Because so many of the canonized saints and blesseds of the Church were born in Italy, lived here for some time and/or died here, innumerable Italian cities have a particular patron saint associated with their city. Rita of Cassia, Francis of Assisi, Angela of Foligno, to name just three, are good examples of saints and cities that are closely linked.
The city of Viterbo, about an hour and a half north from Rome, also has its special patron, Saint Rose (Santa Rosa) of Viterbo, as she is called. She may not be as well known as Saints Rita, Francis and Angela, but Rose of Viterbo is part and parcel of the constellation of Italian saints!
A rainy day in December last year provided an opportunity to visit the medieval walled city of Viterbo and the Shrine of Saint Rose within the city walls. The sanctuary is housed in what was the Franciscan Monastery of the Poor Clare nuns in Viterbo. Now a different group of Franciscan sisters lives there, who came just a few years ago, as the Poor Clares diminished in numbers and eventually died out.
The women religious at the Shrine of Santa Rosa di Viterbo are called Alcantarine Franciscan sisters (Suore Francescane Alcantarine), founded in Italy in1870, whose members engage in apostolic work and have fifty-three communities working around the world, including Europe, Africa, Central and South America.
The Alcantarine Franciscans maintain the pilgrimage church at the old monastery in Viterbo, where Saint Rose’s body is enshrined, which pilgrims can see when they visit the city of Saint Rose. Also open to pilgrims are the beautiful former refectory and chapter room of the Poor Clare nuns. Slowly these sisters are making more of the old monastery in Viterbo accessible for the public to see.
The house where Saint Rose was born and grew up is very close to the monastery. I spoke with some Viterbo residents during my visit, who expressed sadness that the Poor Clare presence has ended, are nonetheless very happy that other sisters have come to Viterbo to coordinate the centuries-old and world-wide devotion to Santa Rosa today.
Rose was born to a poor family in Viterbo in 1233. At the age of seventeen, in 1250, Rose was gravely ill and was close to death, but she recovered her health. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Rose, telling her to undertake pilgrimage to churches around Viterbo and to become a Third Order Franciscan, or tertiary, connected to the Franciscan Order, but not formally in a convent. Inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, Rose became a sort of lay preacher, with cross in hand, turning citizens of Viterbo to peace, love and fidelity to the Lord.
Rose’s positive influence had a profound effect on her city of Viterbo. Some influential townsfolk, though, resented her work and ultimately had her exiled by the Emperor Frederick II. When Rose predicted the emperor’s death and it came to pass on December 13, 1250, she was able to return to Viterbo.
At that time Rose wanted to enter a convent, but was not allowed to, and returned home and died the next year, on March 6, 1251. She was immediately venerated as a saint and devotion to her spread throughout Italy and gradually beyond. Eventually the Poor Clare nuns of Viterbo were entrusted with her body and the shrine to her memory grew up around their monastery.
Each year on September 2nd the people of Viterbo have a historic costume procession through the streets in honor of their Santa Rosa. This has been the custom since 1512, and it was and is done to recall all the blessings received from God through the intercession of Saint Rose of Viterbo. Included in the September procession at Viterbo is a reliquary of the heart of their heavenly patroness, Santa Rosa.
The annual September procession begins at the Shrine of Santa Rosa and slowly moves through the medieval quarter of Viterbo, then on to the cathedral of San Lorenzo, a half mile or so away. Usually three hundred or more people are dressed in historic period costumes from various centuries, from about 1200 to 1800. They do this to symbolize the many centuries of the link of the city of Viterbo with their patron saint.
Included in the procession on September 2nd is always a large group of young girls dressed in purplish-gray habits, who depict the young Rose and her religious aspirations, though never realized, of being a nun. These girls, called “Rosine,” literally, “Little Roses,” carry containers of roses and candles, recounting the same gifts that were annually given by the commune of Viterbo to the Poor Clare nuns from the fifteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth.
Another important part of the annual Viterbo procession in honor of Santa Rosa, though taking place the next evening, on September 3rd, at 9:00 pm, is the carrying of the “Macchina,” literally, “machine,” a huge structure made in the shape of a tall steeple, requiring one hundred men to carry. The “Facchini,” or carriers, are dressed in white, looking like practitioners of karate, with red belts.
The Macchina tradition of Viterbo goes back to the middle of the seventeenth century. Originally the Macchina was designed to carry a statue of Saint Rose, but eventually became a grandiose piece of art in itself, assuming greater and greater heights over time.
The internal structure of the Macchina is made of steel and aluminum, covered with fiberglass, plywood and polyurethane. Finally, the Macchina is illuminated with thousands of candles, real and artificial. The height of the structure is nearly ninety feet and it weighs a staggering five tons!
The Macchina is carried by the hundred men on September 3rd for nearly a mile, through the streets of Viterbo, slowly toward the Shrine of Santa Rosa. The last part of the route is especially intense, as it is uphill and done at a full run. I have only seen photos of this event, but it must be impressive beyond words to witness. Plan to stay in Viterbo on a September 2nd and 3rd!
The patroness of Viterbo was humble and lived less than two decades. Her memory is obviously not forgotten and her intercession is sought daily by many, from Viterbo and throughout the world.
The prayer for Saint Rose, composed by now retired Viterbo bishop, Lorenzo Chiarinelli, with obvious references to the Santa Rosa celebrations in September at Viterbo, goes like this
O God, living well-spring of perennial youth,
we give You thanks for the gifts of light and love
You poured into the life of Saint Rose,
gracious flower of the city of Viterbo.
The enchanting purity of her age
and the intense ardor of her young heart
are a precious treasure for the fascination
the great and the small,
and give example to all who want to live,
love and hope.
Saint Rose, little and yet great,
we too desire to walk along the path
scented by your exemplary life.
Accompany our steps,
that our journey may be one of faith,
solidarity, and peace. Amen
Saint Rose of Viterbo, pray for us!