The plague, known as The Black Death, raged in Europe at various times during the fourteenth century. It was the product of bacteria and it attacked the lymphatic glands, the bloodstream and the lungs of the persons infected by it. The mortality was immense during that century, usually being estimated at one-quarter to one-third of the population of Europe.
Our patron saint, Saint Roch, was born and raised at Montpellier in the south of France. That town had a university founded in 1220, and as a young man Roch studied medicine there. He inherited a large fortune when his parents died, but he disposed of it by giving it to the poor and sick in the town hospices. In 1365, he set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, being motivated to visit Saint Peter’s Tomb, and also to visit the then Pope, Pope Urban V, who had previously been a professor at the University of Montpellier.
As he travelled to Rome, an epidemic of the plague broke out. With no hesitation, he nursed the contagiously sick. Many became well again, and it was soon said that Roch worked miracles. After his time in Rome, he set out to travel back home. Again he nursed the sick and dying, until he himself was infected by the plague. A horrible painful ulcer formed on his thigh, and those he had served and nursed forgot all he had done, and threw him into the street in complete poverty. He had to look after himself in a hut in a forest, being brought bread by a dog.
Saint Roch absorbed Our Lord’s words recorded in Saint Mathew’s Gospel, ch. 25, vv. 31-40, and lived them literally. Roch was born into an influential and wealthy family, and was well-educated in a world where many were illiterate. He could have settled down to a life of comfort, ease and selfishness. However, his parents, despite being wealthy, were more importantly good and pious. They raised their son in such a way that he could forget himself in order to be able to help and protect others. When Roch’s father wrote his last will and testament, he wrote these words to his son: “My very dear child, this is what I recommend to you: take up Christ’s service, be good to the poor, do your utmost to give alms, visit and care for the sick, for these are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.”
So, despite being able to read, write and practice medicine, he chose to put himself at the service of others and spend his time with those infected by the plague. His world of comfort was replaced by hunger, thirst, illness, rejection and solitude. At the end of his life, Roch, who had been the son of the Governor, was so unrecognisable when he returned to Montpellier, that he was taken for a vagabond or spy, thrown into a prison dungeon and forgotten. After five years of being abandoned in the prison, he died.
In his first Letter, Saint John urged, “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.” Those words certainly epitomise the life of Saint Roch. Every Catholic living faith in this parish under the patronage of Saint Roch, is challenged to ask, “How much of my living of my faith, my putting it into practice, my involvement with God and others in this parish – Saint Roch’s Parish – is real and active; and how much is just words and mere talk?” Roch was able to forget himself to help small and forgotten people; he was able to act as a brother to everyone, whatever their status in life. May we be inspired by his genuine holiness. And may those who are parents raising children, try to instil in their children the challenge of Our Lord’s words in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these people, you did it to Me.” Saint Roch was the holy man he was, largely because his parents taught him to be humble and caring.