Saint Rita of Cascia is universally called the ‘Saint of the Impossible’, because her intercession has been found effectual with God in most desperate and hopeless cases. Born in Rocca Porena in the diocese of Spoleto, Italy, about the year 1381, Rita came to her parents, already advanced in age, as the answer to many years of prayer. The piety and charity of her father and mother were so well known that they were called the ‘peace-makers’ of their little village.
On the day after Rita’s baptism, as she lay in her cradle, a swarm of pure white bees alighted on her face and went in and out of her slightly opened mouth, as if to take honey from her lips. Doubtless this was to typify the sweetness of word and manner which later was to win for God so many souls, and the comfort she was to diffuse throughout the world.
Example for virgins
Rita’s parents gave her a good home training. At an early age she felt drawn to God, and spent many hours in the parish church. She did not care for the pastimes and sports of youth, and was free from vanity and love of fine clothes. Rita’s obedience to her parents was remarkable. At a tender age Rita began to perform bodily penances, particularly fasting. She gave alms to the poor, for whom she always showed most loving compassion. When only ten years old, she felt drawn to retirement and to a cloistered life, but love for her aged parents prevented her from making known her desires.
With her parents’ permission Rita fitted up a small oratory where she prayed and meditated. In this solitude her love for Jesus Crucified and her compassion for his bitter sufferings daily became more ardent. But after a year her duty of assisting her parents forced her from her loved solitude.
The desire to join a community of Augustinian nuns at Cascia was daily growing in Rita’s mind. But, pious though they were, her parents were deeply grieved at the thought of this separation. Tearful pleadings and the weight of their parental authority prevailed; they even induced her to marry. Hitherto Rita had been a model of virginal purity, filial love, reverence and obedience. She had now to follow another path, to become a bright example of virtue to all who lived in the married state.
Model for mothers
The young man selected as Rita’s husband was passionate and quick-tempered, one well suited to try the patience and virtue of a saint. Just a few days after their marriage, he began to ill-treat her. It was only her love for the Crucified One that enabled her to bear this heavy cross. Sweetness of temper was the weapon she used to combat her husband’s cruelty. After many years, her virtue and long-suffering at length won her husband’s heart and brought unity and love into their home.
Gradually, to her great anxiety, Rita noticed that her two sons had inherited their father’s quarrelsome disposition. She spared neither vigilance, words, nor punishments to curb their self-willed dispositions. She performed penances for their welfare, and was unwearying in acts of charity towards her neighbour.
Pattern for widows
After eighteen years of married life, Rita’s husband was barbarously slain a short distance from their home. Grief filled Rita’s heart, particularly because of the uncertainty of his readiness to meet his Judge. But soon her trust in divine providence triumphed, and she bowed in resignation to God’s design. She generously pardoned the murderers of her husband and sought pardon for them from divine mercy.
To her consternation Rita discovered that her two sons, though young in years, were plotting vengeance against those who had murdered their father. In spite of all her advice and solicitude, the sorrowing mother could not touch her children’s vengeful hearts. In her grief, she turned to God and besought him either to change her children’s hearts or to take them from this world before they could accomplish the vengeance they were plotting.
Rita’s prayer was answered. Within a year both sons died, and, though touched by natural sorrow, she thanked God for taking them away from the dangers of sin and the risk of eternal damnation.
Rita’s life as a widow was short. During that time she spent herself in works of charity for her neighbour, in penances and in fasting. She lived in retirement and wore coarse mourning garments. Her former burning desire to enter the cloister now grew more vehement. She sought admission among the Augustinian nuns of Cascia, but was several times rejected. It was not their custom to receive widows.
Miraculous entry into the convent
One night, Saint John the Baptist, to whom Rita had been devoted from childhood, Saint Augustine and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino appeared to Rita. They conducted her to the convent of Cascia. Bolted gates and doors opened at their touch, and they left Rita in the chapel of the Augustinian nuns. What was the surprise of the Sisters the next morning on finding the oft-repulsed widow within their enclosure! Her miraculous entry being too evident to doubt God’s designs in her regard, they now accepted her unanimously.
The perfect religious
In her religious life, Rita excelled in the perfect observance of her Rule and the holy vows, in charity for God and her sisters, in profound humility and sacrificial labour. Love of our suffering Saviour urged Rita to perform heroic penances. She possessed the spirit of prayer and contemplation in a high degree. In her cell she devised a little mountain with a cross to remind her of our Saviour’s torments in his Passion. With tearful compassion she followed our Lord, in spirit, to Calvary and to death.
In 1443, when Rita attained her sixty-second year, God placed his seal upon her merits by a singular privilege. Once when the holy nun heard a sermon on the sufferings of our divine Saviour, compassion so filled her that she went to her cell to weep bitterly before the crucifix. She besought her Beloved, crowned with thorns, to let her share his torture. Thereupon one of the thorns from the crucifix detached itself and penetrated the left side of Rita’s forehead. She swooned from pain. This wound festered and emitted a foul odour, making it necessary for Rita to live apart from the community. It was humiliating but she bore it with joy until death and was happy in her solitude. When Rita wished to go to Rome to gain the jubilee indulgence, the wound healed almost instantly, and after her return reopened, proving its miraculous origin.
During the last five years of her life the saint was bedridden most of the time. Once an acquaintance asked if she wished anything. ‘Yes’, Rita answered, ‘go to the garden of my house, at Rocca Porena; pluck a rose there and bring it to me’. It was in the month of January during the rigours of winter. Amazed, the woman went and to her utter astonishment, found a full-blown red rose amidst the frozen bushes. She hastened to bring it to Rita, who joyfully took it as coming from the hands of her divine Spouse.
Another time Rita bade a woman bring her two figs from the same garden. Actually finding two ripe figs on a leafless tree, the woman plucked them with awe and pleasure and carried them to the sick nun. The religious and the people of the vicinity, on hearing of this second wonder praised God and conceived a great veneration for the dying saint.
Three days before Rita’s death, Our Lord, accompanied by the Blessed Virgin, appeared to her and promised her the joys of heaven. Rita died May 22, 1457, aged seventy-six years, forty-four of which had been spent in the religious life.
Miracles after death
Crowds hastened to venerate Rita’s body before its burial. The noxious wound in the forehead now shone like a brilliant jewel and exhaled a heavenly fragrance. A close relative of Rita’s confidently leaned over the holy body and at once recovered the use of her arms which had been paralysed for many years! Many other astounding miracles were wrought before the remains were entombed. Rita was solemnly beatified on July 16, 1628.
In late years devotion to Saint Rita has increased, and she has won for herself the title: Saint of the Impossible. Many instances are related of how the saint rendered aid in the last adversities. Conversions of hardened sinners and of those who had led dissolute lives are no less numerous than cures of bodily ills.
Canonisation of Saint Rita
The universal devotion to Saint Rita and the many wonders wrought through her intercession enkindled in the hearts of the thousands of devotees of the humble Augustinian nun the ardent desire to see her elevated to the honours of the altar. Great was their joy when on May 24, 1990 the Decree of Canonisation was published. Her feast is celebrated on May 22.
In conclusion, we quote these memorable words from the Decree: ‘St Rita of Cascia as maiden, wife, mother and nun was so pleasing and so beloved by Jesus Christ that he deigned to signalise her not only with the seal of his love, but especially with the seal of his Passion. Saint Rita merited this great privilege on account of her singular humility, her complete detachment and her admirable penance. However, the virtues which made Saint Rita particularly pleasing to God were her love for her neighbour and her devotion to Jesus Crucified.’