Lost causes at the Festival of St. Rita

May 22 in Florence and far beyond

Jessie Chaffee
May 18, 2017 - 16:51

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.

This morning, her popularity breeds frustration, though. In one of the side chapels, carousels of candles burn below a portrait of the saint—wax paper lines the floor to catch the drippings. The area is roped off and two attendants, both male, accept prayer candles from the parishioners who have purchased them from a cart nearby. But there are not enough carousels and too much demand. The candle keepers cannot keep up and, rather than lighting the candles extended to him, the younger attendant places them in a box where they will sit, unlit, until there is a vacancy. The old women watch, their confusion turning to anger, then demand their candles back and jab them at him accusingly—what good are their prayers if not burned?

It is a microcosm of Italian bureaucracy, no sense to the system and the answer always the same: You Must Wait. Protests of For what? Until when? fall on deaf ears in the face of this single, maddening truth. Still these women do not dwell on criticizing the structure that sells them candles for which there is no space. Instead, in the tradition of St. Rita, they find a way around the impossible, an escape hatch—in this case, the second attendant, an older gentleman who might better respect the laws of prayer, or at least the women who offer it on this day devoted to their protection. They edge down in his direction, cajole until he silently accepts their candles, then weaves in and out of the carousels, discarding barely burned prayers for these new ones while the younger man, oblivious, continues to add to the load in purgatory.

In other parts of the church, the systems run more smoothly. In the cloister garden, I buy my own roses—3 for 5 euro, unblessed—then follow the crowd to the sacristy, where a priest says a prayer and swings a metal ball, arcing holy water over us, the drops wetting each of the petals of my peach flowers. I do not kiss the relic that he extends, but make my way back through the cathedral, to where a new crop of women are jabbing unlit candles at the young attendant, who is still unable to see what they know—that there is no such thing as a lost cause.

Enjoyed this piece? Jessie Chaffee's debut novel Florence in Ecstasy is now available on Amazon.


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