Each year on May 22 the Basilica of St. Rita in the Italian hill town of Cascia is filled with roses, blessed in honor of the fifteenth-century woman whose body is preserved there. Roses also fill churches in Rome, Madrid, Manila, Chicago, and Florence, where I find the doors of the church of Santo Spirito—so often closed—wide open in honor of this saint of lost causes, of the impossible, of the abused and heartbroken.
I take a seat in one of the crowded pews, a non-believer here to witness what makes this woman from the past so very present. The vaulted space, normally near-empty, holds people of all ages today—especially women, many of them older and helped along by daughters or nurses—an endless cycle of bodies on this gray morning. They grip roses wrapped in newspaper and make their way slowly to the front of the cathedral, where a statue of Rita stands on a floral bed. One by one, they kiss the foot of this resilient woman who, the story goes, survived an abusive marriage, then entered an Augustinian convent where she experienced ecstatic visions and received the wound of Christ’s crown of thorns. On her deathbed, she asked for a rose from her childhood garden, and though it was the middle of winter, her followers found a single flower in bloom springing up from the snow. St. Rita’s promise of protection from abuse and of hope where there is none has made her popular far beyond her small Umbrian town, a saint of the people. And in Florence, the people have come.