Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Happy St Roch Day (or St Rocco, St Rock, St Roco, etc…)
August 16th is the day of celebration for this sainted pilgrim around southern Europe and anywhere Italians migrated. A parade in his honor even made the Godfather movies. In all my wanderings on both the routes to Santiago and to Rome, I kept running into statues, grottos, and paintings dedicated to him. I haven’t studied any real statistics, but I can guess that there are more chapels and churches dedicated to him than to any other Saint. His attributes are unmistakable: a medieval pilgrim with the standard floppy hat adorned with scallop shells, heavy cloak, walking staff with a water gourd attached, but with two distinctions – he’s lifting his cloak to show a wound on his muscular pilgrim’s thigh and there’s a dog at his feet holding a loaf of bread in his mouth.
His story’s a good one – these sorts of knowledge bites are sometimes written on plaques next to the churches or grottos and on guides to stain glass windows or paintings in cathedrals, or even on the paper placemats or menus in a restaurant called ‘St Roch’s Inn’ or something of the ilk.
Born in Montpellier, the legends agree, but when is a bit conflicting, with dates swinging over a few centuries from the 1200s to 1400s. All seem to agree that he, like St Francis, denounced his family’s wealth, dispersed everything he had to the poor, and went on pilgrimage, apparently to Santiago (he’s got the shell to prove it) as well as to Rome. In Acquapendente, on the via francigena, a plague had struck. It may have been the Black Death of 1348, but whatever, the date’s not really so important. He stopped his pilgrimage and aided the sick.
Next he showed up in Piacenza, a city also on the via francigena in northern Italy. He continued his work nursing the plague victims when he himself got the dreaded disease. The symptoms apparently include getting open wounds. He went off to the forest to recover or die on his own (peculiar thing to do) and every day a dog showed up to give him a loaf of bread. He survived, made his way back to Montpellier, got thrown in pokey through a case of mistaken identity, where he died right after dramatically revealing himself as the nephew of the governor responsible for the false imprisonment (okay, sure).
The thing is, regardless of the specifics of this man’s life, he was a real guy who lived centuries ago and he became a pilgrim along the same routes thousands of people make every year to this day. He generously interrupted his pilgrimage to help people in need. His kindness to the plague victims was so noteworthy that people years after his death decided that history should never forget his efforts or his character. Miracles were attributed to him during his lifetime and afterward. Sounds like he was the Mother Teresa of his day.
Were it not for the heinous devastation of the plague, would he have been just another pilgrim on the trail? Timing is everything, maybe, but afterward, during the subsequent not-quite-so-great European Plagues of 1575 and 1630, which especially hit hard in Italy, he was venerated by the individuals and towns for survival. Many of the statues, grottos, paintings, chapels evident today were created during and after these significant events. This was a pilgrim who made the big time.
The things you learn on a pilgrimage…