Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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April 4, 2004
Palm Sunday

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On May 13, 1981, at Saint Peter's Square in Rome, the Turk Mehemet Ali Agca seriously wounded Pope John Paul II with a firearm. Taken away in an ambulance, the Holy Father, who was suffering very much, repeated these invocations: «Mary, my Mother! Mary, my Mother!» No word of despair or resentment escaped his lips. Saved by an immediate operation, the Pope was already able four days later, on a Sunday, to speak to the faithful during the Regina Coeli, calling the man who had tried to kill him «brother»: «Dearest brothers and sisters, I know that, during these days and at this moment of the Regina Coeli, you are united with me. With deep emotion, I thank you for your prayers and I bless you all. I am especially close to the two persons who were wounded at the same time I was. I pray for the brother who wounded me, whom I have sincerely forgiven.»

Through this act of forgiveness, the Holy Father followed the example of Christ, who forgave His executioners from the Cross. On the occasion of the Jubilee year, on May 20, 2000, John Paul II offered Saint Rita as a model for Christians, a woman who was also able to forgive under heroic circumstances. The lesson of Saint Rita's life is characterized by «the offer of forgiveness and the acceptance of suffering,» said the Pope... «It is to be hoped that the life of everyone... will be... a life sustained by passionate love for the Lord Jesus; a life capable of responding to suffering and to thorns with forgiveness and the total gift of self, in order to spread everywhere the good odor of Christ.»

Rita was born around 1381 in Roccaporena, in Umbria (central Italy), and was baptized in Saint John the Baptist Church in Cascia. Cascia, 5 kilometers from Roccaporena, is a fortified city that was part of the Papal States, approximately 200 kilometers northeast of Rome. The local authorities adopted policies marked by a high sense of justice and good government. Measures and laws were made to benefit public health, the protection of orphans and widows, public education, and pious works. In addition to the many secular clergy, the little city of two thousand inhabitants had eleven convents and many religious organizations. The region made a simple living from agriculture, artisan work and especially commerce, since it was situated on an important road between Milan and Naples.

Cascia, like many Italian towns of its time, was a city where human and civil as well as religious values were esteemed and promoted. Rita's parents, honest middle-class citizens, were «pacieri,» literally, «peacemakers,» meaning conciliators. The task of the «pacieri» was to reconcile adversaries for the love of God. In such cases, a peace treaty would be made before witnesses and would be completed through a deed executed and authenticated by a notary. The goal of this treaty was to avoid legal proceedings and to break the infernal cycle of revenge. There could also be an obligation to make material reparation for damage caused. The peace treaties bound the two parties and their heirs forever.

«Miracle of the bees»

«Rita» is a diminutive of Margherita (Margaret). Shortly after her birth, the child was found one day surrounded by bees, some of which were going into and out of her mouth without stinging her. This episode, called the «miracle of the bees,» attested to by many witnesses, established between Rita and bees a providential link that was not lacking in spiritual meaning. Saint Ambrose offered the bee as a model for living: «See that your work is like that of a beehive, because your purity and chastity must be compared to hard-working, modest and continent bees. The bee lives on dew, knows not the vices of sensuality, and produces precious honey. A virgin's dew is the very word of God that, like the dew of the bees, descends, benevolent and pure, from Heaven.» Rita received from her parents a sound upbringing and solid religious formation, marked by devotion to the Holy Eucharist. In Cascia, the Corpus Christi procession takes on particular splendor. There the relic of an authentic Eucharistic miracle is venerated, which has been granted a deed executed and authenticated by a notary, preserved in the town archives. The miracle took place in Siena: A priest, before carrying Communion to a sick man, carelessly placed the consecrated Host in his breviary. At the sick man's bedside, he opened the book and found the Host completely liquefied, almost bloody, and the two pages stained with blood. One of these pages and the miraculous Host were entrusted to the convent of Saint Augustine in Cascia, where they are preserved in a specially made reliquary. Every year, on the feast of Corpus Christi, this reliquary is carried in procession.

One day, in the church of the Augustinian convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Cascia, Rita attended Holy Mass and heard Christ say interiorly to her: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn. 14:6). These interior words seem to have been the starting point for her religious vocation. Rita made great efforts to obtain her parents' permission to devote herself to God, but she did not succeed. On the contrary, at the age of twelve, she was promised in marriage to Paolo di Fernando, a young man of Roccaporena, a man of rough manners, but who would be mellowed by Rita's kindness. After their wedding, they lived in harmony, and two sons would be born to them. As a wife and mother of a family, Rita pursued her intense spiritual life. But after about fifteen years, a tragedy occurred: Rita's husband was murdered, without anyone knowing for sure the reason for his murder.

The «vendetta»

From that day on, Rita asked in her prayers for the strength to forgive the murderer and, with perseverance, begged the Lord to forgive him as well. But she feared that her sons would someday seek to avenge for their father (the «vendetta» was a custom of Mediterranean lands). To turn them away from this temptation, she hid her husband's blood-soaked shirt, and urged them also to forgiveness, beseeching the Lord to take these children from her as well rather than allow them to turn to vengeance. A few months later, Rita's two boys died of illness, without having taken revenge. Rita's forgiveness was also manifested by her refusal to give her family-in-law the name of her husband's killer, which earned her their indignation.

«Forgiveness! Christ taught us forgiveness,» said the Pope not long after the May 13, 1981 attempt on his life. «Many times, and in various ways, He taught us forgiveness. When Peter asked Him how many times he would have to forgive his neighbor—Seven times?—Jesus answered him that he must forgive seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:21-22). In practice, that means 'always.' Indeed, the number seventy multiplied by seven is symbolic and signifies, more than a determined amount, an incalculable, infinite amount. Answering the question how to pray, Christ uttered a few magnificent words addressed to the Father: Our Father, Who art in Heaven, and, after the requests that form this prayer, the last, which speaks of forgiveness: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (those who are in our debt). Lastly, Christ Himself confirms the truth of these words on the Cross, when, speaking to the Father, He begs, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Lk. 23:34). 'Forgiveness' is a word uttered by the lips of a person to whom there has been done some harm. It is even a word of the human heart. In this word of the heart, each of us endeavors to go beyond the bounds of enmity that can separate us from one another, and seeks to reconstruct the interior space of harmony, contact, connection. Through the Gospel and especially through His example, Christ taught us that this space opens not only before our fellow man but at the same time before God Himself. The Father Who is the God of forgiveness and mercy wishes specifically to act in this space of human forgiveness. He wishes to forgive those who are capable of forgiving others, those who seek to put these words into practice: Forgive us... as we forgive» (October 21, 1981).

Difficult but possible

It can be difficult to grant forgiveness. «It is impossible to keep the Lord's commandment [to forgive] by imitating the divine model from outside,» teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church. «There has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of God. Only the Spirit by Whom we live can make 'ours' the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. Then the unity of forgiveness becomes possible and we find ourselves forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32)... It is there, in fact, 'in the depths of the heart,' that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession» (CCC 2842-2843).

Now a widow, Rita left the family home in Roccaporena to move into a smaller house where she devoted herself to prayer and works of charity. She went from time to time to the top of Schioppo, a rocky peak about 120 meters high, which stands alongside the road out of Roccaporena. This hard to get to spot offers a magnificent view of the surrounding area, and the solitude found there is conducive to prayer. Rita's former desire to consecrate herself to God suddenly came back to her, and she asked to be admitted into the Augustinian convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Cascia. But despite her entreaties, she was rejected. Feeling very distressed, Rita redoubled her prayers and, one night, she heard Saint John the Baptist, who invited her to go to the top of Schioppo. There, a vision of the Precursor accompanied by Saint Augustine and Saint Nicolas of Tolentino (who had not yet been canonized) comforted her. The three saints mysteriously led her to the convent, where her request was finally accepted. The community numbered 10 nuns led by an Abbess. In novitiate, Rita read Holy Scripture avidly, began to learn to sing the psalms in the Divine Office, and prayed the Rosary. Before her religious profession, she gave all her earthly possessions to the convent.

Rita's life in the convent was not without struggles. At least once, she was tempted to return to the world. In addition, many temptations, especially against the virtue of chastity, assailed her. She fought them through prayer and penance. But the devil continued to torment her in various ways. To overcome him, Rita contemplated Christ's Passion. A very old account of her life, the Breve racconto, written on the occasion of her beatification in 1628, shows that Rita applied herself to this exercise already before her entry into the convent: «To assist her imagination in remaining always engaged in the heavenly mysteries without letting herself be uselessly distracted by less worthy objects, she imagined different parts of her simple house as the various places of the cruel Passion of our Savior. Thus, in one corner, she recognized Mount Calvary, in another the Holy Sepulchre, elsewhere the Pillar where He was whipped, and so on with all the other mysteries. This application helped her so much that she revived it later, in the convent, in the confined space of her little cell.»

Rita's spiritual life was influenced by the Franciscans, for whom devotion to Christ's Passion held a central place. Saint Bonaventure wrote to a nun: «He who does not wish to see piety extinguished within himself must often—always, even—contemplate, with the eyes of his heart, Christ dying on the Cross... If you should happen to feel some sadness, pain, boredom, bitterness, or even if you feel disgust for some good you must do, turn without delay to Jesus crucified, hanging on the Cross. See the crown of thorns, the nails of iron, the mark of the lance in His side; contemplate the wounds on His feet, the wounds in His side, the wounds all over His body, reminding yourself how He loved you, He who suffered for you in this manner and endured such torment for you!» (De Perfectione Vitæ).

A thorn in the forehead

During Lent 1425, Saint James of the Marches, a Franciscan, preached every day in Cascia. Overwhelmed, most of all by his homily on Good Friday, Rita felt herself overcome by the desire to participate in some manner in the Savior's anguish. Back in her cell, she would throw herself at the foot of the Crucifix and beg the Lord to allow her to feel at least the pain of a tip from the crown of thorns. Several years later, in 1432, she received the grace of a very special stigmatization—a thorn from the crown of Christ miraculously wounded her forehead, such that the wound never healed before her death. Documents that attest to this fact leave no doubt. Almost two centuries after Rita's death, the author of the Breve racconto affirms that the wound on her forehead is still visible on her incorrupt body. During examination of the Saint's body in 1972, in 1997, and again more recently, specialists certified the existence of an absolutely clear impairment of the bone on Rita's forehead. On the occasion of the sixth centenary of Saint Rita's birth, Pope John Paul II wrote, «There comes to light a significant meeting point for these two children of Umbria, Rita and Francis of Assisi. In reality, the stigmata were for Francis what the thorn was for Rita: a sign of direct participation in the redeeming Passion of Christ the Lord... For both of them, this association to the Passion developed from the love that has an intrinsic strength of union» (February 10, 1982).

Rita's stigmatization brought with it the trial of solitude, since the wound she bore on her forehead was nauseating and obliged her to often withdraw from the community so as not to bother the Sisters. When the Sisters had to go to Rome, probably in 1446, for the canonization of Nicolas de Tolentino, they urged Rita, with great charity, to stay in Cascia because of the stigmata, which would potentially have caused a scandal in the Eternal City. Rita prayed and the stigmata disappeared. But on the way back from Rome, the wound reappeared, as is confirmed by all the early authors.

A rose in the snow

In the last months of her life, as she was suffering from illness, Rita received a visit from a relative. At the moment that they were saying goodbye, the relative asked if she wanted anything from her home. Rita replied that she would have liked a rose and two figs from her garden. The relative smiled because it was the dead of winter, and thought that the sick woman was delirious. When she arrived home, she was greatly surprised to find, on a rose bush bare of leaves and covered with snow, a magnificent rose, as well as two figs on the fig tree. She picked the rose and the fruit and brought them to the sick woman. This miracle earned Rita the name «Saint of the Roses.»

Rita probably died in 1447, on May 22. The Breve racconto tells us that as her death approached, she experienced an apparition of Jesus and Mary. Full of joy, she then asked for the sacraments and died peacefully. Immediately, the church bells began to ring of their own accord. Rita's body did not become corrupt—this fact has been attested to at different times, several centuries removed from one another. The miraculous conservation of the body after death has always been considered by Christians to be a sign of the subject's holiness, and a guarantee of future resurrection. On May 20, 2000, before the shrine containing the body of Saint Rita, the Pope said, «The mortal remains of Saint Rita, which we venerate here today, are a significant sign of what the Lord accomplishes in history when He finds humble hearts open to His love.... Deeply rooted in the love of Christ, Rita found in her faith unshakable strength to be a woman of peace in every situation. In her example of total abandonment to God, in her transparent simplicity and in her unflinching fidelity to the Gospel, we too can find sound direction for being authentic Christian witnesses at the dawn of the third millennium.... Following the spirituality of Saint Augustine, she became a disciple of the Crucified One and an 'expert in suffering'; she learned to understand the sorrows of the human heart. Rita thus became the advocate of the poor and the despairing, obtaining countless graces of consolation and comfort for those who called upon her in the most varied situations.»

«If I weren't crippled...»

Devotion to Saint Rita began upon her death. Her first miracle that we know of took place even before her burial. A beggar of Cascia, who had come to venerate her remains, exclaimed, «If I weren't crippled, I would make her casket myself!» Immediately he found himself cured, and was able to make the Saint's first casket. Shortly thereafter, one of Rita's relatives, who had come to kiss her one last time, was cured of paralysis in her arm. As favors occurred, the Sisters hung up little votive offerings by her casket. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Rita's fame had spread throughout Italy, and would later reach the other countries of Europe. Beatified in 1628 after lengthy investigations, she was not canonized until May 24, 1900.

In 1710, a Spanish monk from the Augustinian Order was the first to call Saint Rita the «advocate of impossible causes». She is also called the «patroness of hopeless causes». The widest range of difficulties are entrusted to her: healings, work, business, success in exams... Even in our day, her intercession remains powerful, as attested to by the 595 votive offerings left in the sanctuary in Cascia in the twentieth century.

But the greatest intention that concerns us and for which we beg her is our sanctification. «This is the will of God, your sanctification (1 Th. 4:3),» recalled the Pope during the turn of the third millennium. «All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity... Since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of His Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: 'Do you wish to receive Baptism?' means at the same time to ask them: 'Do you wish to become holy?' It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48). As the Council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few 'uncommon heroes' of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual» (John Paul II, Novo millenio ineunte, January 6, 2001, nos. 30, 31).

Nevertheless, certain words from the Gospel are very demanding, and seem to surpass our strength: I say to you: love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father (Mt. 5:44-45). «Many,» commented Saint Jerome, «measure the precepts of God against their own weakness, deem impossible what is here prescribed, and say that the virtue of not hating one's enemies is enough, but loving them is to order more than human nature can bear. We must know, however, that Christ orders not the impossible, but perfection. David prayed on behalf of Saul and Absalom. The martyr Stephen also prayed for his enemies who were stoning him to death, and Paul wished to be anathema for the good of his persecutors. This is what Jesus taught and practiced...» Jesus practiced love for His enemies to give us the strength to do the same.

Let us ask Saint Rita to use her power with God to obtain for us to become merciful as our Father is merciful (Lk. 6:36).

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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