St Monica and St Rita – what two graceful agents of conversion can teach us this Advent

by Maria Madise 

St Monica and St Rita were born on different continents over a thousand years apart. Obviously, they could have had no contact with one another, albeit that St Rita eventually entered an Augustinian convent in Cascia in central Italy, and thus became a spiritual daughter of St Monica’s natural son, St Augustine. However, there is something that these two female saints have in common, which is more important than time and space and of particular importance to the time of Advent. It is their inexhaustible work for the conversion of souls.

St Monica (331-387) was born in modern-day Algeria. She was raised as a Christian but given in marriage to a Roman pagan, Patricius, who is said to have had a violent temper and dissolute manners. Monica’s piety annoyed Patricius, but he always respected her. A year before Patricius’s death, Monica’s ceaseless prayers and sacrifices were rewarded with his baptism. Their son, Augustine was then seventeen years old. However, another seventeen years of prayer would be needed for Augustine, led astray by heresy and impurity. Augustine himself wrote in his Confessions that “she shed for him more tears than other mothers shed over a coffin”.

Today we may find the Roman Catechism startling in its gentle reproach for our natural inclination towards the good of physical life over our spiritual good when we read: “[i]t sometimes happens that persons feel more intense sorrow for the death of their children than for the grievousness of their sins”.2 This certainly was not the case with St Monica. One bishop, whom she tried to persuade to speak to her son, declined because he saw no hope of success; seeing the intensity of her prayers, however, the bishop consoled her, saying, “it cannot be that the child of your tears will perish”.3 After Augustine’s marvellous conversion and baptism at the hands of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Monica saw that her work was done. She said to him:

“Son, what more is left for me? I care now for nothing in this life. What shall I now do and why am I here? I know not. Now all my hope in this world is accomplished. There was but one reason I wished to linger in this life a little longer: that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. So perfectly has God granted me this that I see you even despise earthly happiness to become His servant. What do I here?”4 

Very shortly after that, she died.

St Rita (1386-1456) was born in Umbria, Italy. As a young girl, she had a strong desire for the religious life but, in obedience to her parents, she married at the age of twelve. By all accounts, it was a difficult marriage, as her husband was a cruel and immoral man who had many enemies. Throughout their eighteen years of marriage, during which they had two sons — both as tempestuous as their father — St Rita distinguished herself by her patience, docility, and forbearance. Finally, her husband turned away from his abusive ways but was murdered soon after by a member of a feuding family. Rita publicly forgave the murderer but her two sons were expected to avenge their father. While Rita prayed that God would spare the boys from the guilt of blood, both boys died of natural causes the following year. Thereafter, Rita sought to enter the Augustinian convent in Cascia. She was refused several times, because she was a widow and still associated with the feud of her husband’s family; much feared, as there were nuns from the rival family in the convent. Rita implored the help of St John the Baptist, St Augustine and St Nicholas of Tolentino and, incredibly, managed to persuade both parties to sign a peace agreement and bury la Vendetta. After she had been accepted, her three patron saints are said to have carried her into the convent at night through the bolted gates. Many miracles were associated with her there, which continued after her death. At the age of sixty, she received a small, deep wound on her forehead as if pierced by a thorn from the crown of our Lord. This wound remained open until the day she died, uniting her ever more closely to the Passion of Christ, for the souls of sinners.

Whenever I am in Rome, I visit a certain cheese seller at a local market, who is originally from Cascia. All of his excellent merchandise also comes from that region. With every piece of cheese I purchase, he assures me that St Rita is most deservedly the patron of impossible causes; that there is nothing she cannot handle; that her body is incorrupt; that she is the best. The unrivalled love of Italians for their saints is beautifully illustrated in this man. Such an attitude of complete confidence in our heavenly friends is most instructive. Time has no relevance: what was possible for Rita is possible for us if we foster proper zeal for souls.

What does this zeal consist of? It is characterised by the ardent desire for the good of our neighbour and the glory of God. The spiritual classic Divine Intimacy instructs: 

“It is true that the primary end of God’s action is His own glory, but He who is infinitely good wills to obtain this glory especially through the salvation and the happiness of His creatures. In fact, nothing exalts His goodness, love and mercy more than the work of saving souls. Therefore, to love God and His glory means to love souls; it means to work and sacrifice oneself for their salvation.” 5

Complementing this, Butler’s Lives of the Saints exhorts: 

“There is no prayer more pleasing to God than that which has for its object the conversion of those who lead lives of sin, particularly sins against the faith.” 6

It would serve us well to recall the example of St Monica and St Rita, as we are preparing for Christmas and thinking of gifts for our family and friends. What is the greatest gift we have received? Is it not our Catholic faith — so glorious and so complete that those who embrace it will want for nothing? However, the reality in the world and in the Church today inevitably means that most of us are, in some way, familiar with the situation of St Monica and St Rita — with family members and friends who are far from the nourishment of the true faith. What more beautiful or more necessary gift could we give them than our patient work for their conversion? 

Humanly speaking, most of the time, there is little that can be done. Attempts to bring about anyone’s conversion by our own means would be imprudent and fruitless. God has created us free and He respects the freedom of His creatures even to the point of their rejection of Him. What is required of us, rather, is our dedication to prayer and sacrifice on their behalf. This is a real interior work that, if consistent and supported by a good Christian life, can bear abundant fruit, as amply proved by St Monica and St Rita.

Of course, there are countless other saints who have been instrumental in the conversion of those around them. St Cecilia converted her new husband, Valerian, and his brother, Tiburtius, in a very short period of time; St Catharine converted the learned men of the Emperor’s court; and St Alban his own executioners. These and many other extraordinary examples are truly inspiring but, today, it is the persistence of St Monica and St Rita and their long-suffering devotion to prayer and sacrifice that we seem to be most in need of. Perhaps, like them, our efforts will be met with ignorance, ingratitude, denial and disbelief for many years. And yet, when we truly love our neighbours, we must persevere, even if there seems to be no prospect of winning them for Christ. We are called to give ourselves up unreservedly for souls; above all, for those closest to us; so that they may share the true gift of faith that lights the way to heaven; especially now when the face of our beloved Church seems so disfigured and humiliated. 

In heaven, there are no spectators. Everyone who desires to go there must become a saint. Pope Pius XI explains: 

“Christ has called the whole human race to the lofty heights of sanctity. (…) There are some who say that sanctity is not everyone’s vocation; on the contrary, it is everyone’s vocation, and all are called to it (…) Let no-one believe that sanctity belongs to a few chosen people, while the rest of humanity can limit itself to a lesser degree of virtue. Everyone is included in this law; no-one is exempt from it.” 7

What more could we wish for ourselves and for those we love? And how can we reward better those who love us enough to pray for our sanctification than to persevere in prayer for the conversion of others and desire heaven for them? This is not a gift that we can present to them wrapped-up on Christmas Day, but it is a gift that those who do not know the faith are most in need of: to be summoned with the shepherds, if only in our prayers, to the manger of our newborn Lord.

Let us ask for the grace never to grow tired, never give up. In this lifelong work, let us always draw new strength and hope from the examples of St Monica and St Rita, who persevered until the end: 

“It is impossible to set any bounds to what persevering prayer may do. It gives man a share in the Divine Omnipotence. St Augustine’s soul lay bound in the chains of heresy and impurity, both of which had by long habit grown inveterate. They were broken by his mother’s prayers.” 8

  1. St Augustine Confessions, Book III, ch. 2.
  2. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, Baronius Press, 2018, p. 254.
  3. St Augustine Confessions, Book III, ch. 12.
  4. St Augustine Confessions, Book IX, ch. 10.
  5. Father Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, 2008, p. 924.
  6. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Dover Publications, 2005, p. 403.
  7. Father Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, 2008, pp. 6-7.
  8. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Dover Publications, 2005, p. 169.