Cascia’s Day of Roses
The last time I was in Cascia, Pino and I were warming frozen hands over steaming bowls of roveja soup at a January rural festival. On a recent visit there (May 22nd) “everything was coming up roses.” To put it another way, many of those heading there to celebrate the feast of Santa Rita had 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. According to legend, the winter prior to her death she has asked for figs and a rose from the family garden in her home village of Roccaporena. 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, you can buy silk roses as a memento or rosaries emanating the perfume of roses. Rita memorabilia is all over the town. Her image hangs everywhere: in bakeries, bars, butcher shops and restaurants. And on her feast day, a procession lead by young drummers comes from her home village of Roccaporena, with locals in Renaissance dress portraying Santa Rita at different moments of her life – and those who were part of her life (her parents, her husband, her sons) – and many are carrying roses. A statue of Santa Rita – bouquets of roses heaped at her feet – closes the procession, the statue on the shoulders of strong local men in white shirts, stern-faced carabinieri flanking Santa Rita and making space for her passage. Many in the throngs lined up along the route passing roses to the carabinieri to put at the Saint’s feet. Others hold roses that they will have blessed after the feast day Mass to take home to relatives.
The procession heads to the Basilica di Santa Rita for the Solemn High Mass in her honor – outdoors, as the Basilica 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! I asked Vincenzo from Catanzaro (Calabria) the reason as he held his little daughter Elisabetta Rita, dressed like a mini-Santa Rita in her Augustinian habit. “Perche’ e’ la nostra santa suora piu’ donna” (“because she was 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.
There was another “Santa Rita” in the crowd, in Augustinian habit, holding aloft red roses for benediction before the Basilica di Santa Rita di Cascia. 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.
A young man from Catania, Sicily, Valerio, was there with his girlfriend, Filippa, holding a bouquet of red roses. Valerio was delighted to hear that my husband Pino was a Sicilian, too – but 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 big job on your hands.