By CAROLE BRESLIN
The vendetta in Italy gained a reputation as being brutal and persevering. For centuries, families would hold animosity resulting from an offense. A vendetta means a series of acts done over a long period of time to cause harm to a disliked person or group. Even in Catholic Italy of the 14th century, the vendettas were very real. Only the saintly, such as Rita of Cascia, could defuse the vendettas of her time.
In 1381, the Lotti couple, Antonio and Amata, had long hoped for a child. Finally they received a daughter to whom they gave the name Margherita, meaning pearl. They were known in their tiny village of Roccaporena in Cascia as being the Conciliatore di Cristo, or Peacemaker of Christ. Coming from noble lineage they exemplified all that is good in Christians, seeking to reconcile those at conflict and raising their daughter to be both charitable and pious.
Rita, as she came to be called, set her heart on entering the Augustinian convent at an early age, dedicating her life to God. However, as with so many other saints, her parents had other plans for her. Her father insisted that she marry a man whom he had chosen. Thus, at the very young age of 12 — according to our times — she was married to the man of her father’s choosing. Rita hoped that by obeying her parents, she was doing the will of God.
This turned out to be a considerable cross for Rita, for like the husband of St. Monica, her husband was cruel and heartless. In fact, he had the reputation of being the terror of Cascia. For 18 years Rita remained a faithful and patient wife, bearing him two sons. Sorrowfully, she watched as her two sons became more and more influenced by the bad example of her husband.
They too became violent. Rita continued to pray not only for her husband but also for the souls of her two sons. Again like St. Monica she shed many tears for their salvation. Those tears bore fruit. Her husband repented and begged her forgiveness for the many trials and injustices she suffered because of him.
But habits are not easily broken. While out drinking once again, he became involved in a brawl which resulted in death-causing injuries. As her sons witnessed the men carrying in the body of their father covered in wounds, they vowed to “bring justice” to his killers. Rita sat in prayer day after day praying that their plotting would come to no avail.
As time went on her prayer changed. She begged God to take their lives rather than allow them to carry out their vendetta. She would rather save their souls than their bodies — a mark of a mother’s true love. What St. Ambrose told St. Monica, he could have told St. Rita. Surely the many tears she shed would not allow her sons to be lost.
Her prayers were answered. Despite all their plans, they became so ill they could not carry them out. Both of her sons contracted a fever through which Rita nursed them untiringly, but with some relief knowing they could not commit the grave error they had contrived. Through her ministrations and counseling, they soon repented of their plans. They died forgiving the men who killed their father and asked the Lord for His forgiveness in turn.
Now that Rita was alone in the world with no husband, no children, and no family, she again yearned for the religious life within the walls of the Augustinian convent. Despite her application to the nuns at the Cascian convent, she was rejected on the grounds that even though she was a widow, she was not a virgin.
Again she applied, was refused, and finally on the third try her persistence was rewarded. Rita was so focused on becoming a religious that she offered to do the most menial tasks if they would but let her enter the convent. The rules were finally changed and she joyfully accepted the habit in 1413.
Rita was obedient to her parents when she married the man they chose for her. She was obedient for the 18 years of her married life. Likewise, she was obedient to her superiors in the convent. So diligently did she observe all that was asked of her that she earned the respect of her sisters in Christ.
When she was ordered to water the stump of a dead vine in the garden, she did so not just once but daily, continuing to tend it as though it were the most fruitful plant in the garden. Austerities brought her joy. If the rule was relaxed in any way, Rita would still practice the stricter sacrifices and even, with permission, go beyond them.
Despite these penances, she did not become cantankerous. Rita remained cheerful and charitable, always willing to care for any of her colleagues. She offered her prayers and sacrifices for the conversion of those who had lapsed in the practice of their faith. Her prayers were motivated by her great love of God and all that He created.
Rita had always loved to pray, spending much of her prayer time in contemplating the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. In the cross of Christ she discovered the greatest romance of all time. When she listened to the sermon of St. James della Marca on the crowning of Jesus with the thorns, she rejoiced at his eloquence.
Later, while contemplating this event of the Passion, Rita received a special gift: a thorn pierced her brow, causing her great pain but exquisite joy. The wound she received then became infected. It appeared so disgusting and smelled so putrid that she was secluded from the other nuns.
Rita did not complain nor did she ask our Lord to take the wound away, except on one occasion. The Augustinians were to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the year of the jubilee in 1450. In order for her to accompany them, she asked our Lord to take it away, which He did quickly. Upon her return to Cascia, the wound returned and remained with her until the day she died on May 22, 1457.
Her feast day is celebrated on May 22, and she is a patron saint of lost causes.
Dear St. Rita, even today your body remains incorrupt. Your love for God, your austerities and prayers won many souls for the Kingdom of Heaven. Lead us in learning to love our neighbors enough to suffer not only for them but from them as you did in your lifetime. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)