00 9/5/2009 6:51 AM

Viterbo's prodigious patron

It was the feast day Friday (Sept. 4) of Viterbo's patron saint, Santa Rosa, one of the great saints the Italian Church produced in the 13th century. Her story is almost a continuing miracle.

She was born of poor and pious parents, in the spring of 1235, after a long time when they thought they were barren. At this time, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was oppressing the Church and many Catholics turned their loyalties to him.

Frederick at first had seemed faithful to his duty to protect the Holy See, but eventually he became blinded by ambition. His goal was to restore the “Roman empire over the world.” Rome would be the capital of the world, and Frederick would be the real emperor of the Romans.

To accomplish this, Frederick published an energetic manifesto denouncing the “world empire” of the Papacy. It was but one more example of those who would destroy true Authority in the name of “reform.”

Pope Gregory IX excommunicated the “self-confessed heretic,” the “blasphemous beast of the Apocalypse” (March 20, 1239). Frederick then attempted to conquer the rest of Italy, i.e. the Papal States. His son Henry captured in a naval battle all of the Prelates who by the command of His Holiness Pope Gregory were coming from Genoa to Rome to assist at a General Council.

After Gregory's death (August 22, 1241), the Holy See remained vacant for almost two years save for the short reign of Pope Celestine IV.

The infant Rose seemed filled with grace from her birth; her first words were Jesus and Mary; with tottering steps she sought Jesus in His tabernacle, she knelt before sacred images, she listened to pious conversation, retaining all she heard.

When but three years old, she raised to life her maternal aunt. Her body had lain an entire day in the coffin, and towards night she was to be buried. Rose, in the presence of her parents and other friends, approached the dead woman, and, touching the dismal bier, called her aunt with a loud voice. The dead woman opened her eyes, returned to health and strength, and lived for many years.

The account of this very rare miracle is to be read in the process containing the proofs of Rosa's sanctity; it is also illustrated by ancient paintings in her church, which time has now nearly effaced. The fame of this miracle spread rapidly, and so efficacious did it
prove, that the people were moved to devotion, and rose up against the imperialists, glorifying God's greatness and the holy Faith.

Another favorite story from Rosa's childhood is that one day, as she
was occupied in some holy meditation, she heard the voices of some poor people who were begging in the street.

She ran to fetch some pieces of bread she had reserved for this purpose, and went to give them to the beggars, carrying the bread in her apron. She met her father at the door, who had already previously forbidden her from such 'charities' because they themselves lived hand to mouth.

He angrily asked her to open her apron. The child obeyed, and unfolding her apron, in the place of bread, her lap was filled with the choicest and sweetest roses. Her father learned from this that He who could turn bread into roses, could also provide for this family's needs even if they helped the less fortunate by sharing their food and clothing.

At the age of seven, Rose was already living the life of a recluse who mortified herself with penances and fasting. She wore only a coarse habit and walked around barefoot.

Pope Innocent IV ascended the Papal Throne on June 15, 1243. Frederick offered some concessions, but it was clear that he was bent on having the Papal States. The Pope secretly left Rome, arrived at Lyons on December 2, 1244, and early in 1245 summoned the Bishops and princes to a Council there.

The First Council of Lyons opened on June 28, but waited for the absent Frederick for three weeks. When he still failed to arrive, the Council passed sentence of excommunication, and the Pope declared Frederick deposed of his imperial authority. This caused great turmoil in Germany, as the clergy generally supported the Pope, but the nobility generally supported Frederick (thus helping to set the stage for the Protestant revolution centuries later). Meanwhile in Italy, Frederick continued to gain control over Papal territory.

Viterbo, too, fell to the imperial power (the Ghibellines); but here, in a sickly little girl, the mighty Frederic would find one of his greatest foes.

Her health succumbed, but she was miraculously cured by the Blessed Virgin, who ordered her to enroll herself in the Third Order of St. Francis, and to preach penance to Viterbo, at that time (1247) held by Frederick II of Germany and a prey to political strife and heresy.

Hardly twelve years old, Rose went down to the public square at Viterbo, called upon the inhabitants to be faithful to the Sovereign Pontiff, and vehemently denounced all his opponents.

So great was the power of her word, and of the miracles - she healed the sick and restored sight to the blind - which accompanied it, that the Ghibellines, in fear and anger, drove her from the city in January, 1250.

Rosa and her parents took refuge in Soriano. On December 5, 1250, Rosa foretold the speedy death of the emperor, a prophecy realized on December 13.

Soon afterwards she went to Vitorchiano, whose inhabitants had been perverted by a famous sorceress. Rosa secured the conversion of all, even of the sorceress, by standing unscathed for three hours in the flames of a burning pyre, a miracle as striking as it is well attested.

Pope Innocent IV was brought back in triumph to Rome and the cause of God was won. With the restoration of the papal power in Viterbo (1251) Rosa returned. She wished to enter the monastery of St. Mary of the Roses, but was refused because she had no dowry to offer. She humbly submitted, foretelling her admission to the monastery after her death.

The remainder of her life was spent in the cell in her father's house, where she died in her eighteenth year.

Not long after, she appeared in glory to Pope Alexander IV, and bade him translate her body. from its unmarked grave where her family had buried her in secrecy to keep the faithful from trying to get relics of her. It is said the Pope himself started digging and found the body as the vision had said, but fragrant and beautiful, as if still in life. And though it was autumn, there was a rose bush with a single red rose on the spot.

The incorrupt body was transferred to the Church of St. Mary of the Roses as she had predicted she would be accepted after her death.
Her feast is celebrated on Sept. 4th, the date her body was translated.

[A recent visitor to Viterbo says that the saint's body is now dark and wizened, reportedly the effect of a fire.]

In any case, Santa Rosa's feast is celebrated in a unique way in Viterbo:

Adapted from a blog entry on 8/24/09
by an Englishman who now lives in Italy.

On the 3rd of September, eve of the feast of Santa Rosa, the people of Viterbo start their annual homage to their patron saint. It is the day of 'La macchina' - a massive 28-metre high tower, weighing over 5 metric tonnes, illuminated with 3000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and topped off with a statue of the saint.

It is carried for 1200 metres through the darkened streets of the old medieval town on the backs of 1300 volunteers called “facchini.”

The tradition goes all the way back to 4th September 1258 when the body of the saint was exhumed by Pope Alexander IV after a series of dreams which led him to her unmarked tomb.

Found to be extremely well preserved, the body was transported to the monastery of Saint Damian. With a few exceptions the procession has been repeated each year since; but it wasn’t until 1664, following seven years of plague in the city, that the “macchina” first appeared.

In gratitude for having survived such a terrible pestilence the citizens voted to renew the veneration of their saint with a float that would be bigger and and more beautiful every year.

Successive floats have reflected architectural influences and tastes of the times with Baroque and Rococo, Byzantine, Gothic and even Arabic style constructions, and grown ever taller with each new version, eventually reaching the tops of the houses.

Left, 2003-2008 Macchina; center, the 2009 Macchina.

The Macchina built in 2003 towered a good two storeys above the houses and even pokes above the churches along the route. Nowadays a new Macchina is built every five years but cannot exceed the height and weight limit of 28 metres and 5,000 kilos.

The “facchini” are selected in June. Selection depends on being able to carry 150kgs over 80 metres. Most of the facchini are veterans from many years, and ages range from 20 to over 60. The present longest serving veteran is Guido Politini with 44 years experience. Typically about 10-15 new facchini are recruited every year.

At midday on the 3rd September the town is already buzzing in anticipation. Residents of the town centrre have reserved their places by leaving chairs at the end of sideroads and alleyways leading onto the machine’s route.

At 3 pm the facchini, dressed all in white, including white bandanas on their heads, and red sashes round their waists, gather to march in procession through the town. Crowds are already gathered to applaud them as they march in ranks, shouting “Vivi i facchini” and the facchini replying with “Viva Santa Rosa!” Another chant is "E' viva Santa Rosa?" (Does Saint Rose live still?) to which the facchini reply "E' viva!" (She lives!)

Led by the town band, who will be playing their hearts out to the same tune for about the next nine hours, and accompanied by the mayor and local dignitaries they stop off at the cathedral and six other churches along the way to render prayers and songs to Saint Rose.

After all this marching the facchini take a break to eat in the grounds of a local monastery, along with their families who bring along plenty of home made pasta dishes and bottles of wine. Fortified they get their final instructions from the chief (capo facchino) who rouses them with an eve of Agincourt type speech.

The procession of the Macchina starts at 9pm. At about a quarter to nine the facchini enter the church of Saint Sisto to receive the last rites from the bishop of Viterbo, A reminder of the real danger that the task ahead holds.

In fact past processions have not been without incident, the most tragic in 1801 when 22 spectators died in the panic caused when some of the crowd mistakenly thought the machine was toppling over. Sometimes it really has: in 1814 killing two facchini. No serious incidents have occured in modern times.

With leather pouches on their heads or shoulders to spare their vertebrae and shoulder bones, they lift the towering ensemble and march off in step down hill, still preceeded by the town’s band, to the first of five resting points.

Three thousand eight hundred and eighty points of light flicker and dance as the machine wobbles on its way, the crowd are in ecstasy, cheering and screaming encouragement at the facchini.

Facchini rush to take their places under the Macchina. These are the ciuffi, there are 63 of them and they carry the weight on both shoulders and wear padded leather headgear called a ciuffo. Others bear the weight on just one shoulder.

At the first stop in the piazza of the town hall other facchini rush to place giant trestles on which the facchini underneath gently bring the behemoth to rest. Its a tricky and dangerous operation and emotions are running high.

A ten minute breather and the machine is taken up again. This time there are only about 90 facchini lifting it, as the street narrows considerably at this point, but we’re also going uphill here. With a lack of pavements on the street people crowd balconies and windows, shop doorways, sideroads and all over any handy fountain.

Everything is pitch dark, until, towering over the houses, the machine hoves into view, a rocking, throbbing pillar of light illuminating everything on either side before passing on. The crowd fall in behind as if drawn by a magnet.

Slowly the machine makes its way through the streets. An hour or so later, after three more stops, it emerges into Piazza Verdi where the biggest crowds are. The facchini turn it around 360 degrees to to line it up ready for the last and most demanding leg. The end is in sight. The final destination is in front of the Church of Santa Rosa, where the body of the saint now rests.

The road to the church is only around 180 metres long, but rises considerably. To tackle this part extra facchini join in to help, making 149 all told, twenty pulling on ropes and others on levers at the back, the tallest to the rear and shortest to the front in order to keep everything as level as possible.

After the capo facchino deems all is ready, the order is given, and they take it at at a trot. They reach their goal in a muscle bursting minute. Once the glittering tower is finally resting on its trestles the tension and the strain leaves the faces of the facchini: they have done it again this year. Now tears of joy and relief take over as they celebrate and hug each other and their families.

The city shares in their triumph. The machine will now remain on display for several days in front of the church while several thousand devotees visit and pay homage to their saint.

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to see the Macchina, a new one this year, when he comes to Viterbo on Sunday.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 9/5/2009 7:01 AM]