27 July, 2006

63. Rocco the pestilent saint

This is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – the Great School of St Rocco. The Scuoli Grande are very old, and in some cases, very wealthy fraternal charitable organisations, but for now, what interests me is Saint Rocco. Who was he, and how did he come to have such a grand building named for him?

San Rocco is known as Roque in Spain, and Roch in France, where he was born about 1340, supposedly the son of the local governor in Montpellier. When Rocco was 20, his parents died and he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, which was not such a good idea as the place was at that time in the middle of an outbreak of the plague. Being a religious lad, he prayed for and tended to some of the victims, and in due course came down with the plague himself. Now infectious, he was banished from the city and took refuge in a cave.

He survived the illness, and despite being left gaunt and debilitated by it he made his way back to Montpellier several years later, where he was thrown into prison – same say as a vagrant, some say because he was accused of being a spy. Even though his uncle was now the governor of the town, Rocco could not get anyone to recognize him and he died in the prison some five years later, only being identified post mortem by a birthmark on his chest.

You might think that was hardly the kind of life that would rate a major sanctification effort, and it wasn't. But apparently after he was dead and buried, it was discovered that praying for Rocco's intercession brought about some cures from the plague, a result which ranked as miraculous, and a cult grew up around his amazing healing powers.

The mortality rate for bubonic plague is between 30% and 75% if untreated and much less than that, 1-15% if treated, so you could say that at least half of the people being prayed for would have survived anyway, praying or no praying, but St Roch's 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' miracle cures were enough to get him fairly rapidly elevated to sainthood.

Rocco took a vow of poverty when he set out on his fairly unsuccessful pilgrimage, and I expect he would be very surprised to find that he is now not only a saint, but the Patron Saint of Pestilence, and that his body is encased in a glass tomb in the richly decorated Church of San Rocco, near this other lavish and expensive building also carrying his name.

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