It almost goes without saying that there are many popular saints in Italy. Not all the saints near and dear to Italians were born in Italy, but lived here at some point in time and eventually won the hearts of Italians and remain very popular to this day. To name a few of these saints: Benedict and Scholastica of Nursia, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Anthony of Padova, Maria Goretti, Padre Pio, Bridget of Sweden, Rose of Viterbo, Philip Neri, Benedict Joseph Labre, Ignatius of Loyola, Januarius, Gemma Galgani, Angela of Foligno, Giuseppi Moscati, Pier Giorgio Frassati, and many others.

Recently, in conjunction with fraternal visits to the Benedictine monks and nuns of Norcia, a side trip to the Sanctuary of Saint Rita of Cascia was possible. Rita was born and raised in the Umbrian region of Italy, as were Saints Benedict, Scholastic, Francis and Clare. What is so special about Umbria? To begin with, it is the only Italian region to have no coastline. Nonetheless it considered “Il Cuore Verde d’Italia,” that is, the “Green Heart of Italy.” Maybe it is also the “Heart of Holiness” of Italy.

Umbria has forests and mountains, valleys and lakes. There are many small villages from medieval times, and as a means of defense, are perched on hillsides or hilltops. A region rich in natural beauty as well as historical and cultural heritage, Umbria contains the largest lake in Italy, called Trasimeno. The Umbrian valleys produce grapes and olives, and black truffles are the pride of Umbrians as well. Truffles, for those not so familiar with them, are a strong-smelling fungus that grows underground and considered a culinary delicacy, found with the aid of trained dogs and pigs. Not my cup of tea, to say the least!

The capital city of Umbria is Perugia, pronounced with just three syllables, not four. Say “Peru,” like the South American country, then “ja” as in “jazz.” Speaking of jazz, of which I am not a fan, there is the Umbria Jazz Festival each July, attracting big name performers. Another important Perugian eatable is the well-known chocolate, called “Baci” (which means, “kisses”), a very popular item in Italy and distributed around the world.

But back to the holy people of Umbria. Saint Rita of Cascia stands out as a perennial favorite of many Italians over the past centuries and to this day. Born in 1381 in the village of Roccaporena, near Cascia, Rita died in 1457, when she was seventy-six years old. Forty of those years she spent as a cloistered Augustinian nun in the city of Cascia. That is where the principle shrine to the saint is located, as well as her incorrupt, that is, non-decomposed, body.

Prior to becoming a nun, Rita, who was christened Margherita Lotti, when just twelve years old, entered into an arranged marriage with a nobleman named Paolo Mancini. Arranged marriages such as hers were a common practice at that time. Rita went through a very difficult married life due to the conflicted character of her husband. Paolo was physically abusive and unfaithful to his wife. Eventually Rita was able to convert Paolo to be a better person. They had two sons, named Giovanni Antonio and Paolo Maria.

Involved in various political controversies, Paolo Mancini was eventually assassinated, being stabbed to death. Margherita gave a public pardon to Paolo’s murders at her husband’s funeral, but the two sons of Paolo and Rita did not forgive and desired to revenge their father’s death. Rita was able to prevail in this matter, though both boys died young, presumably victims of the plague.

Rita, bereft of husband and children, decided to join the nuns of the Order of Saint Augustine in Cascia, near where she already lived. In fact she had longed desired to consecrate her life to Christ as a nun but was prevented from doing so because of her forced marriage. Rita was at first turned down by the Augustinian community after her husband’s death because of the notoriety caused by Paolo’s assassination.

Though the nuns realized that Rita was a good and pious person, they did not want to take the chance of having her in their monastery. Eventually Rita prevailed in her petition and was allowed to enter the Augustinian monastery at Cascia, but on the condition that she reconcile her family with the family of those who murdered her husband Paolo. After much effort, Rita accomplished the requirement and at the age of thirty-six was granted entry into the monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene at Cascia.

Rita’s spiritual life in the monastery was characterized by austerity, penance and a deep love of the Crucified Christ. Her ardent desire to share Christ’s sufferings was eventually visible by the appearance of a bleeding wound on her forehead. This occurred when Rita was about sixty years old, considered to be a genuine, though partial, stigmata, that is, part of the wounds which Christ endured going to his crucifixion. The wound on Rita’s forehead first appeared as though a thorn from the crown that Christ bore had penetrated her flesh. It lasted for the remaining sixteen years of her life. Saint Rita is usually portrayed in iconography with the bleeding wound on her forehead.

Near the end of her life, when Rita was bedridden, she was asked by a cousin visiting her at the monastery if she wished anything from her former home at Roccaporena. Rita asked for a rose from the garden. It was January and the cousin didn’t expect to find a rose in bloom, but went to look for one in any case. A single rose in bloom was found in the family garden and brought to Rita. From this story comes the tradition of depicting Rita as holding a rose or with roses near her kneeling figure.

On the feast day of Santa Rita each year, May 22nd, churches and shrines dedicated to her distribute roses to those who come to church and the priest present blesses the roses. In some places people bring roses to church on Saint Rita’s day to have them blessed. In addition to roses, Rita is also associated with bees, from a legend that on the day after her baptism a swarm of bees was seen near the child but did not harm her. It is said that the bees indicated the career of Rita as a person of industry, virtue and devotion. Bees, honey and roses are to be found in various forms at the sanctuary dedicated to her in Cascia and wherever she is venerated, such as in parish churches.

Rita remained faithful to her monastic vocation until her death from tuberculosis on May 22, 1457. Following her death miracles were attributed to her intercession.

The first biography of Rita was eventually written by an Augustinian priest, Father Jacob Carelicci. Recognized as a holy person, Rita was beatified by Pope Urban VIII in 1626. Her canonization by Pope Leo XIII occurred on May 24, 1900. Saint Rita has come to be venerated, along with the Apostle Saint Jude Thaddeus, as a patron saint of impossible cases, living as she did under horrific marital circumstances. The large shrine at Cascia, completed in early twentieth century and next to Saint Rita’s monastery, houses her incorrupt body and is an important sanctuary in Italy.

Saint Rita is also a special patroness of those unable to bear children, of abuse victims, of those suffering loneliness, persons in marriage difficulties, also parents, widows, the sick and those afflicted with bodily ills. Saint Rita has many causes under her care and is turned to by many in their prayers for her help before the throne of God.

The shrine at Cascia dedicated to Saint Rita, perched on a high hill, is one of the many beautiful sanctuaries of pilgrimage and prayer in Italy. One could spend a lifetime visiting these shrines! Sad to say, the earthquakes in Umbria in the last few years have frightened people away and the number of pilgrims to Cascia has declined. On a recent day of visiting and praying at the shrine, some shopkeepers selling souvenirs and food expressed dismay at the reality of fewer pilgrims at this time and a hope for a turn for the better in the future. That implies no earthquakes.

The popularity of Santa Rita increased with the 2004 Italian film, “Santa Rita da Cascia,” filmed in and around Florence, Italy. Though altering facts of Rita’s early life, it is beautifully produced and available through Ignatius Press in the United States. It lasts more than three hours and was originally shown in parts on Italian television. The music in the film is by a well-known Italian priest and director of the Pastoral Worship Center at the Vatican, Monsignor Marco Frisina.

Another film, “The Rookie,” from 2002, has a reference to Saint Rita in it, making her, some say, an unofficial patron saint of baseball.

Images of Saint Rita usually depict her wearing a black tunic and black veil, which Augustinian nuns of more recent centuries wear. In fact, the color of Rita’s day for the Augustinian habit was a dark brown tunic and a white veil.

May Santa Rita, the “Rose of Roccaporena,” as she is popularly called, pray for us!