Newsletter #30

Dear Friends and Benefactors,                                               05/20/2020
        “The Incorruptibles are saints whose bodies are miraculously preserved after death, defying the normal process of decomposition. Saint Cecilia is probably the first saint known to be incorrupt, but the bodies of these saints can be found in many places throughout the world.
     They are not like mummies, for their skin is soft and their limbs pliable, nothing at all like the dry, skeletal remains of mummies. Under usual circumstances, nothing at all has been done to preserve the bodies of these saints. In fact, some of them have been covered in quicklime, which should have easily destroyed any human remains, yet it has no effect of these saints. Many of them also give off a sweet, unearthly odor, and others produce blood or oils that defy any scientific explanation.
     Modern science relegates the incorruptibles to the status of mummies, pretending it understands and can comfortably categorize these saints. How then do the scientists explain the fact that a year and a half after the death of Saint Francis Xavier, a medical examiner placed a finger into one of the saint’s wounds and found fresh blood on his finger when he withdrew it? Or that when a finger was amputated from Saint John of the Cross several months after his death, it was immediately observed that blood began to flow from the wound? Or the case of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, whose arms have frequently bled over the last 400 years?
     No, these saints are in a class by themselves. Even though incorruptibility does not automatically confer sainthood upon the subject, it is still properly appreciated by the Church as a supernatural occurrence. The truth is that these occurrences cannot be understood outside of Divine intervention on behalf of these saints, as the laws of nature have been suspended on behalf of the incorruptible saints. Perhaps it is that God is visibly showing us his pleasure with these saints? Still, it is a physical manifestation of God’s love, and the incorruptible saints console us by their presence, seeming to plead with us to likewise make ourselves pleasing to God in all ways.” (‘The Incurruptibles’, Joan Carroll Cruz).
     Saint Rita of Cascia is one of those incorruptible saints. As the Benedict Dom Antoine Marie writes, Rita was born around 1381 in Roccaporena, in Umbria (central Italy), and was baptized in Saint John the Baptist Church in Cascia. Cascia, 3 miles from Roccaporena, is a fortified city that was part of the Papal States, approximately 124 miles 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.
     “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 (John 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.
     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. 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 (Matthew 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 (Luke 23:34). 
     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 400 feet 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).
     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. 
     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.
     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. 
     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 were not 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 Thessalonians 4:3).
     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 (Matthew 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. (Luke 6:36)

Father Joseph Poisson 

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