On our first visit to Cascia, Pino and I warmed frozen hands over steaming bowls of roveja soup at a January rural festival. My next visit was in late May when “everything was coming up roses”: devotees of Santa Rita gathered together, arms full of roses. Red ones.
Santa Rita died in Cascia on May 22, 1457 in the Augustinian convent, having entered the religious life after the murder of her husband and the death of two sons. The winter prior to her death she had asked for figs and a rose from the family garden in her home village of Roccaporena. Legend recounts that her fellow sisters – convinced she was delirious as snow covered the surrounding hills – were astounded when a relative answering her request found a rose blooming in the garden.
Roses. Rita. Inseparable. In Cascia, mementos include silk roses or rosaries emanating the perfume of roses. Rita memorabilia is all over the town and images of her gaze down at customers in bakeries, bars, butcher shops and restaurants.
On her feast day, May 22nd, a procession winds into Cascia behind young drummers, serpentining down from her home village Roccaporena, with locals in Renaissance dress portraying Santa Rita at different moments of her life – and those personages who were part of her life (her parents, her husband, her sons), many carrying roses. Strong local men in white shirts close the procession, bearing on their shoulders a statue of Santa Rita, bouquets of roses heaped at her feet, stern-faced carabinieri flanking Santa Rita and making space for her passage. Many in the throngs along the route pass roses to the carabinieri to put at the Saint’s feet. Others hold roses that they will have blessed after the feast day Mass, taking the treasured blessed flowers home to relatives.
The procession winds to the Basilica di Santa Rita for the outdoor Solemn High Mass in her honor, for the Basilica itself would never hold all the crowd: Santa Rita devotees converge on Cascia every year from as far away as Sicily. And what devotion to this saint! Vincenzo from Catanzaro (Calabria), holding his little daughter Elisabetta Rita, dressed like a mini-Santa Rita in her Augustinian habit, explained this devotion to me: “e’ la nostra santa suora piu’ donna” (“she is the most womanly of all our saints who were nuns”), he answered, explaining that she understood the challenges of a wife and mother as she had lived those roles.
I met another “Santa Rita” in Augustinian habit in the crowd, holding aloft red roses for benediction at the Basilica. Rosa. “I am here for a fioretto of my mother, ” she told me. Meaning literally “little flower”, un fioretto is a good deed as thanks for a prayer answered. Rosa’s childless mother had prayed to Santa Rita, solemnly promising a visit to Cascia on May 22nd as thanks if she became pregnant. Rosa’s mother can no longer come: Rosa comes for her. From Naples. I met other Neapolitans, many of them elderly and with armfuls of red roses, making their annual pilgrimage to Cascia. A Pugliese woman told me proudly that their bus had departed at 3 a.m that morning from Bari for Cascia.
Young Valerio, from Catania, Sicily was there with his girlfriend, Filippa, hugging a bouquet of red roses. Delighted to hear that my husband Pino was a Sicilian, too, Valerio was chagrined to hear that he was not devoted to Santa Rita. “Pray for him today,” Valerio advised me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. “A miracle can happen. Santa Rita is the saint of the impossible causes.”
Santa Rita, you have a challenge.