By Denise Trull
I have to admit, until the age of fifty-five I did not care much for St. Rita. All my life, growing up, she was merely a passing holy card here and there in an old lady’s missal--a picture of a woman in saccharine and sentimental ecstasy, pictured with a thorn in her forehead. I never even gave her a second thought. It wasn’t until my daughter Madeleine read about her when in search of Confirmation saints, and excitedly told me the whole story that I suddenly perked up and listened. It was a fantastical tale of family feuds, vendettas, murders, and violence, with young Rita set down in the center of it all, unable to escape what we would now call, with a sense of dread, the Maffia.
She was born in the city of Roccaporena, a small suburb of Cascia, Italy, in the year 1381. Her mother and father Antonio and Amata Lotti were overjoyed at her birth as they had greatly longed for a child. Both Antonio and Amata were noble, charitable people, who received the affectionate title “Peacemakers of Christ” by the townspeople. It was a title well earned, as they had to deliberately navigate the unrest and deadly feud between two powerful families in the village: the Chiqui and the Mancini. The Lotti family managed to stay out of the feuds and were a quiet, peaceful point of grace where others might find protection from the violence dominating their city. Rita was to learn her peaceful ways from them. This would be her eventual vocation. The Peacemaker.
She was a prayerful child and loved to visit the Augustinian sisters in the village. She longed to become one of them and begged her parents for this gift. Being parents of that time period, however, they thought she would be better off married into another noble family. Inexplicably, they chose one Paolo Mancini--a rich, powerful, quick tempered man who had grown up in a grudge filled, hateful environment. This was to be young Rita’s husband for eighteen years.
Paolo’s family was suspicious of Rita from the beginning. The women shunned her at family get togethers. They did not trust her. She was no Mancini woman! What was Paolo thinking? They let Rita know of their mistrust at every turn. She had to go to all the parties, all the family dinners, all the womanly get togethers and had to feel and endure their hatred simply because she was not one of the ‘familia.’ Being so young, Rita felt afraid and trapped, and she often ran to her spiritual mentor, the mother prioress of the Augustinians, begging her to let her find a hiding place among the nuns and leave this frightening world behind. The superior told her she needed to stay and sanctify her husband with her prayers and sacrifice. Perhaps she knew of what strong stuff Rita was made. She reminded Rita that the vows of marriage were holy and binding and Rita needed to find a way to reach Paolo, impossible as that might feel. After this meeting, Rita firmly decided that this was to be her vocation, making peace.
When we hear the beatitude, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers,’ I think we often imagine someone who is quiet, serene, a bit fragile and untouched by hatred or violence. St. Rita gives new meaning to the word peacemaker showing us the strength and character it really signifies. Peacemakers are courageous, because as their name implies, they make peace where there is no peace. This takes an inner strength the likes of which so many of us have never experienced. Rita had to absorb the abuse of Paolo’s violent temper. He physically abused her as well as emotionally. He was rough and vulgar. He completely ignored the way his mother and aunts treated Rita. He probably considered this normal and she just needed to get a thick skin and become one like them. He never defended her. Rita, being of solid Italian mettle herself, summoned the courage to remain who she was and stood her ground all alone. She served at their tables with a smile. She took their remarks with meekness. She generously gave kindness where none was returned. This is a peacemaker. This is what Jesus means when He asks us to be children of God. It is a difficult vocation. Thankless, misunderstood, mocked as naive. He entrusted Rita with it, this peace that would absorb hatred and transform it into a love equally strong.
Slowly, over time, with much seeking of the prioress’s council, Rita won Paolo over. He began to notice that she could be as stubborn in goodness as he was in his evil ways, and she did not let up. This stubbornness impressed him as a maffia man. He was also proud that she bore him two beautiful sons and he learned to love them deeply. He started to pray with Rita, he tried to control his temper, he tried to rein in his long learned violence in a dysfunctional family. The efforts he made were nothing short of heroic. They were all for Rita’s sake, whom he had come to love deeply. His family began to notice he was ‘getting soft’ at the hands of this troublesome wife, and they were not happy.
The feud with the Chici family began to take a turn for the worse. The Mancini family pronounced a vendetta against them. They ordered Paolo to murder one of the Chici in revenge for some unspoken insult they had dared to inflict on the Mancini. Paolo tried to avoid this duty in deference to Rita and the law of God. In anger, the Mancini family had Paolo killed by one of their own in retaliation. Rita was devastated, but she also knew that Paolo had saved his soul by not succumbing to the senselessness of his family’s violence. She bravely stood up at his funeral and publicly forgave his murderer. Her sons, however, were not to be so forgiving.
They immediately decided to avenge their father. Rita was once again overcome by the hate and violence that seemed her lot to bear. She pleaded with her sons to no avail. Then she did something I, as a mother, find amazing. She prayed that if they could not overcome their hatred and revenge, if this was too difficult a task for them to shoulder, then she prayed that God find a way to let them die before they could give in. God gave her that gift. Her sons came down with a deadly illness and both died with their mother praying by their sides. Each ended by forgiving their father’s murderer. And both died in peace. She gave up her human love for her sons, so that she could meet them once again in eternity. That is the power that emanates from a peacemaker.
Rita found herself alone in the end overwhelmed by the wounds inflicted on the innocent caught in the crosshairs of feuds. She turned, heartbroken, once again to the Augustinian convent on the hill. They eventually accepted her into their peaceful fold. Rita became a humble, quiet nun doing all the simple tasks of the house. She must have welcomed the prayer and peace of the chapel, the lack of suspicion, the feeling of being suddenly set free from a trap. How long did it take her to overcome her fears? Such a long life absorbing violence, abuse, and doing battle with it surely took its toll. Rita probably suffered from many kinds of post traumatic stress symptoms. God began to heal her slowly. She began to ask Jesus to unite His sufferings to her own, so she could bear them better. Jesus knew that this woman was forged in a crucible of ongoing forgiveness like His own, and he gave her the honor of bearing one thorn from His crown. She was pierced in the forehead by this invisible thorn. It made a wound that all the nuns could see. This was thorn that I had dismissed so casually with the wave of my hand as not worth my attention when I was younger. It was a true symbol of how strong peace had made Rita’s soul. She suffered now like Christ, as a true child of God. I can’t help but think that Paolo and her sons rose up and called Rita blessed from heaven. Her stubborn peace had brought them safely there.
When we feel trapped by a situation we think is impossible, when we have to endure the insults and coldness of difficult in-laws who perhaps laugh at our faith. If any of us has felt the sting of physical or emotional abuse from others, if we feel the affects of trauma and wonder if we will ever get well, Rita is the saint to call upon. This stubborn, peaceful woman who stood up to the Maffia and lived to tell the tale.