The life of St. Rita can read like a Shakespearean tragedy. As a young woman, Rita desired to enter the convent and consecrate herself to God alone, but her parents had other ideas. They arranged for Rita to marry a nobleman, Paolo, and she humbly obeyed their wishes. Sadly, her husband was an abusive, violent man who treated Rita with little dignity. Paolo, however, died a sudden death when he was ambushed and stabbed by members of a rival family. Rita was left a widow with two young sons.
At her husband’s funeral, Rita forgave his murderers and pleaded for peace between the feuding families. So strong was her family’s vendetta that she asked God to take her sons’ lives rather than allow them to commit murder. Her prayers were answered rather brutally: both of her sons died of a fatal illness before they could seek vengeance. Rita was now a widow and childless.
Returning to her childhood desire, Rita again sought to enter the local convent of Augustinian nuns; however, the nuns objected to her entrance. Many of the nuns were related to the murderers of Rita’s husband, and they were wary of inviting dissension if they accepted Rita. Before allowing her into the convent, they required the impossible of Rita: bringing peace to the rival families.
By this point in her story, we get the message: Rita, though innocent, had a tough life. Is this what made her a saint? Was her holiness merely a matter of patiently suffering the tragedies of her life? No. Surely suffering is part of every Christian’s journey with the Cross of Christ, but a saint suffers without the usual pessimism of a tragedy.
The life of St. Rita can also read as a song of hope. She met adversity with an anthem of God’s unfailing mercy. Rita did not merely endure her husband; she met his abuse with her love and kindness. She was a mercy to him, and many accounts record that by the time of his death, he had become a good, peaceful man. His violent death came not by his instigation, but by the betrayal of his trusted allies.
Her sons’ premature deaths too were a sort of mercy. No good parent desires their child’s death. And we do not know if Rita’s sons would have grown up to seek violent revenge. But what is worse: the death of the body or of the soul? Our dead bodies will be resurrected, but a dead soul in hell awaits no return. Rita’s prayers potentially saved her boys from murder and from losing their souls by attempting to fulfill their inherited vendetta.
In response to the convent’s initial rejection, Rita worked one of her greatest miracles: bringing peace to a town torn by family feuds. First, she invoked the intercession of St. Augustine, St. Nicholas, and St. John the Baptist. Then, she successfully exhorted her family to accept peace, and subsequently the rival family. For this, she received the title the Peacemaker of Cascia.
Then, as a nun, she committed herself to a life of prayer and penance. She entered into mystical union with the Crucified Christ and received a thorn in her forehead—a suffering born of love. Offering herself to God, her life was a blessing to all of Cascia, to all of the Church. Even unto today, St. Rita is invoked as the saint of the impossible.
This second reading of St. Rita’s life emphasizes an important point. Saints do not just suffer through life, waiting for it to be over. Rather, they raise a song of hope in the midst of life’s suffering. And even more, this song is not a solo but a chorus. St. Rita’s holiness was contagious, bringing others closer to God.
To rightly praise St. Rita and her love of God, the words of Psalm 84 seem fitting:
They are happy, whose strength is in you,
in whose hearts are the roads to Zion.
As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs.
The autumn rain covers it with blessings.
They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion.
By her intercession, may we go through the Bitter Valley of our life and make it a place of springs. May the roads to Heaven be written in our hearts, and may we travel with ever growing strength.
St. Rita, pray for us.
Image: Frederic Leighton, The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet