose virtues shone as stars both in the world and in the cloister.

[Cardi: Vita della B. Rita de Cascia. (Foligno, 1805.) Messenger of the Sacred Heart, 1902. Roman Breviary: Pro Aliquibus Locis, 22nd May.]


Endnotes

1 The Life in the Breviary Office of the Feast, gives 1457 as the year of St. Rita's death.

(Taken from Vol. V of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, (c) Copyright 1954, Virtue and Company, Limited, London.)


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