Franciscan Saints — Rose of Viterbo

This month I have decided to write something about one of my favorite Franciscan saints, Rose of Viterbo. Partly because the anniversary of her death is coming up on March 6 (though her feast day is actually celebrated on September 4). Partly because, I am working on a biography of her, and also, as I mentioned before, because the people of Viterbo are petitioning Rome for her formal canonization.


St.. Rose converts a heretic

You probably know something of Rose’s story. She was born in the thirteenth century in Viterbo, Italy. Her family was poor but devout.  When she was growing up, Italy was deeply troubled by the violent conflict between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Emperor Frederick II, who was fighting the Holy See.  Viterbo was in the hands of the Ghibellines, or supporters of the rebellious emperor.  Many heretics, who supported the emperor, were spreading false teaching and many people fell away from God.

Rose fell ill, and seemed near death, but when she had a vision of the Virgin Mary, she was immediately cured and asked Donna Zita, the minister of the women tertiaries, to give her the cord and habit of the Third Order.  Rose urged everyone to go to church “to pray for all Christian people.” After a vision she had of Christ on the cross, she began to go through the city carrying an image of the crucified Christ and singing hymns of praise to Jesus and Mary.  This was in an age when young girls were supposed to always stay at home.

Many people began to follow Rose and some returned to the true faith.  The enraged heretics urged the Ghibelline mayor of Viterbo to do something, and he expelled Rose and her family from the city. They went to Sorriano on December 4, 1250, but because Frederick II died on December 13, as Rose had predicted, and the Ghibellines lost power in Viterbo, they were soon able to return. Rose asked to join to the local Poor Clares but was turned down, perhaps because of her poor health.  She died on March 6, 1251.

She has always been a popular saint, especially in Italy, as an example for young people of Christian devotion and courage.

Rose is a perfect saint for our troubled times. The team of tyrannical government and heretical religion seem again to have triumphed in the elites who control the culture. Everywhere we again see a loss of the true faith. The answer is the same to to proclaim penance but first to live it. This was Rose’s mission. It was not one she would have chosen for herself. She had sought the peace and anonymity of the cloister walls. But God had other plans.

I left one large question out of the above summary: how old was Rose when all this happened? Believe it or not, the answer has not been easy to establish; in fact the basic chronology of Rose’s life has puzzled her biographers for centuries. Many of them have written that she began her mission at the age of seven or eight, while others say she was ten or twelve. But why the confusion? And whar do the early documents say?

St. Rose’s life should be well-documented. A process of canonization was begun in November 1252, only months after her death. By all rights, we should have a good deal of documentation about her. But most of what once existed has been lost. The outcome of the 1252 process is unclear. The only sure bit of documentation we have from it is the bull  Pope Innocent IV ordering it to take place. (1) Unfortunately, for various reasons, including a disastrous fire, the rest of what must have been a precious mine of early documentation was lost.

Rose’s second canonization process did not begin until 1457, more than 200 years after her death. It sought to overcome the shortage of documents and establish what could be known with certainly. It is the two lives of Rose that were included in this process as documentation that have given rise to confusion, which began in 1748 when they were first published in the Acta Sanctorum (or ASS).

The Vita to which the editors of the Acta Sanctorum gave the most attention was the longer one. Its author claims to have drawn from “things I found related in certain ancient documents, things worthy of belief and that were testified to by devout persons, and faithfully written, down, as they saw and heard from the mouth of the aforesaid Virgin Rose.” (2) This wording suggests that he used material from the 1252 process itself, including the testimonies of eyewitnesses.

The other life appeared in the process as an appendix to the first-mentioned one.  It exists only in a fragmentary form; it begins with Rose’s illness and her vision, and goes up to her exile with her parents and her prediction of the death of Frederick II, and its fulfillment. Then it breaks off.

The editor of the ASS who wrote the entry on Rose, Constantin Suysken, thought that the first and longer life was by far the better and more authoritative. He was following the critical historical views favored by the Enlightenment, which tended to regard the sources that enhanced the miraculous elements of a situation as later and derivative. He writes:

“[The author narrates Rose’s] reception, at the order of the Mother of God, of the habit of the Tertiaries of St. Francis with many circumstances that approach closely to fables; again he mixes in heavenly apparitions. I am publishing the previous life as being more elegant, complete and sincere.” (3)

As a result Suysken relegated discussion of this shorter, less complete life to his footnotes. It is odd that he should speak as he did about the difference between the two lives, for the longer life he so favored had provided a much longer and more detailed account of Rose’s heavenly visions!

This decision had a fateful effect on study of Rose’s life. Following Suysken’s lead, most writers assumed the longer Vita was the authoritative one, and used it as their principal source.

This author relates the story of Rose’s vision of the Blessed Virgin and the mission she received to go through the streets carrying the cross in his account of the events of her early childhood. This led most of Rose’s subsequent biographers up to the twentieth century to believe that she began her mission as early as the age of seven.

It was only in the twentieth century that scholars turned from the later process to looking at the original documents on which it was based, and this study made it clear that the shorter Vita was a very ancient document, and the earliest and most authoritative source for Rose’s life.  This was largely due to the invaluable work of Fr. Giuseppe Abate, O.F.M. Conv., who edited a critical text of the lives and even more important, wrote a detailed study of the sources and chronology of Rose’s life in 1952. (4)


This is perhaps the earliest image of St. Rose. It is a drawing made on the back of the parchment scroll on which the Vita I is written. It shows Rose without a halo and carrying a small square object. The Vita I tells us that this was a maestà or hinged panel that opened to show an image of the crucifixion,which Rose carried through the streets.

Scholars now believe that the shorter life (which we now know as Vita I) seems to have been taken directly from the memories of those who had witnessed and taken part in some very recent and exciting events. Some believe it may have been part of the documents of the 1252 canonization process. It is not, however, in the form of the type of official sworn testimonies that are found in such a process. (5)
Some think it may have been drawn up as part of the initial movement to petition the Pope to open Rose’s process. (6)

The other life is now known as the Vita II. Scholars now believe that it was composed between 1400 and 1457, when it was entered into the acts of the process. This means it was written about 150-200 years after Rose’s death. The author clearly used the Vita I, but also used material from unknown sources. But its author seems not to have understood some aspects of his sources, including the chronology of the Vita I, which does not include any dates. This is probably why he inserted her vision where he did.

Studying the text of the lives, Abate also solved the all-important question of when Rose’s mission began. He noted that while the Vita I doesn’t contain any dates or give Rose’s age, it does have chronological indications. It says that the the evening of the vision, Rose was ill, and when her mother urged her to eat something, she said, “Mother, I don’t want to eat, because tomorrow is the Vigil of St. John the Baptist (i.e. June 23).” A little later, she asked those present to pray for the king of France (Louis IX), who was then fighting the Sarecens. Abate determined that the only year during Louis IX’s first crusade when June 23 fell on a Thursday was 1250. So Rose’s campaign in the streets of Viterbo lasted from June 23 to the beginning of December, 1250, when she and her family were exiled—a period of five months, rather than the two years or longer some biographers had suggested. We know from examination of her remains that Rose was about eighteen when she died (March 6, 1251), so she was around seventeen at the time of her vision – quite a difference from earlier statements! (7)

Unfortunately, the writing of popular saints’ lives does not seem to have kept up with scholarship, so from time to to time you will see an account, especially on the internet, that say Rose’s mission began when she was seven.

But now you know the truth.


(1) The Latin text of  the bull, dated Nov. 25, 1252, is in  Giuseppe  Abate, S. Rosa da Viterbo, terziaria francescana (1233-1251): Fonti storiche della vita e loro revisione critica. (Rome: Editrice Miscellanea Francescana, 1952), pp. 117-118.

(2) Vita II, ch. II, Abate, p. 126.

(3) ASS, Septembris II (1748), no. 7, p. 415.

(4) Abate, S. Rosa da Viterbo.

(5) Abate, p. 126, note 1.

(6) Suggested by Rosa Mincuzzi, Santa Rosa da Viterbo, penitente del XIII secolo, Estratto da Analecta TOR 31 /165 (2000). [S.l. : s.n.], 2000,  p. 21.

(7)  Abate, p. 227, note 3.

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