Saint Roch is one of the most popular saints. He is held in great veneration, not only in countries which witnessed his virtues, but in every country of the world. Living among those who were stricken with the plague, his thoughts went beyond the grave to that life after death, when there shall be no grief, nor sorrow, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor pain, and when death shall be no more. A faithful follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Roch truly loved the plaguestricken, like the Seraphic Saint, he saw in them an image of the Savior stricken for the sins of man.
Our Saint was born at Montpellier, about 1295. He was of a very rich and noble family. His father, named John, was governor of the city, his mother’s name was Libera. The husband and wife faithfully observed the law of God. They looked upon their subjects as children and brothers, and they gave plentiful alms for pious purposes. The general esteem in which they were held, and the abundant possession of this world’s goods did not complete their happiness. They were old, and they had no children. They prayed without ceasing to Heaven, less to obtain from Providence an heir to their immense fortunes, than a fervent disciple of Jesus Christ. One day when Libera was at Notre Dame des Tables, making her usual petition before the statue of the Mother of God, Jesus and Mary vouchsafed to grant her prayer. She returned home, announced the good news to her husband, and they both thanked God with tears of joy. Before long the promise of Heaven was fulfilled, and Libera brought forth a child, who was named Roch. On his side a red cross was deeply marked, an indication of his future work and sanctity. Libera understood her duties as a mother, and determined to bring up this child of benediction herself. Trained in virtue by his pious parents, Saint Roch grew both in age and grace before God and man. When a mere child of five years, he at times chastised his body, and he habitually deprived himself of all that conduced to softness. Thus he prepared himself to become a docile instrument of the Holy Spirit. His boyhood was spent in the practice of piety, penance, and charity.
Saint Roch was barely twenty when God deprived him of his father. His father’s last advice is worthy of being compared to that which Tobias gave to his son. “Here I am,” said the dying man, “on the point of leaving this life of trial and misery, to appear before my God. As I have nothing in the world dearer than you, and as I have constantly taken care to form your character, I think that I ought now to give you some advice which will help you to spend the remainder of your life in piety and innocence. Before all things, devote yourself to the service of God, and rnediate diligently on the sufferings of our Divine Lord. Be the stay of the widow, the orphan, and all those in misfortune. Above all, keep yourself from avarice, the source of very many sins. Be eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame, be the father of the poor, and know that by employing the property which I leave you in works of mercy, you will be blessed by God and man.” The pious youth shed tears, promised to faithfully follow this advice, and to cherish it as a most sacred legacy. When he had closed the eyes of his father, he buried the venerable old man with all the pomp due to his rank and fortune. This wound to his affection was hardly healed before God took from him his pious mother. Saint Roch bore this second trial with the same resignation and the same noble sentiments as the first.
Left alone and independent with an immense fortune at his disposal, the world was before him with all its seductions and hopes, but our Saint was firm in his resolutions. His heart was set on the things of Heaven. He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis, resigned his principality in favor of his uncle, sold his possessions, distributed the price to the poor, and having put on a pilgrim’s habit, he went to Rome on foot, to visit the Tomb of the Holy Apostles.
The plague was making fearful ravages at that time throughout the various provinces of Italy. When Saint Roch arrived at Aquapendente, he went to the hospital of Saint John, which was full of the plaguestricken, and offered himself to the superintendent, named Vincent, to help him in his office of mercy. “I see,” said Vincent, “that your charity and faith are not of a common kind, but your youth and delicate health will never endure the hard work and deadly exhalations of this house.” “Why,” said Saint Roch, “is it not mentioned in the Lloly Scriptures that with God nothing is impossible? Is it not written that we must practice charity if we wish to stand on the day of the last judgment?” Overcome by these entreaties, and fearing to displease God if he deprived the sick in the hospital of such unexpected help, Vincent conducted the holy Tertiary to the plague-stricken. Saint Roch traced on the forehead of each of them the sign of the cross, and immediately they were cured. He then went through the entire city, and in the same manner delivered those whom he visited from this terrible malady. At first a sort of stupefaction took possession of everybody, but soon it was clear that this wonderful power was the result of divine virtue. Everyone blessed God, and the young disciple of Saint Francis was venerated as an angel sent from Heaven.
To escape the honors which surrounded him, the Saint left Aquapendente secretly. He visited Cesena and other cities of Italy, curing the plague-stricken as he went, and causing many to bless the name of our Lord. At last he arrived at Rome. The mortality there was frightful, the inhabitants were in the greatest consternation. The servant of God manifested himself in the Eternal City by the same prodigies of devotedness and charity, and soon the terrible scourge disappeared before the power of his miracles. After having stayed at Rome a certain time and satisfied his devotion at the Tomb of the Apostles, Saint Roch felt himself urged to continue his journey. He turned his steps towards the north of Italy, and visited Mantua, Modena, Parma, and several other cities. Wherever he passed the sick were cured. Then God guided him to Piacenza. As soon as our Tertiary Saint arrived there, he went to the hospitals again, devoted himself to the plague-stricken, and, with the sign of the cross restored them all to health.
One night, when he was quite worn out with fatigue and want of sleep, he threw himself on a pallet to take a little rest, and he heard a voice which said to him: “Roch, My son, you have borne many fatigues for My sake, journeys, cold, hunger, work of all kinds, now for love of Me, you must also suffer great pains in your body.”
At the sound of this voice the Saint awoke, and felt as if a ploughshare had passed over his side. After having assisted so many sick people himself, he was at last laid low with a sickness that without intermission caused him fearful sufferings. God also struck him with the plague. Then raising his eyes to Heaven, Saint Roch cried out: “Oh, sweetest Jesus! I thank Thee for having vouchsafed to remember Thy servant. I offer Thee this pain and I am thankful for it as a gift from Thy hand. It is thus that Thou dost visit a wretched and sinful creature. This visit is sweet and dear to my soul. Coming from Thee, death is a gain to me.” However, his pains were so severe that he could not restrain his moans and groans, and day and night his sharp pangs drew from him piercing cries. Other sick arrived every day at the hospital, taking the place of those he had cured, and being disturbed by the groans and cries of the servant of God, they grumbled, made complaints, and begged him to stop his shrieking and to bear his sufferings with patience as others did. We must here remark that the cries of the Saint were surely no sign of want of patience, but only an involuntary effect of his great sufferings. The outward signs of pain do not displease God, if the soul is resigned and perfectly submissive to His good pleasure. Our Lord Himself, the Divine model of the afflicted, showed many signs of sorrow and suffering during His Sacred Passion.
Not wishing to be a burden to the other sick in the hospital, Saint Roch resolved to go away. He summoned his strength, arose from his pallet and, dragging himself painfully along with the help of l|is stick, he went out. When he arrived in the street, he was bewildped, he could not take another step, and sank to the ground in an agony of pain. The passers-by, seeing him in this state, murmured against the superintendent of the hospital, accusing him of inhuman conduct, and implored him to again receive the helpless sick man into the hospital. The superintendent declared that he had not turned him out, but that Saint Roch had gone away of his own accord out of extreme delicacy. The conduct of the Saint then appeared to have been prompted by insanity, and God permitted that notwithstanding all the good he had done in the city, he should be led out of it as a madman who might become dangerous.
With great difficulty Saint Roch reached the neighboring forest. There he fell down, worn out with fatigue, at the foot of a cornelian tree. He rested for some time, then perceiving a small ruined hut, he entered it and said to our Lord; “Oh, God! I know how dear I am to Thy majesty, inasmuch as Thou hast deigned to make me endure pains so justly deserved. I have not treated the sick with all the charity which Thy love deserved from me. Have pity on my weakness, and do not forsake me. Oh, most good Lord, do not leave me to perish, alone among wild beasts.” God, Who never forsakes those who trust in Him, heard his prayer. A gentle rain began to fall near the door of his hut and formed a little stream. Saint Roch quenched his thirst at the streamlet, and washed his wounds, and thus alleviated for a time his racking pains.
Divine Providence employed other means, far more miraculous, to feed the Saint. He, Who took care of the Prophet Elias, and of Saint Paul in the desert by sending daily bread by means of a crow, made use of another messenger, more intelligent and not less faithful, to bring at regular times the bread necessary for the subsistence of Saint Roch. Not far from his retreat there were some fine country houses, where wealthy inhabitants of the city had retired to escape from the plague. In one of these houses there lived a gentleman named Gothard, a wealthy but God-fearing man. He had many servants, and kept a large pack of hounds. One day when Gothard was dining, one of these dogs cleverly carried off the bread he had in his hand. The gentleman was amused at the animal’s action, setting it down as a funny trick, or to great hunger. The dog disappeared rapidly, carrying off the bread in its mouth. The next day and the day after the same thing took place. Very much astonished, Gothard finally determined to follow the animal. He left the table, and took the road which the dog had taken. The animal, guided by the hand of God, made his way to the forest, entered the hut, and put down the bread at the feet of Saint Roch, who, in exchange, gave the dog his blessing. Gothard, greatly wondered, he approached the hut, went in with precaution, and there perceived a poor young man lying on a bed of leaves, unable to move. He began to question him, but the stranger begged him to go away immediately that he might not be infected with the plague. Gothard left the hut, but greatly moved by the ghastly sight he had witnessed, returned and again presenting himself to the servant of God, offered to attend to him and to serve him until he had recovered his health.
Our Tertiary Saint welcomed with humble gratitude the companion sent by Divine Providence. Henceforth the two pious men lived together, encouraging one another by holy conversation, and devoting themselves zealously to prayer and practices of penance. Saint Roch, hearing that the plague still raged at Piacenza, resolved to return in order to help the unfortunate city. As yet he could hardly stand, but his charitable zeal supplied his want of strength. Pie started in the early morning, leaning on a stick, and went slowly to the hospital. There, forgetting past injuries and solely desirous to return good for evil, he visited the sick and, as he had hitherto done, restored them to health by the sign of the cross. He then went through the city healing all who came to him. At sunset our Tertiary left Piacenza and went back to the forest, accompanied by a number of grateful persons. Then all the wild beasts, being also struck by the plague, as if by one accord came to the Saint, and by their suppliant postures asked him to cure them. Saint Roch blessed them and they went away healed.
At the sight of all these prodigies the people again conceived a very high opinion of the servant of God. They came from all parts to visit the two solitaries in the forest, to beg the help of their prayers, and to be edified by their practices of virtue. One day, however, Saint Roch being now thoroughly cured, received a command from God to return to his own country. The good Gothard was troubled on hearing of this approaching separation, but the Saint consoled him, and told him that it was the will of God. He then exhorted him to persevere until death in the life of prayer and penance which he had embraced; he also gave him wise counsels how to sanctify himself in his solitude. Thereupon the two friends parted for a time to meet again in Heaven. Gothard lived a holy life in his hermitage, and, after his death, his fellow-citizens held him in blessed memory. A picture of him, with that of Saint Roch, is still to be seen at Piacenza, in the church of Saint Anne.
Faithful to the commands of Heaven, Saint Roch returned to Montpellier. He was to pass through one more ordeal before being called to his Heavenly reward. War was then desolating the south of France. Our Saint was so worn out with his austerities and sufferings, that when he arrived in his native town he was not recognized. He was taken for a spy disguised as a pilgrim, immediately arrested, and questioned as to his extraction, his name, his country, and the object of his journey. The Saint contented himself with quietly answering each question by saying that he was a pilgrim and servant of Jesus Christ. This great reticence, the absolute silence as to his name and country, confirmed the suspicions of his judges, and by the command of the governor he was thrown into prison. Saint Roch spent five years in a horrible dungeon, at the mercy of his jailers, who subjected him to ill-usage and the most severe privations. Yet a word from him would have sufficed to make himself known to his uncle, the governor of Montpellier, and he might have reappeared in the city surrounded with all the honor due to his noble birth. Like Saint Alexis, the servant of God preferred a poor obscure and despised life in the very midst of his relatives, to all tokens of honor and love. From the depth of his dungeon, he poured forth unceasingly hymns of praise and thanksgiving, and asked, through the intercession of our Lady, for patience and constancy to the very end. The governor and his subordinates had completely lost sight of him. When Saint Roch felt that his end was near and that his painful pilgrimage was drawing to its close, he asked to see a minister of God that he might receive the Last Sacraments. The priest on entering the prison beheld a supernatural light; the countenance of the poor captive was radiant. After having given him the Last Sacraments, he hastened to inform the governor of the prodigy he had witnessed.
Shortly after the Saint slumbered and saw in a dream a heavenly messenger who said to him: “Roch, the time is come for you to receive the reward of your labors and sufiferings, and for your soul to repose in Heaven. God is pleased with you; if you wish to obtain some grace for mankind, asked it from the Almighty before you die, your desire shall be granted.” Saint Roch awoke, his soul was bathed in holy joy. Always forgetful of himself, and solely occupied with the interests of others, he addressed this prayer to God: “I humbly beseech Thee, Oh, Lord, that whosoever is attacked by the plague, or is in danger of being attacked thereby, shall implore my protection with faith, may be delivered from his sickness, or be preserved from this scourge. I venture to solicit this grace, not because of my own merits, but in the name of Thy mercy and clemency which are infinite.” These words were hardly out of his mouth, when he expired, whilst raising his eyes to Heaven and pressing his crucifix to his heart. He is believed to have been thirty-two years of age.
As soon as Saint Roch died, his sanctity was manifested by prodigies. The prison again shone with celestial light, angels sang sweet melodies, his body was surrounded with rays of glory, and diffused a sweet perfume. By his side was found a tablet on which an angel had written in letters of gold, the name of Roch, with these words: “I announce protection and deliverance to all those who, being endangered by the plague, even of the most terrible kind, shall have recourse to my intercession.” This sweet and consoling promise is taken up by the Church in her liturgical prayer to the Saint. When the governor was informed of the death of this unknown man, he bitterly reproached himself for having so long delayed to do him justice. He nevertheless wished to ascertain the full truth of the reported prodigies and went to the prison himself. No sooner had he crossed the threshold than he was struck by the glory which surrounded the venerable remains. His glance fell on the celestial tablet and he saw the name of the unknown—it was that of his nephew! The mother of the governor, and grandmother to Saint Roch, also hastened to the prison, and uncovering the Saint’s side, saw once more the wondrous red cross with which he had been marked from his birth.
Saint Roch died in 1327. His sacred remains, glorified in some degree even before the final day of resurrection, were buried with great magnificence. A church was soon built to receive them. From the very beginning God justified the devotion which the faithful paid to His beloved servant by many signs and miracles.
During the Council of Constance, 1414, the plague broke out in the city. Processions and public prayers in honor of Saint Roch were ordered, and immediately the scourge disappeared. Thence forward devotion to our Saint spread throughout the whole world. The relics of Saint Roch were partly transferred to Arles, in 1399, and partly to Venice, in 1485. Devotion to Saint Roch has been approved by several Sovereign Pontiffs. Urban VIII permitted his feast to be celebrated on the sixteenth day of August with a proper Office for those churches which are dedicated to him.
The Bollandists give two lives of Saint Roch. One, very short, written by an anonymous writer and of doubtful authority; the other, written in 1478, by Francis Diedo, a Venetian nobleman, governor of Brescia. It was published by Surius, who makes a mistake in attributing it to a Dominican from Bergamo. In this sketch we have followed the life written by Francis Diedo.
May Saint Roch intercede for us at the throne of God that we may also walk faithfully in the footsteps of Saint Francis! May he procure the grace for us to be perfectly resigned to God’s holy will in all afflictions and adversity, so that they may be to us a ladder that leads to the hights of Heaven! May he watch over us and protect us by that same miraculous power which he so often used while sojourning upon earth, and thus preserve us from the plague of both body and soul!
– from , by Father Hilarion Duerk, OFM, published in 1919