Rita finished baking the bread and setting the table for supper, then looked out the door to see her if her husband, Paolo, was approaching. Not yet, so she didn’t need to call her sons in from outside. Rita took a deep breath and looked up to the mountains. Despite the peaceful evening, her heart was not entirely at peace.
The endless feuding that tore medieval Italy apart had recently flared up in Cascia and its neighboring villages. Paolo’s family had been involved for generations. Though Paolo himself had a fiery temperament, he’d never directly engaged in the feud. Cherishing this rare free moment, Rita knelt in front of the crucifix in their home. “Keep him safe, Lord. Don’t let our family suffer from this feud. Bless us with peace. Bless Paolo with peace.”
Rita suddenly realized it was growing dark. She had lost track of time in her prayer, and now real anxiety hit her. Paolo should have been home by now! She banked the fire, wrapped her shawl around her, and started to walk to meet her husband. On this beautiful evening she was too worried to stay home waiting.
On the path, Rita heard sounds of angry voices ahead. Stomach churning, she ran toward them. A neighbor tried to hold her back. “Rita, wait! You don’t want to see him like this—we were just coming to get you…” But Rita shook him off and ran past him toward the awful scene awaiting her.
Paolo’s body lay still on the ground, his chest covered in blood from stab wounds. One look at his face and Rita knew he was already gone. She fell to her knees, grasped his face in her hands, and kissed him. “Paolo! My Paolo!”
Tears streaming down her face, she looked up to the small circle of men. “Did you find him like this? Was he alive? Was there a priest here? Or did he die…alone?”
When the men could not meet her gaze, she knew the answer. Paolo had died alone. Suppose he had been afraid? Suppose he had fought? Suppose he had died with anger in his heart? Rita’s fear for her husband’s salvation pressed on her, choking her. Her husband, with whom she had struggled to build a life, a family, a safe circle in this mad world of violence, was gone in an instant. Grief and fear robbed her of breath and clear vision. All she could see was Paolo’s frozen, empty face.
Who did this?
More footsteps were heard on the path. Feeling a thousand miles distant, clutching her husband’s cold hand, Rita recognized first the voices, then the faces of her husband’s family. Screams of grief, roars of “Who did this?” echoed around her but didn’t touch her. Then, one sentence jarred her back to herself.
“When we find out who did this, they will pay for it in blood,” promised an angry voice.
“No!” Rita’s horror pushed her to her feet. “Stop talking like that! How many more wives must become widows? How many more children, orphans?” She gasped for breath. “Help me bring him home. I must get back to my sons before they hear from someone else,” she pleaded.
The men carried Paolo’s body in a respectful, silent procession behind her as she made her way home. Rita pulled her mind away from her own grief and horror. How could she break this news to her sons without igniting the understandable desire for revenge? Her impetuous teenage sons would be easily influenced by their relatives.
They were waiting inside for supper, eating some bread at table when she walked in. “My sons,” she said, “Father was attacked on the way home and hurt very badly. He’s in the hands of God now.” Rita held out her arms, and Gian Giacomo and Paolo Maria rushed into them. She held them close, heart pierced anew by the sorrow and confusion that had filled their eyes.
Somehow, Rita made it through the next couple of days. She tried to be attentive to Gian Giacomo and Paolo Maria, not leaving them alone with her husband’s family, yet respecting their need for space to grieve. Rita focused her grief by praying insistently for Paolo’s entrance into heaven. But her sons grew increasingly withdrawn and seemed very tense with each other. Rita pulled them aside individually and talked to them. She invited them to come to church and pray for their father and his murderers—that was the word her sons insisted on using. With her mother’s instinct, she could tell that her sons were being drawn into the negative cycle of revenge and violence—they seemed obsessed by it.
Rita visited her husband’s family and begged them to forgive Paolo’s murderers, or at least to stop speaking to her sons about revenge. When they indignantly dismissed her as weak and disloyal to Paolo’s memory, the accusations wounded her deeply.
That evening over supper, Rita raised the subject with Gian Giacomo and Paolo Maria. “Do you think I am disloyal to your father’s memory if I don’t want to take revenge on his killers?”
Gian Giacomo looked away and didn’t answer. Paolo Maria responded, “That’s okay, Mamma. We know it’s not disloyalty. We’ll be strong for you.”
Rita leaned forward and laid her hand on her son’s. “Do you think it’s easy to ask God to forgive those who killed your father and left him to die alone on the road? Forgiveness takes more strength than revenge does. I’m not being weak. I’m respecting your father’s love for justice and Jesus’s call to be peacemakers. Revenge is not the answer, boys. If you try to take revenge for your father’s death, you will be unjust to someone else. The violence will never stop unless we take a stand and are strong enough to forgive.”
Paolo Maria snatched his hand away at her words. “No! It’s not fair! We lost our father! They should suffer for it!”
Rita turned to Gian Giacomo. “Don’t do this! Only God can make things right! Violence isn’t the answer—it just brings more violence, more death!”
Gian Giacomo shoved his half-empty plate away. “All we want is justice for our father.” He stood up. “C’mon, Paolo, don’t let her talk you down.”
Paolo stood up with his brother and they left the house, slamming the door behind them.
Dry-eyed, Rita cleared the table. She had no tears left. She had just lost her husband, and still feared for his eternal salvation. Now it seemed her sons were lost to her—and perhaps to God as well. Waiting up for them, Rita offered the most difficult prayer a mother can.
“Lord, you know all things. And you love my sons more than I ever could. But they are all I have left in this world. You know the goodness in their hearts. Don’t let them go down this path of destruction and violence that will destroy them. Anything would be better than for them than to lose their very selves in this pit of hate-filled revenge. They won’t listen to me anymore, so I entrust them completely to you. Protect them from themselves, guide them to eternal happiness in you.”
Shortly after Paolo Maria and Gian Giacomo had revealed their true intentions to Rita, they both fell ill. Fearing that this might be God’s answer to her prayer, Rita nursed them with great dedication. They are both young and strong; they will recover! she thought hopefully. But their illness grew grave. Both young men came back to their senses. They confessed their murderous intentions and received the sacraments of Reconciliation and Viaticum. But tragically, neither survived. Rita lost both her sons within days of each other, less than a year after their father’s death. Rita’s only consolation in her great grief and loneliness was that she was sure they would enter the heavenly Father’s embrace.
“What now, Lord?” she prayed. After some months, Rita found an earlier desire resurfacing. As an only daughter, Rita had followed her parents’ wishes to marry so she could be near them in their old age, and so she could enjoy the protection of a strong husband and family in that feud-riddled area. However, Rita’s parents had died soon after her marriage. She found it ironic that her obedience to their desires had left her so vulnerable and alone. Could she now follow her initial desire to enter the convent?
She visited the Augustinian convent in nearby Cascia and requested an interview with the abbess. The abbess listened to the request of the devout woman who was also the victim of such terrible tragedies, but kindly explained that, although widows sometimes became nuns, it was very rare for this particular convent. She told Rita to come back for an answer after she had spoken to the community. When Rita returned, the abbess told her she had been refused.
Greatly disappointed, Rita went home. Although two other convents were in the area, in her prayer Rita continued to feel directed to enter the Augustinians. She went back a second and then a third time. The last time, the abbess told her rather harshly not to return. Rita wondered if the nuns were concerned that her family connections might bring the feud to the convent.
Rita prayed for patience, perseverance, and clarity about what to do. After some months passed, she received a vision of three saints: Nicholas of Tolentino, Augustine, and John the Baptist, who showed her the way past the closed doors of the convent. Rita arranged a reconciliation between the two feuding families. After she succeeded in bringing peace, she was finally accepted into the convent. The sisters quickly discovered that Rita’s spiritual maturity was evident in her wholehearted spirit of obedience and deep prayer.
In the convent, Rita’s devotion to the crucified Jesus deepened, especially after listening to a famous Franciscan, Saint Giacomo della Marca, preach about Jesus’s sufferings and death. She begged God for the grace to share everything with Jesus, even his sufferings. She felt that only in this way could she really become one with her divine Bridegroom. Jesus granted her desire in a singular way. While she was gazing at the crucifix, Rita felt one of the thorns from Jesus’s crown pierce her forehead. The thorn created a painful, gaping wound that refused to heal. It soon festered and became repulsive, making it difficult for the other sisters to even approach Rita. Even if they could overcome their repulsion, the sisters still feared contagion. From this mystical wound, Rita suffered terrible pain and the burden of living as a virtual hermit within the community for the last fifteen years of her life. Yet, she rejoiced to share in Jesus’s sufferings so directly, and she was happy to spend her life completely dedicated to prayer.
On May 22, 1457, when Rita was about 76 years old, she went to meet her beloved Bridegroom. The moment she died, stories of miracles started to surround this humble woman. The convent bell began to ring without anyone touching it. The room where she lay glowed with a heavenly light, her wound was healed, and her face became fresh and youthful. A dozen miracles attributed to her took place within weeks of her death. And although Rita’s body was never embalmed, her body lies still incorrupt in the chapel of the convent in Cascia.
Rita is now called the saint of the impossible, because in her own life she faced so many impossible situations and in each, she found that with God, all things are possible.
(Taken from Saints Alive! The Faith Proclaimed by Mary Lea Hill, FSP, and Marie Paul Curley, FSP)