Friday, August 16, 2013

Hail, Rocco, protector from plague

Church of St. Rocco, Venice

According to The Golden Legend, a compilation of somewhat fanciful biographies of saints which was among the first printed books, and was for a long time more popular than the Bible, St. Rocco, (or St. Roche) was born in Montpelier in 1295 AD.  After a youth notable for marvels and miracles, St. Rocco gave away his worldly goods and set out for Rome as a pilgrim.  Plague was then widespread in Italy, and as he made his pilgrimage St. Rocco cared for the sick, and even effected some cures,  until at Piacenza St. Rocco himself contracted the disease.  His manifest goodness notwithstanding, St. Rocco was expelled from the town.  St. Rocco built a small shelter in a nearby forest, where he was supplied with water by the miraculous appearance of a spring, and with food by a dog who every day brought him a loaf of bread.  St. Rocco recovered, and returned to Montpellier, where he died in 1327 AD.

As the Black Death raged in Europe, many sought the intercession of St. Rocco, who was naturally counted a patron of plague sufferers.   A modern historian has observed that resorting to the intercession of St. Rocco bespeaks "a confidence that put even an apocalyptic disaster of the magnitude of the Black Death into perspective of God’s secure and benevolent plan for humankind.”  (You can tell he's a modern historian because he uses words like "humankind.)  Moreover, the sufferings of St. Rocco, and by extension, those of all plague victims, were looked upon as salvific, insofar as St. Rocco "welcomed his disease as a divinely sent opportunity to imitate the sufferings of Christ… [thereby elevating] patient endurance [of the physical suffering of plague to] a form of martyrdom.”

In 1414, when plague broke out at the Council of Constanz in Germany, public processions and prayers to St. Rocco were decreed, whereupon the disease duly disappeared from the city.  Afterwards, not surprisingly, the cult of St. Rocco grew very popular indeed.  When plague struck Venice in 1478, wealthy citizens arranged to have St. Rocco's relics transported secretly from Montpellier to Venice.  Not only was a beautiful church built to hold the relics, but alongside the church the wealthy Venetians built the magnificent Scuola Grande di San Rocco ("Confraternity of St. Rocco").  The Scuola is decorated with a cycle of paintings, including one of St. Rocco in glory, by a leading painter of the time, Tintoretto.

In Bolivia, St. Roch's feast is commemorated as "the birthday of all dogs," which are adorned with colorful ribbons for the occasion.

St. Rocco, pray for us.


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