St. Roche

(1350?-1378?)

It is customary for those who paint or sculpt images of saints to identify them by certain symbols. One of the more unusual symbolic representations is that of a bearded man in medieval pilgrim garb, pointing to a sore on his thigh. Often he is depicted with a pilgrim staff in hand, and a friendly dog at his side.

This is St. Roche, a native of Montpellier, France. “Roche” or “Roch” is the French form of the name, but he is usually called by the form in which his Latin name, Rochus, is translated in the country where he is venerated. Thus, in Italy he is San Rocco; in Spain he is San Roque; in England, St. Rock; and in Scotland, St. Rollock.

Roche was a historical person, but his fond biographers have unfortunately mixed fact and folklore in their accounts. What I give you is a “sort of” summary of his story.

The saint was the son of a wealthy Frenchman (who was perhaps the governor of Montpellier) and a mother from northern Italy. He lost both parents when he was in his mid-teens, but he was raised a devout lad. Aged 17 when Pope Urban V visited his home city, he seems to have been inspired by the papal visit to make a pilgrimage to Rome. He therefore donned the traditional pilgrim cloak and hat and set out for Italy.

During the course of his journey it became clear that this young man was already dedicated to serving the poor and ailing. Furthermore, God showed his approval by giving him the gift of healing. Thus, when he reached Acquapendente, somewhat north of Rome, and discovered that the townsfolk were suffering from an epidemic of the dread bubonic plague, Roche not only nursed the sick but cured them–some of them, at least. The same was true when he got to Rome. Cardinal Anglic, the pope’s brother, was one of those he healed.

The young pilgrim remained in Rome until 1371. Then he began to move eastward and northward to Rimini, Cesena, Mantua, Novara, and Parma. At Cesena in particular he wrought a number of cures of plague and other ailments.

Always ready to risk his life in tending the plague-stricken, St. Roche himself fell victim to plague while at Piacenza (whence the customary wound in his portraits). Unwilling to become a burden to others, he withdrew into a forest to spend what were presumably his last days. But by miracle, it is said, a dog befriended him and brought him food. (This is the dog in Rock’s pictures.) Coming to know the sick pilgrim through his dog, the dog’s master took care of him thereafter until he fully recovered. Before moving on, the saint returned to Piacenza, and as if in reward, healed many of its people, and even its livestock, by a simple sign of the cross.

St. Roche’s biographers differ as to whether he ever reached France. The more striking account says that when he reached the Italian town of Angera on the banks of Lake Maggiore, he was suspected of being a spy, arrested, and imprisoned until his death five years later. He was identified at death by means of the cross-shaped birthmark on his chest.

The people of Montpellier, learning of St. Roch’s demise, hailed their fellow Frenchman as a wonderworker. In Italy that reputation was firm. When, at the ecumenical council of Constance (1414), it was found that the host city was stricken with the pestilence, the council Fathers ordered public intercession to our pilgrim saint. The epidemic ceased. At Ferrara in 1439, the cessation of the Black Death was also attributed to St. Roch’s prayer.

In 1485, the relics of this miracle-worker were enshrined in the church of San Rocco, Venice, where they still remain.

Today, the bubonic plague and related diseases that killed so many in Renaissance times are pretty much under control. But St. Roche’s intercession is still available against other epidemics. Today’s AIDS promises to become a modern counterpart of that Black Death that in its day laid low millions around the world.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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