16 August 2012

16 August - Saint Roch

In France, near Montpelier, the demise of blessed Roch, confessor, who by the sign of the cross, delivered many cities of Italy from an epidemic.  His body was afterwards transferred to Venice, and deposited with the greatest honors in the church dedicated under his invocation.

Today is the feast of a very popular early-renaissance saint, Roch, patron of those who languish in prisons (which a lot of people did) and of the hospitalized sick (which a lot of people were), and invoked against pestilence and plague and skin problems (from which a lot of people suffered).  He was born into a well-to-do family of Montpellier, France, and seemed marked from birth (with a red cross on his chest) for a life of sanctity. As a young man, he was left a vast patrimony which he distributed among the poor, and leaving the administration of his lands to the care of his uncle, put on the garb of a pilgrim and set off for Rome. 

On the way, he found a plague raging in Aquapendente, and stayed to help nurse the victims (possibly he had some knowledge of medicinal remedies, or perhaps he had done volunteer work as an orderly or candy-striper).  The sick were said to be healed merely by his prayers, or by the sign of the cross, or by his shadow as he stood over them; when the plague ceased, the grateful townspeople attributed it to his intercession.

For years he traveled from one plague-ridden town to another, serving in the hospitals and bringing comfort and healing to the victims. While in Piacenza, he contracted a new and unknown infection, which caused a horrible ulcer to break out on his thigh. Unwilling to disturb the inmates of the hospital with his moans of pain, he removed himself to a place outside the city.  A small dog, either belonging to himself or to a kind-hearted man called Gothard, stayed with him, going each day into the city and returning with a loaf of bread.  Gothard (or an angel) found Roch in the woods and cared for him until he was well enough to return to his home in Montpellier.

By that time, he was so changed that even his own uncle did not recognize him.  The time being one of insurrections and wars, in which every stranger was viewed with suspicion, he was thrown into prison as a spy, where he stayed for five years until his death.  A paper was found next to his body with the writing: “All those who are stricken by the plague, and who pray for aid through the merits and intercession of Roch, the servant of God, shall be healed.”  Now, finally, everyone knew who he was and buried him with due solemnity.

Word of this spread, enhanced by the cessation of plague when Roch was invoked. 

Enter the devout body-snatchers.

Venice, that great commercial city on the Adriatic, unloaded infections at their wharves along with the treasures of the world, and felt that the relics of such a saint would be mighty useful. Since they were already adept at ‘transferring’ relics from their original resting places (having previously rescued the body of St. Mark from Alexandria), this was child’s play. The holy pirates, under the guise of pilgrims, stole the remains of Saint Roch from his tomb, and installed them in the new church of San Rocco.  No word on how the Montpellierites felt about that.

He is also the patron of dogs (for obvious reasons) and of tile-makers – at least Parisian tile-makers who settled in the area of a church dedicated to Roch on the Rue St. Honore and took him for their patron.

He is usually depicted in his pilgrim’s weeds, showing the ulcer on his thigh, and accompanied by his dog.