A Rose in Winter unfolds in two parallel stories: that of Saint Rita of Cascia, set in 15th century Italy, and a second one set in the present day, focusing on two pilgrims, Fideo and Tomas, whose chance meeting in Cascia during Holy Week prompts a series of tense conversations about the scope and limits of religious belief. Each of the oratorio’s movements begins with an encounter between the men and dissolves to a flashback from St. Rita’s life, the events of which serve as a kind of commentary on the men’s debate about life, death and faith.
When Pope Leo XIII canonized her in 1900, he gave St. Rita the title ‘Patroness of Impossible Causes’. At the heart of her story is the pursuit and attainment of a cause that is deeply familiar, even ordinary, but which remains no less elusive for being so: peace on earth.
In Rita’s case, that meant securing a peace between two families locked in a murderous vendetta: the Mancinis, into which she married at her parents behest, and the Chiquis. As a child, Rita had longed to enter religious life. After La Vendetta claims her husband and plague takes her children, she seeks to follow that early calling, only to be rejected because of the bloodshed in her family history. She had already publicly forgiven her husband’s killers, but it was not enough to open the convent gates. Distraught, she withdraws to a mountain to pray, and with the encouragement of Cascia’s patron saint, John the Baptist, is able to convince the families to end their bloody feud. In forging that peace, she gains her heart’s desire: spiritual espousal to Jesus Christ as a Nun.
After some years in the convent, Rita’s work as a peacemaker takes on a new and even more profound aspect. One Good Friday, while at prayer, Christ appears to her in a vision and gives her a single barb from His crown of thorns, granting her a share in the passion He endured to make peace between God and His fallen creation. She bears a physical wound from that spiritual thorn for the rest of her life. And when she dies, though it is winter, a rose is found outside her former home — a thorny testament to the vivifying charity in her soul.
To the troubled soul groping in the dark, Rita’s story can sound like nothing more than a pious legend from long ago, and Christ’s resurrection like a fond fantasy conjured up in response to the certainty of death. And so Fideo and Tomas explore the line between faith and fantasy in their exchanges.
Both men had a mother who credits St. Rita with saving her son’s life, invoking her intercession when their own infant children swallowed a poisonous substance. They knew the story of Rita who, as an infant, had a swarm of bees descend upon her — even entering her sleeping mouth — but inflicting no harm. While Fideo’s faith is weak and Tomas’ has left him, neither can shake the story of his deliverance. So they have come to Cascia to see the famous bees that issue from the Rita’s convent every spring in a kind of natural witness to the saint’s supernatural reality.
Fideo hopes to see the bees and so believe the sign. Tomas seeks to prove that they are actually flies, agents of the corruption and death that await us all in an empty and godless world. As Holy Week progresses the men struggle over their differences, revealing much about their inner lives to each other. This gradually draws them toward a truce that holds out some small hope for the peace that passes understanding.