St. Rita and 'The Rookie'

If there has been a run on St. Rita medals and holy cards at Catholic shops over the past few weeks, blame it on a family film released in April entitled "The Rookie." Based on a true story, and starring Dennis Quaid, it's a baseball tale that opens with a couple of nuns sprinkling rose petals from a basket while praying to St. Rita over the site of an oil well near the little town of Big Lake in west Texas in the 1920s. According to the story's narrator, the nuns invested money in an oil well scheme that started to turn sour. When the nuns couldn't get their money back a Catholic priest advised them to pray to St. Rita, the patron St. of the impossible, and sprinkle rose petals on the well site. The Santa Rita well, named for its patron, not only produced oil but also (according to the film) a couple of major league baseball players. During the 21 months it took for the well to start spouting oil the Santa Rita crew built a baseball field near the well, and played baseball to while away the hours. Some of the crew got to be very good ball players. Thirty years later the story of the Santa Rita well is told to a teenage boy who wants to be a major league pitcher. The teenager grows up to be the Quaid character, Jimmy Morris, a 30-something high school baseball coach who tests his arm at the old Santa Rita well and summons the courage to try out, late in life, for the big leagues. I found the reference to St. Rita as fascinating as the main story line about Jimmy Morris. So I decided to learn more about St. Rita. Here's what I found. Rita Lotti, now known as St. Rita of Cascia, was born in 1381 in the tiny village of Roccaporena, near Cascia, in the Province of Umbria, Italy. She was the only child of Antonio and Amata Lotti, devout Catholics who had earned a reputation as peacemakers among their fellow citizens at a time and in a place where disputes became blood feuds; where politics was defined as the ongoing war between the Guelphs, supporters of papal authority, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperors who challenged that authority; and where the papacy itself was in dispute. Three years before her birth, upon the death of Pope Gregory IX (March 27, 1378), the cardinals gathered in Rome elected as Gregory's successor Urban VI, whom they soon found to be disagreeable. On August 2nd of that same year, the cardinals gathered again, this time to nullify Urban's election and to replace him with Clement VII. Of course Urban, already at home in Rome, refused to leave, forcing Clement to flee to Avignon, thus beginning the Great Schism. There were, by the time of Rita's birth, two lines of papal authority, and in 1409, when Rita was twenty-eight, a third line of popes was established at Pisa. Despite the Church's hierarchical confusion, Rita's faith remained unshaken, and at an early age she expressed a desire to dedicate her life to God as a nun. But even convent walls were not safe from the instability of the time. Her parents, who had Rita late in life, were concerned for her welfare, and apparently believed she would be safer if married. To this end they found a suitable husband for her, Paolo Mancini. She accepted her parents' wishes as God's will, and was betrothed to Mancini, a town watchman, at the age of 12. She married him at 18. A good and dutiful wife, Rita bore Mancini two sons. Their marriage lasted for 18 years until Paolo was ambushed and stabbed to death, a victim of the bitter, bloody political disputes of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The pain of the sudden, violent loss of her husband was compounded when her two sons swore to avenge their father's death. She pleaded with them to reconsider, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. So she turned to God to resolve the problem. He did. There was no revenge. The boys died of natural causes not long after their father's death. Widowed and alone, Rita now turned to the Augustinian Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene at Cascia, the one she wished to enter so many years earlier. But the strife of the times found its way into the convent. Though Rita Mancini was known to the nuns at the monastery, her good character and religious devotion were outweighed by the violence that surrounded Paolo’s death. One or more of the nuns at that convent were members of the family responsible for Paolo’s murder, and the community apparently believed that adding a Mancini to the mix would upset the peaceful tranquility of convent life. Rita applied for admission three times, and three times she was rejected. So she prayed to St. John the Baptist, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Nicholas of Tolentino to assist her in ending the hostilities between the Mancinis and the family responsible for her husband's death. She was successful. The example of her own forgiving spirit, no doubt, was an inspiration and maybe even an embarrassment to the feuding families. The families were reconciled. They even signed a document to this effect, and when Rita presented the document to the nuns of St. Mary Magdelene, they no longer had reason to refuse her. At the age of thirty six, Rita Lotti Mancini realized her childhood dream. She became Sister Rita. Her years as a nun were spent in prayer and contemplation, in service to the sick and the poor, and in the many activities necessary to support the life of the small community. She was devoted to the Passion, she prayed to suffer as Christ, and after 25 years at the monastery she received a chronic head wound that appeared to have been caused by a crown of thorns. The wound bled for the remaining 15 years of her life. Sister Rita spent the last four years of her life confined to her bed, an invalid. During the winter preceeding her death, she was visited at the monastery by a friend from her home town of Roccaporena. The friend asked if she needed anything. Sister Rita wanted only one thing, a rose from one of the rose bushes at her family's home. It being January at the time, the probability of finding a rose was unlikely, but the friend acquiesced to her wishes and did indeed find a single rose, still blooming, on an otherwise barren bush. Canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1900, she was described by Pope John Paul II in 2000 at an address on the 100th anniversary of her canonization as "a sign of hope, especially to families." Her feast day is May 22. Concannon is a freelance writer from Manassas.

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