The New World's first saint

Aug. 24 is the fourth centenary of the death of St. Rose of Lima — the first saint canonized from the New World. The Peruvian lived a simple, austere and penitential life of consecration to God, marked by mysticism, prayer and service to the poor. Although only 31 years old at the time of her death, she left a mark with her reputation of holiness that quickly had spread far and wide. St. Rose was beatified and canonized just over 50 years after her death in 1617.

Peru’s capital, established in 1535, was still very much the “New World” at the time Isabel Flores de Olivia was born in 1586, the daughter of a Spanish cavalryman and an indigenous Peruvian woman.

The young saint’s life exhibited the faith spoken of by St. Paul when he said to the Philippians, “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (4:13). This most clearly is seen when the young saint desired to read and write, although no one deemed teaching such skills to young girls to be worth the investment. So St. Rose prayed earnestly for Jesus to teach her. The story goes that the saintly girl proved the divine assistance when she was able to tell her mother about a book she read about St. Catherine of Siena. For this reason, among others, St. Rose often is depicted in art holding the divine Christ child, who also appeared to her on numerous occasions.

Striving for purity

The name “Rose” was earned — a name by which she would be known the rest of her life — when, as a young child, it was purported that her face transformed into a version of the beautiful flower. Her rosy cheeks and comeliness stayed with St. Rose into adulthood, when she garnered a reputation for her physical attractiveness. St. Rose had decided from an early age that she wanted to dedicate herself to Christ through a life of virginity, and so she became troubled when young suitors admired her beauty. Despite the efforts of her family and friends, she turned down many men and their proposals for a life together. She even took extreme steps to ensure that she was no longer desirable to them — even rubbing pepper into her cheeks to scar them and chopping off her hair.

St. Rose’s desire to live as a consecrated virgin was a source of frustration and disappointment to her family. Her mother often would make St. Rose accompany her at various gatherings of Lima’s social elite. Along with this came much finery, all of which St. Rose loathed. She would have preferred to stay at home to pray. But when she was unable to avoid these events she would perform some act of penance in exchange for participating in what she considered a vain and indulgent lifestyle.

Her model in faith

Much of her life was patterned after the mystic St. Catherine of Siena, whose life of penance and prayer St. Rose adopted early in life after reading the saint’s biography. In many ways their personal stories overlap. Both St. Rose and St. Catherine had taken vows of virginity, eschewing vanity and courtship to dedicate themselves entirely to Christ the Bridegroom. Both saints suffered on account of antagonistic mothers who served as blockades to their daughters’ calling. Both received the stigmata as a gift from their beloved Bridegroom, binding them more closely to himself. They also both had the gift of prophecy. St. Rose accurately predicted the date of her own death — the feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, to whom St. Rose was strongly devoted because of the intense suffering associated with his martyrdom.

Like St. Catherine, St. Rose performed many strict penances in private, many of which might seem over the top or, perhaps, even delusional today. But no saint can be understood outside of the context of their particular place and time. Intense penances and mortifications were not only common at the time but were encouraged by many in the Church, especially for those who sought to unite themselves more closely to Christ. Also, in canonizing her, the Church endorsed her way of attaining holiness.

Suffering for Christ

After she felt the call to become a nun, St. Rose’s family tried to distract her. Although her father forbade her from entering the convent, he eventually acquiesced to a degree and afforded her a room to herself in the family home to pursue the life to which she was called. There she practiced her simple and austere life of mystical union with Christ through prayer, penance and a growing apostolate to the poor and sick of Lima. St. Rose sustained herself and her efforts by embroidering clothing and vestments. She is thus patroness of embroiderers.

“IMAGE"
St. Rose of Lima is depicted in a stained-glass window. Shutterstock

Later, an encounter St. Rose had with a statue of the Blessed Virgin left her convinced that convent life was not her calling. She adopted life as a Dominican tertiary, taking the Dominican habit while remaining in her family home.

During this time, her life of prayer and penance became even more fervent and observant. Strict fasting was only broken to receive holy Communion. Desiring to give her all to Christ, like him, St. Rose willingly desired to empty herself of all earthly comforts. She chose to sleep only two hours a night — on the floor — so to afford herself more time for prayer. St. Rose imposed upon herself a weighty silver crown with tiny spikes inside, which she wore in imitation of the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his passion. As with many other saints, St. Rose saw her supernatural reception of the stigmata as a gift, that the wounds and pain of the suffering Christ drew her closer to him with whom she desired mystical espousal. Such was her aim to the end, as the purported last words of St. Rose attest: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be with me always.”

Suffering affects us all. The willingness with which St. Rose adopted sufferings in this life, even taking them upon herself, teaches a valuable lesson to the world today. When suffering is something to be disdained at all costs — consider, for example, the widespread acceptance of and support for suffering-eliminating practices like euthanasia — St. Rose’s story concretely presents another way. Her life illuminates the Gospel’s wisdom on suffering. Keeping in mind Jesus’ admonition to the rich young man, the way to heaven is impossible without taking up the cross (see Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30). St. Rose reiterates this clear teaching of Christ by her very way of life, summed up best in a quote attributed to her: “Apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”

A saint for all

St. Rose died, as she predicted, on the feast of St. Bartholomew in 1617. Her funeral was a major event, drawing a wide cross-section of Lima’s citizenry — from the Spanish viceroy and the city’s archbishop to those on the peripheries like the poor whom she served.

Her widespread acclaim was one of the contributing factors that her canonization cause culminated in 1671. The speed with which she was canonized is remarkable, especially in an age when few women were canonized. Also, there were several other canonization causes that could have been advanced from Lima before her cause moved forward, including two of St. Rose’s contemporaries. These are Lima’s archbishop, who confirmed her, St. Turibius of Mongrovejo (canonized in 1726), and her friend and fellow Dominican, St. Martin De Porres (canonized in 1962).

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In many ways, St. Rose is a saint of those on the peripheries — spiritually, geographically, economically, culturally, etc. She serves as a bridge-builder among these varied constituencies. The rich and poor of Lima alike knew and loved St. Rose, as did the foreigners and natives, too. The Spanish took pride in the fact that their missionary efforts in the New World produced figures, like St. Rose, who attained to the heights of holiness. The natives and poor of Peru found the many miracles worked through St. Rose’s intercession on their behalf to be convincing of the Gospel way of life. And those who encountered difficulties in their desire to achieve greater conformity to Christ valued her zeal and commitment. Four hundred years after her death, St. Rose of Lima offers the witness for a Gospel way of life that transcends such divisions and exists solely for Christ.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.