The Other Patron Saint of Impossible Causes
St. Rita is venerated because of the obstacles she overcame and the miracles attributed to her intercession
The young widow longed since childhood to enter a convent. Rita’s parents refused to listen to her and arranged for her to marry a man who proved to be cruel. For many years she bore his treatment of her with patience, until he eventually softened in his attitude toward her and stopped abusing her. Not long after, he was killed in a feud with a neighboring family in their native Cascia, in Italy. Her sons died within a year, after she prayed to God to prevent them from avenging their father’s murder. Finally, free to enter a convent, she was refused by the sisters. They didn’t want to draw down the attention of the feuding families upon their convent by the widow’s presence there.
The widow nonetheless refused to give up. She pleaded with the sisters to admit her to their community. The superior of the community eventually decided to give her a task to accomplish first. If Rita could broker a peace agreement between the warring families, the convent would let her join.
Anyone familiar with the multi-generational nature of Italian vendettas might have despaired at the prospects of success for such a venture, but Rita was undeterred. She called upon her patron saints for help and set about negotiating peace. Much like the providential deaths of her sons to illness, at least one of the parties to the vendetta came down with a serious illness and lost his desire to feud. The families set aside their differences soon after, and Rita was allowed to join the Augustinian sisters in Cascia—eventually becoming known as St. Rita of Cascia, whose feast we celebrate on May 22.
Many Catholics naturally think of St. Jude, apostle and brother of Jesus, when they think of a patron saint for impossible causes. Jude, long confused with Judas Iscariot, was so unpopular for many centuries that the pious legend went that if you asked St. Jude to pray for you then you must really be desperate. St. Rita also became a patron of impossible causes, based mainly on the obstacles she overcame to realizing her vocation and the miracles attributed to her intercession after her death.
What does it mean though for a cause to be considered impossible? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a sense of the term:
Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power. The Virgin Mary is the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that “nothing will be impossible with God,” and was able to magnify the Lord: “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
“Nothing is more apt to confirm our faith and hope than holding it fixed in our minds that nothing is impossible with God. Once our reason has grasped the idea of God’s almighty power, it will easily and without any hesitation admit everything that [the Creed] will afterwards propose for us to believe—even if they be great and marvelous things, far above the ordinary laws of nature” (273–274).
While God cannot negate his own power (e.g., creating a rock too heavy for him to lift), he can do what seems impossible to human understanding—such as preventing headstrong young men from committing mortal sin without taking away their free will, or moving the hearts of feuding Italian noblemen to agree to end a vendetta so a woman he’s called to religious life can answer that call.
Do you have an intention you think might be an impossible cause? Perhaps St. Rita can be not just an intercessor but a model in how to approach God with impossible causes.
Expect failure. St. Rita’s vocational journey was filled with obstacles, some of which derailed her desire for many years. Her parents married her off against her wishes, binding her to marriage for nearly two decades. When her husband died, the local convent didn’t want to have anything to do with Rita because her family’s political entanglements presented a danger to the peace of their community.
It’s likely that you too will encounter significant obstacles that may seem insurmountable. This is especially the case when your desire is thwarted by the free will of others. For example, healing a troubled marriage very often is not entirely within your own power and depends on the conversion of heart of another person.
Keep asking. Rita didn’t allow herself to be deterred from her goal. When she had fulfilled her obligations to her husband and sons, and was free to enter religious life, Rita didn’t stop asking for admittance even after being turned away. It was her persistence that led the community’s superior to give Rita a task to accomplish that would allow her to be admitted.
Don’t take “no” for a final answer. You may have to defer your desire for a while, perhaps even for years, but persistence is essential. Perhaps you might ask if there is something you can do to either demonstrate your commitment or to resolve the issues others think are obstacles.
Storm heaven. It is said that when Rita was given the “impossible” task of negotiating peace in Cascia, she turned to her patron saints for help. Her personal cadre of heavenly intercessors were Saints John the Baptist, Augustine of Hippo (who had created the rule of life of the community she wanted to join), and Nicholas of Tolentino (a then newly-minted Augustinian saint). She evidently credited their intercession to moving God to do the “impossible.”
If you have a problem that seems impossible, petitioning saints who can be heavenly patrons in your cause may be helpful. Certainly, St. Rita or her co-patron of the impossible, St. Jude, are possible intercessors. You can also choose saints who have experienced similar travails to your own. For a relative battling addiction, for example, you could implore help from the patron saint of addicts, St. Maximilian Kolbe. If you or a loved one are suffering from a grave illness, you could petition a saint who experienced that illness—such as St. John Paul II for patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Never give up! God has great regard for persistence in prayer. St. Rita’s story is reminiscent of the parable Jesus told of the widow who kept pestering an unrighteous judge for justice in her case. The judge finally gave in, not for the sake of justice but to get the widow off his back. In response, Christ asked,
Will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:7–8).