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Rosa escapes unscathed from the flames

The saint of the month related by Rosa Matteucci

In 1233 in Viterbo, a Cathar stronghold on the road to Rome, Rosa was born, an enterprising but delicate and poorly child, almost as if she, possessing a temperament inclined towards higher things, encountered conflict in the transience of the body.

Afflicted with a disease that had deprived her of her breastbone from birth, she carried within herself little hope of life, nothing more than three years of early childhood. Small as females  were at that time, with a demure  complexion weakened by impairment, poorly dressed, Rosa found in prayer, her reason for living, her way of being and giving thanks for what had been intended for her. Although early transported by asceticism, delicate and tiny, Rosa still wanted to speak to the Emperor, Frederick II, venomously inclined to subjugate the Pope, who was contesting in the name of the faith, Frederick’s claims to the subjection of the seat of Peter. Meanwhile, Rosa defended the faith and the Holy Father against the Cathar heresy, which was spreading nihilism denying the gifts of God just like those of the devil, rooted in the thesis of Byzantine scholars who spoke of a clear and fierce opposition between spiritual purity and the transience of the flesh, with but limited means at one’s disposal.

Little more than a teenager, Rosa wanted to be accepted into the convent of the Poor Clares, which she considered the most suitable place to fulfill her desire for the absolute, the yearning that called her to divine perfection, which was for her the only possible remedy for human shortcomings. She offered herself to them with spontaneity and purity of heart, without imagining that the doors of the convent of San Damiano would ever have been opened to her, due to her physical frailty, as well as her lack of adequate wealth.

In difficult times such as these,  the poor remained poor, without hope of liberation, marginalized and ignored, forced to settle for survival rather than live a life worthy of the name. So, in spite of the young woman’s sincerity,  the Poor Clares kept her away, unwitting architects of a difficulty which was to refine the purity of spirit and determination of the person they decided not to accept.

But Rosa did not give up, she asked and obtained permission to preach as a tertiary outside the walls of the convent that had so sadly rejected her. In this way her spontaneous preaching on the streets of Viterbo began; streets populated by Cathars who were backed by the powerful emperor who never more than then continued to demand a radical redefinition of hierarchical relationships with regard to the vicar of Christ, as a token of submission of the altar to power of the military.

Her daily and ardent preaching, her declared intolerance towards the Cathars, both earned her the slash of a sword, during the siege under which the emperor placed upon Viterbo. As a result of these facts the mayor issued, for the young preacher and her family, her father and mother, a public notice by which they were banished from the city. In this way little Rosa with the magnetic blue eyes, poorly dressed, took shelter - it was the middle of winter - with her family in Soriano del Cimino, then at Vitorchiano.

She continued to fight against the excessive imperial power in increasingly miserable conditions, besieged by cold and famine, made strong only by a seemingly inane weapon, which was, however, extremely powerful. Her only tool was in fact the prayer she offered as a gift to the Catholic Church, an activity that was nonetheless never worth enough to give her the prize of entry into Carmel. The young woman remained alone in her fight against the heretical movement along the cobblestone roads and windswept walls. With the death of the emperor, which she had prophesied, the doors of the city were reopened to her. This sounds like a victory, but her character alien to the things of the world led her to think and argue in terms other than those of victories and defeats: earthly categories, thus flawed by transience. Her battle was instead for something that could not be measured by the yardstick of worldly things.

In the city, which was and was not hers, she died in 1251. Her body is buried outside the church of Santa Maria in Poggio.

Immediately prodigies begin, almost as if the real life of Rosa had started after that which we insist on calling life. Healing those who had lost their sight and those suffering from every other ailment were phenomena that call and increase the popular devotion of those who begin to call the small and remote holy preacher, the bearer of a message that is not only hers, a saint.

Unexpectedly Innocent IV, involved in the raging struggle  against the Ghibellines who were indistinguishable from the Cathars, out of the respect due to a pious soul and her mortal remains, decrees that the body of Rosa be moved from the countryside to the convent of San Damiano. In this way the convent of the Poor Clares, the place where she had been unable to enter while alive, became her eternal home. Here the body of Rosa miraculously intact, and preserved in an urn, was given the honour of being left to the veneration of the faithful. The persistence of her earthly appearance is considered the sign of the power inherent in her word: a preaching able to impose itself both on the weakness of the body, and on the transience of all things.

The flower that Rose carried in her name is something more than a symbol, as such it is capable of  emerging unscathed from flames, the legacy of the fire that devoured everything in 1357 except the incorrupt body of the saint. There was something in her transient life that would brighten the world.

Rosa Matteucci, born in Orvieto, lives in Genoa.

She has published with Adelphi Lourdes (1998; Bagutta Prize and Grinzane Cavour Prize), Libera la Karenina che è in te (2003), Cuore di mamma (2007; Grinzane Cavour Prize). With Rizzoli India per signorine (2008). With Bompiani Tutta mio padre (2010; Brancati Prize).  With Giunti Le donne perdonano tutto tranne il silenzio (2012). Her works have been translated into several languages. She works with "il Secolo XIX" and "Il Foglio".

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