For the past week and a half, I have spent my days at Saint Anne assisting with the Novena to Saint Rita.
On Tuesday, I was blessed to have dinner with the Augustinian priest Father Jerry Van Overbeek. Father Jerry has been a dear friend to the Saint Anne of the Sunset Community for many years. This was his last supper in this particular visit and it was a supper filled with laughs, stories of our time in the seminary, then and now, and wisdom for the future. Below, I’d like to share his homily which he delivered last Sunday honoring Saint Rita. It’s worth the read!
“Whenever our Church commemorates one of its saints, the preacher usually begins his homily by saying something about the particular saint’s life. However, in reality, as for concrete facts about Saint Rita’s life, we have had little to say – since we know very little, especially about her early years! We know that her family was poor. As for her early education, we know even less!
But however the case, Rita’s secular education is neither here nor there. If you heard her life story, these past eight days, even the little we know, you would have to agree that most of her education about life, came from from the school of “hard knocks.” It was what Rita learned about God and the spiritual life during her days on the earth that are important to us.
But Rita of Cascia was not the only woman in the world who wanted to become close to God. I would like to introduce you now to another woman who could not be here with us for these nine days and who also wanted a closer relationship with God. Her name is Sara. I introduce Sara because Sara’s life was, surprise to me, very much like Rita’s in some ways – certainly when it came to learning through “Hard Knocks!”
I’ve already mentioned that Rita and her family were poor. Sara’s family, on the other hand, was rich. Her father had a very prosperous business. Sara had three brothers and two sisters. Rita, was probably an only child. As the older teenager, Sara’s parents told her that they would be happy if she would eventually marry the young man next door. Rita’s parents told the same thing to their daughter, even though Rita told them time and time again that she wanted to become a nun. Sara never wanted to be a nun. Eventually, both young women did marry the boy next door.
As time progressed, Rita gave birth to two healthy sons, Sara gave birth to one son. Both young couples were very happy in their first year of marriage. Then, as sometimes happens, things began to change – and, unfortunately not for the better. Sara’s husband died 16 months after their marriage at 27 years old from pneumonia. Three years later, Sara, now 29 years old, married again; 2 years latter she had a second son, but this second marriage, like Sara’s first, was also short lived, with her husband dying in an accident at 31 years old, leaving Sara a widow a second time with two small children. Both of Sara’s parents, losing their prosperous business, also died prematurely, leaving all of their six children living in poverty.
Sara had to support her small family by becoming a cleaning woman. But somehow, she embraced it all and placed it in God’s hands -knowing God would see her and her little ones through- although not at all suspecting that many new obstacles were ahead obstacles she could never have imagined!
But what was happening in the life of Rita as the years began to pass? Like Sara – nothing too good! Although Rita loved her husband, Pablo, dearly, suddenly the success of their marriage began to waive as Pablo became entangled with corrupt politicians. Eventually, Pablo was murdered – making Rita, like Sara, a widow, with two teenage children long before her time.
By now, you may be wondering: How will the life stories of these two God-fearing women ever come to a good end? Can their faith in God possible bring about a happy ending? Well, not yet! Why? Because, for some reason, bad things continue to happen to good people! And, after five years as a widow for a second time, Sara unfortunately, to made a very poor choice for a third husband. This third husband, unsuspecting to Sara at the time of their marriage was a rogue.
He became a heavy drinker eventually, which only exacerbated his already violent temper. As time passed, two more sons were added to their already unhappy marriage, bringing more poverty, drinking and abuse. Although advised otherwise by family and friends, Sara because of her Catholic faith remained in this marriage for forty long years.
As for Rita, now would come the supreme test that no mother would want. After the murder of Rita’s husband, their two sons, now young men, were determined to avenge their father’s murder by killing his assassins, but not without heavy opposition from their mother. Only one way would stop her sons, Rita concluded: she would do the unthinkable for a mother – for the good of their sons she began to pray for their premature deaths and almost miraculously it happened. Both sons died of natural causes, ending their terrible dilemma. Now alone in her life, Rita saw light at the end of this dark tunnel. She was free, at least, so she believed, to enter the Augustinian Convent in Cascia, something she had dreamed of since before her arranged marriage to Pablo.
However, Rita was soon to learn that convents have rules as well – the rule being, Rita learned, that widows are not allowed to enter convents . But Rita, being a woman ahead of her times, and, after all she had gone through in her life, she had no intention of allowing a convent of nuns to stand in her way. An so, because of her persistence, and even more because of the public’s acclamation of the local people of her holiness, eventually Rita soon won the day, and was admitted to the convent- although, not without negative reactions from some of the nuns. Proving that convents and monasteries, because they are also occupied by frail human beings, are not always havens of peace and quiet – even for eventually canonized saints!
As we come near the end of the lives of these two women, we return to a final chapter in both lives, here and now with Sara.
In the 43rd year of their marriage, Sara’s third husband died of a stroke. Unable to care for herself, and with all four sons now on their own, Sara entered a retirement home with the financial help of her sons. There were thirty-seven other women in the home and four eligible widowers. And guess what happen there? Yes, Sara married one of the four widowers. Sara was now seventy-nine years old. Her fourth bridegroom was eighty-nine. At last Sara was comfortably stable, thanks to her fourth and final marriage which lasted for four blessed and happy years. Sara’s husband entered eternal life at ninety-four – Sara at 89 – spending many of her final years, like Rita of Cascia, in solitude and prayer and peace- peace at last!
Terrible losses in this life, who both loved and succeeded in love at times. How did they succeed? By placing all of the good and the bad in the hands of God, a God who never abandons those who trust Him.
Now, how do I know so much about these two faith-filled women? You may be asking yourselves? How? Because Rita of Cascia was a member of the same Augustinian Religious Community as I have lived in for the past many years.
As for the other woman whose long and complicated life story you have been hearing today…As for her – I have also studied her life in detail – her triumphs and her struggles and I’ve learned much from them as well – especially by observing her faith, her trust, her compassion, and her obvious forgiveness for others first hand – first hand!
You see – this “other” woman, besides Saint Rita whose life I have presented to you tonight as “Sara” was really named Sara Kathleen. She was my mother!