Sant Rita. Wikimedia Commons

You Can Ask Anything of Her

Among those whose holiness blossomed in family life, we meet “the patron saint of the impossible.” Before entering the convent, she tragically lost her whole family. She asked the Lord to let her participate in His sufferings, and got a surprising answer.
Paola Bergamini

Rita had almost finished tidying the house when she heard shouting from the street. She looked out and saw three men, the sudden flash of a blade, and one of them collapsing. She couldn’t stifle her scream. The armed man turned and for a second their gazes met, then he escaped. She ran down the stairs, and saw that the man on the ground in a pool of blood was her husband, Paolo. She knelt down, taking his face in her hands. There was nothing to be done. She closed his eyes, then delicately slipped off his bloody shirt, and prayed. Her mind turned to the words she’d heard from a traveling preacher in Cascia, “By the power of the Passion of Christ, cry out together to God: peace, peace! Mercy! As a sign of peace, love, and concord, everyone kiss, embrace, ask each other’s forgiveness.” Forgiveness, by the power of Christ… Only through Him... Rita thought of her two sons and of her husband’s family. They would not forgive; they would seek revenge. Thus, she hid the bloody shirt, hoping to disguise that it was a murder, but she realized it was useless. She looked again at her husband’s face. Eighteen years together. She remembered their wedding day. She was little more than a girl and lived in Roccaporena, only three miles from Cascia. Paolo di Ferdinando di Mancino, from the Umbrian city of Cascia, was a handsome young man, though impetuous–but, who wasn’t, in those closing years of the 1300s? Family feuds and political and private vendettas were the order of the day. Rita’s parents knew this well, engaged as they were as “peacemakers.” How many times, before marrying, had she accompanied them in their missions of peacemaking to dispel hatred and settle strife? In addition to conflicts between families, there were political tensions between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the Pope’s supporters and their opponents. The only points of peace in the city were the three Augustinian communities, one for men and two for women, which had been home to many saints. In addition, the city could boast within its walls a center of religious and cultural erudition. There, Rita had studied and, above all, had breathed that air rich with spirituality. This, and a great deal of prayer, had helped her during those 18 years to placate the impulsive character of her husband. And now? Rita trusted in the Lord alone.

In a short time, people came to know of the murder. The Mancino family pressed her to reveal the names of the assassins, but she wanted no more hatred and vendetta; in her heart, she had already forgiven. She prayed that her sons wouldn’t fall into that spiral of violence, that their souls would be saved. In a mysterious way, the Lord called them to Himself: the two young men fell sick and died.

Alone now, Rita wanted to dedicate herself completely to God, and asked to enter the Augustinian monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene in Cascia, but her desire could not be granted. The mother superior justly deemed that welcoming the widow of an assassinated man when desire for vendetta was still widespread in the city would endanger the tranquility of the convent. In addition, among the nuns there was a Mancino, a relative of Rita’s husband. What was to be done? Rita prayed to Saint Augustine, Saint Nicola of Tolentino, and Saint John the Baptist, her patron saints, and publicly forgave the assassins, working to reconcile the feuding families. This was the first “impossible” miracle: her actions stopped the hatred and the cycle of revenge, and the convent doors were opened to her. This was 1407, and Rita was 36 years old. After three years of novitiate, she made her solemn profession, and led a humble life of prayer, penitence, sacrifice, and assistance to the needy. She became an example for everyone, inside and outside the convent. She did everything for her Beloved, Christ. She prayed to participate in His suffering, and thus it came about that on Good Friday of 1432, a thorn from the Crucifix before which she was praying became fixed in her forehead, becoming a wound that would never heal, a gift from the Lord that she lived with humility, never speaking of it, and no longer venturing outside the convent. Soon the news traversed the city, though, and all heard that Rita, the woman of forgiveness, had received a token of Christ’s love.

Pilgrimage to Rome
In 1446, for the canonization of Saint Nicola of Tolentino, the nuns decided to go on pilgrimage to Rome. Rita also wanted to go, but because of her purulent wound, her fellow nuns didn’t want her along. In response, Rita requested that an ointment be brought to her, and when she applied it to the wound, it disappeared immediately. Only after returning from the pilgrimage did it reappear.

After the journey to Rome, she was very tired and worn down. She spent almost all day in her cell in prayer. One day, a relative came to visit her, and when it was time to leave, asked her if there was anything she needed from home. “A rose and two figs from my garden,” she responded. The woman agreed, but thought to herself, “Poor thing, she’s delirious. It’s winter and everything’s covered in snow.” But when she returned and entered the garden, she was dumbfounded: a beautiful rose had blossomed on a branch, and on the fig tree there were two ripe figs.

The following spring, in the night between the 21st and the 22nd of May, 1447, Rita died. The monastery bells began to ring. All the citizens of Cascia flocked to venerate the holy nun, and right away the first miracles began. Her body was not buried; in the beginning, it was placed in an oratory inside the monastery so all could come and pray to her.

Popular Piety
In an official document of 1457, the notary public Domenico Angeli, opening a long list of graces received–eleven just in the first year–wrote, “A most honorable nun, Lady Rita, having passed 40 years in the cloister of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene of Cascia, living with charity in the service of God, came to the end of every human being. And God, desiring to show a model of life to the other faithful, marvelously worked many miracles and wonders with His power and through the merits of blessed Rita.” That same year, her body was placed in a coffin decorated with an epitaph and paintings depicting her life. The people thus honored her, to give thanks for all the “wonders and miracles” that she had worked and continued to work.

These paintings are the only “documents,” except for the notary public’s, that speak of her, because, at the time, nobody, not even her fellow nuns, would have thought of writing her biography and gathering her thoughts or writings, had there been any. But the people prayed to her, converted, and told her story, so simple and yet so strong as to impress itself in popular piety, and to reach us today. So we have tried to reconstruct it with the historical elements that have been acquired over the years. What is most striking about this saint is her great love of Christ. For this reason, you can ask anything of her, even the impossible. For this reason, the greatest miracle for those who go to Cascia is the conversion of heart.