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Rita and her impossible flight

The saint of the month as told by Lucetta Scaraffia

Rita is the name of my maternal grandmother, a woman of peasant origins from Asti, who has always cultivated a close devotional relationship with her saint: in fact, her legal name was Magdalene but her mother, my great-grandmother, must have been well aware of the new developments if already in 1902 she decided to rename her Rita, even though the great shrine in Turin which launched the devotion to the saint in the region would be built only in 1925.

In this name change lies the history of the emergence of a modern devotion: a gospel saint, that then gave rise to a legendary tradition, is replaced by a saint who lived in history, who proposes a model of concrete and domestic behaviour for married women and mothers. The canonization of Rita, in fact, that took place in the momentous year of 1900, was addressed precisely to them, women more involved in domestic problems than in religious thought, in need of immediate and practical help.

But Rita had lived at the turn of the XIV and XV century in Cascia, then an Umbrian town of some importance for the breeding of livestock and transhumance. We have sure evidence of Rita in her body, preserved from the moment of death in a painted sarcophagus, a code where some notaries have transcribed the miracles attributed to her, and the memory preserved and handed down orally in places where her short but eventful story took place.

Or at least we assume that this was the case because we cannot reconstruct it except through a much later biography, written by an Augustinian, Cavallucci, in 1610, in preparation for the process that would declare her blessed in 1628. Cavallucci tries to organise the legends that were circulating in the countryside, and above all to fit her into the Counter-Reformation model of sanctity: Rita would have been a young woman forced into a marriage despite a monastic vocation, to an abusive husband and children who were like their father.

After years of prayer she would be able to convert her husband -involved in local feuds- who however was immediately killed: then she prays that her children die rather than become involved in their father’s vendetta. The children dying too, Rita wishes to leave her native Roccaporena, a village near Cascia, to enter the monastery dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, but she was prevented due to internecine strife. But, in a miraculous way, Rita still manages to enter the monastery, where she will be accepted and will live - performing miracles, such as the flowering of roses in winter, and receiving a stigmata on her forehead – up to death, by now in the odour of sanctity. The monastery has since then been renamed Rita: here, too, a Magdalene becomes Rita.

The seventeenth-century author glosses over- here it is appropriate to say so- a disturbing aspect of the legend, mentioned on the contrary by the witnesses of the process of beatification: Rita would fly at night in the tightly closed monastery that did not want her, from the fortress of Roccaporena, where she had retired to pray, and where there still exists a small chapel which houses the stone where she was said to have left her footsteps.

A night flight to a wild place, apparently in the company of a man dressed in skins, who was readily recognized by her as St. John the Baptist, was considered at that time a decidedly disturbing event: there were women who were condemned to the stake as witches for much less. But the beatification of Rita was supported in Rome by Cardinal Poli, a native of a village near Cascia, who was very powerful at the court of Pope Urban VIII, and it was kept hidden. The miraculous flight was then reinserted into the biography in a new nineteenth century version, and it will contribute permanently to strengthen the devotion to this saint, so powerful as to be called "the saint of impossible things." Thanks to this miraculous flight, in fact, Rita becomes a saint possessed of extraordinary power, not limited to a particular field: she can deal with - and successfully - every problem.

Rita has become in this way one of the most followed, most invoked, of saints, because the devout of the twentieth century, women only recently migrated to industrial towns who had to manage relationships that were becoming increasingly difficult with their husbands and children, saw, in the triumphant flight to the closed monastery the revelation of the hidden power to be found in suffering and oppressed women, they saw and asked for a possible reversal of their situation.

In the mid-twentieth century to women is added, as a devotee of the saint of the impossible, one of the most important and creative artists of contemporary times, Yves Klein, who went on pilgrimage to her shrine to bring her a votive offering that he had created, with which he dedicates to her all his work. It is interesting to note that not only is Klein the inventor of a particular shade of blue, that he uses for a great many of his works, called Klein blue, but that he himself attempted a flight from the window - fortunately not too high - of his home in Paris, a flight immortalized by a famous photograph.

Rita is thus revealed to be a very complex saint: she attracts the devotion of the weakest women, and is at the centre of a truly popular cult, but she is chosen as a source of inspiration by one of the most sophisticated and famous contemporary artists. Truly a saint of the impossible!

Lucetta Scaraffia teaches contemporary history at the University of Rome La Sapienza. She is a member of the National Bioethics Committee and consultant to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Her books include: Per una storia dell’eugenetica (with Camerana Oddone, 2013); Due in una carne (with Margaret Pelaja, 2008); Francesca Cabrini. Tra la terra e il cielo (2003) ( Rinnegati (2002), Il giubileo (1999), Donne e fede (with Gabriella Zarri, 1994), La santa degli impossibili. Vicende e significati della devozione a santa Rita (1990).

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