St. Rose of Viterbo

(1235-1252)

God sometimes calls on holy women as well as holy men to enter political contests on behalf of Justice. Queen Esther in the Old testament was one such; so was St. Joan of Arc in Christian times.

When St. Rose of Viterbo was alive, the German emperor Frederic II and his allies, called the “Ghibellines” were in armed conflict with the pope and his allies, called the “Guelphs.” Young Rose was divinely inspired to preach in Italy the cause of the pope. Hers was thus a prophetic role in a political struggle.

Rose, a native of Viterbo, not far from Rome, was the child of parents of slim means. Untrustworthy aspects of her biography represent her as working a miracle at age three. Still, she must have been precociously holy, for at age 8, Out Lady is said to have appeared to her during an illness and told her she was to don the penitential Franciscan habit, but continue to live at home and there give good example to all. When Rose recovered, she did join the third order of St. Francis, was clothed in its habit, and from then on pondered more and more man’s ingratitude to God.

By the time she was 12, the young “hermitess” was already a marvel to her fellow townsmen. Viterbo at that time was completely under the domination of the anti papal imperial party. Rose now began to preach in the streets, urging that the Viterbians not submit further to Frederick’s soldiery garrisoned there, but oust these enemies of the pope.

As St. Rose continued to denounce the Ghibellines, her father grew worried, and said he would thrash her if she even left the house. She replied, ‘If Jesus could be beaten for me, I can be beaten for Him. I do what He has told me, and I must not disobey Him.” The father, persuaded by the parish priest, withdrew his threat. St. Rose kept defending the Guelphic cause for two years, with increasingly popular success. In 1250, the local Ghibellines branded her a public enemy and demanded her execution. The mayor rejected the death penalty, but he did send Rose and her parents into exile.

Even at Soriano, the nearby village to which they fled, Rose pursued her public denunciations, and she carried the same message to neighboring towns. On December 5, 1250, she is said to have prophesied that the excommunicated Frederick’s days were numbered. He died eight days later.

On the death of the highly intelligent but stubbornly ambitious emperor, Viterbo returned to papal jurisdiction and St. Rose and her parents went home. Not long afterward she asked to be admitted to the local convent of St. Mary of the Roses. The abbess refused to receive her because being poor, she could not bring with her the required “dowry.” The young tertiary responded, “You will not have me now, but perhaps you will be more willing when I am dead.” So she went back to her father’s house and continued there her life as a “private religious.” She died on March 6, 1252, aged 17. Burial was in the church of Santa Maria in Podio. But in 1258 her incorrupt body was transferred from this church to the church of the convent of St. Mary of the Roses, as she had intimated it would be. Although she would not be canonized until 1457, Pope Innocent IV permitted the cause of her canonization to be initiated the very year of her death.

St. Rose of Viterbo is still the darling of her native city. Many other saints have been called on to defend the rights of the papacy. Usually they have done so as martyrs. This holy teenager championed the Sea of Peter not by dying for it, but by living for it.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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