Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two Saints Who Loved Dogs

  Back from my pilgrimage to Fatima, Lourdes and other sacred spots that I'll write about soon, I've resumed blogging as of today.  

Last week I spoke about the saints to a group of New Yorkers.  It was a pet-friendly club and two women brought their dogs.  They could not have been more different: Spud is a feisty looking mixed breed with a lot of German shepherd in him and Cameo is a fluffy white Pomeranian who regularly attends Mass.  Both of them were beautifully behaved and devoted to their mistresses. 

This got me thinking about saints associated with dogs.  Two of the most interesting are St Roch (or Rocco), the pilgrim saint, and St Philip Howard, an English martyr in the time of Elizabeth.

Saint Roch’s life was saved by a dog

St. Roch and his best friend.  The shells on his cloak 

identify him as a pilgrim.  Credit:
Saint Roch (c.1 345-1376) is one of the great pilgrim saints.  There is a large statue of him at Lourdes and more can be found at shrines throughout Europe.  We know very little about his early life, but he is believed to have been born to wealthy, elderly parents in Montpelier, in the south of France.  His birth was something of a miracle: his parents had been childless for years.  By the age of 20 Roch was a very rich orphan.  He sold off everything, donated the proceeds to the poor, and set out on a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of SS Peter and Paul. 

By July 1367, he arrived in Acquapendente, in the province of Viterbo, a region hard hit by the plague.  Many people were fleeing the city, but Roch stayed and began nursing the sick who took refuge in local churches.  He was said to have performed many miraculous cures.  Convinced now that he was called to heal the sick, he continued south to Emilia Romagna, nursing plague victims there, and finally arrived in Rome in 1368.  He attracted attention with his most famous miracle: the healing of a cardinal afflicted with the plague.  The grateful cardinal presented Roch to Pope Urban V. 

By 1371 Roch was on the road again, nursing the sick in Forli, Parma, Bologna and other cities along the
St. Roch attends a plague victim.
His little friend is almost always shown holding a loaf bread in his mouth.
way.  He was at Piacenza when he contracted the plague himself.  No one would come near him and he retreated to a cave in a forest near the river Trebbia, preparing to die alone.  But he was not alone for long.  A dog began visiting him daily, bringing him a loaf of bread and licking his sores, hastening his own miraculous recovery. 

It turned out that the dog belonged to Gottardo Pollastrelli, the nobleman who owned the property.  Gottardo became curious about what his dog was up to, followed him and discovered Roch.  He allowed Roch to remain until he was well enough to continue his journey.  Roch returned to Montpelier where he died soon after.

Saint Roch is a patron of plague victims, pilgrims, stoneworkers and the region of Basilicata.  His feast is August 16. 

Saint Philip Howard, consoled by his greyhound in the Tower of London

St Philip Howard's greyhound
was his only companion in the Tower.
 A handsome, quick-witted and frivolous aristocrat, Saint Philip Howard (1557-1595) had everything it took to be a successful courtier, even in a court as rife with intrigue as his cousin Elizabeth’s.   His own father was beheaded for treason, but Philip managed to inherit his title and his lands.  As Earl of Arundel and Surrey Philip devoted himself to all the pleasures that the queen allowed.  He treated his wife Anne badly, and even left her for a time.  Her conversion to Catholicism didn’t help. 

According to his biography at Arundel Cathedral, “the turning point came in 1581 when he was present at a disputation in the Tower of London between a group of Catholic prisoners, Father Edmund Campion, S.J., Father Ralph Sherwin, and others.  These humble suffering confessors awakened Philip’s soul and he returned to Arundel to think about reconciliation with the Catholic Church which he knew meant death.” 

St Philip Howard and his greyhound.
Credit: Arundel Cathedral
Once he returned to the Church, it was impossible to remain in England.  He was preparing to leave the country when he was arrested and held in the Tower of London.  He was tried and condemned to death in 1589.   Unknown to him, Queen Elizabeth could never bring herself to sign the death warrant and so he remained in the Tower, expecting each day to be his last.  He asked for a visit from his wife and newborn son; the answer came back from Elizabeth: he could have anything he wanted, once he attended a Protestant service.  He refused. 

And so, for the next six years, his only companion in the Tower was his greyhound.  Unlike Philip, the dog was free to move about and he visited another future saint, Robert Southwell, S.J., in a cell nearby. 

Once the irritated jailer asked Philip Howard if the dog was bringing back a blessing from the priest.  “That might well be,” Philip answered.  He reminded the jailer of Saint Anthony the Great who discovered the newly dug grave of Saint Paul the Hermit, guarded by lions that wailed at Anthony until he raised his hand to bless them.  It was not unreasonable to believe that Southwell blessed the loyal greyhound.

Philip Howard died in prison.  Visitors to the Tower can still see the words he carved in Latin on the walls of his cell: “The more suffering in Christ in this life, the more glory in heaven.” 

Saint Philip Howard, Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell were canonized among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970.  Philip Howard’s feast day is October 19.  His shrine is at Arundel Cathedral in Sussex and the memorial stained glass window there depicts him accompanied by his greyhound.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Hoarding in the Bible

            One of our local characters is an aging trust funder who has been featured on the TV show “Hoarders.”  He was one of their rare failures and now he’s about to be evicted from his apartment in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan.   What makes his story even more poignant is that he was the son of two well-known, very glamorous celebrities of the 1950’s.  He grew up in a mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast, and never lacked for material things.  Now, because he can’t let go of his stuff, he and his five cats will soon be homeless.

"The Man Who Hoards" by James Tissot,
from the Brooklyn Museum
           I’ve always thought of hoarding as a disease of modern times, a product of our affluence, so I was surprised to come across “The Man Who Hoards,” a painting by James Tissot, inspired by Luke 12:16-21, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.”  French-born Tissot (1836-1902) was a popular artist (Degas painted his portrait), known for his portraits of beautiful women.  In 1885, he experienced a rebirth of his Catholic faith and travelled to the Holy Land to study the people and landscapes.  The result was 365 gouache illustrations of the Life of Christ.  These detailed paintings, so human and yet so historically accurate, are as close as we’ll get to photographs of the Holy Land in Christ’s time. 

            In this case, we’re looking at a rich man who faced a dilemma:  his harvest was so bountiful he had nowhere to store it.  His solution was to build a bigger barn.  “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’  Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” [Luke 12:20-21]

            The lesson, Jesus told his disciples: “Do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear.  For life is more than food and the body more than clothing.. . .” [Luke 12:22-23]

            Time for some spring cleaning!  I’m ready to clear out my closets now.         

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Saint Patrick of Ireland, 

March 17th 

Picture from
     It’s time to celebrate Saint Patrick, apostle of the Irish.  He’s always portrayed in art as a gray-bearded bishop, in full regalia, driving the snakes out of Ireland.  But before he brought Christianity to Ireland, Patrick was a carefree teenager, growing up in a Roman colony on the coast of Wales.  He had probably been warned many times to stay away from the seashore, but he didn’t listen and so one day he was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  (Which I guess makes him the patron saint of kids who don’t listen to their parents.)

     Patrick spent six years tending to the sheep of a Druid chieftain, until an angel visited him in a dream and encouraged him to escape.  He walked 200 miles to Westport and found a ship that would take him back to Gaul.  After a series of misadventures, he reached home.  But he never forgot the Irish, he dreamed of them often and he yearned to return and bring them the True Faith.  With that in mind, he became a priest, then a bishop and was commissioned as the missionary to Ireland.  One previous mission had failed, and keep in mind, too that the Romans had never managed to conquer Ireland, either. 

     Many wonderful stories surround Patrick and way too many to share here.  He told some them in his Confession and the Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus.  There’s no doubt that he used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, nor is there any doubt that he loved his Faith and his adopted people.  So much so, it is said that he was granted a unique privilege: on Judgment Day, it will be Patrick who reviews the Irish.   

     Saint Patrick is the patron of the Archdiocese of New York and countless other churches throughout the world.  He is also the patron of engineers, because, according to tradition, he introduced Roman building techniques into Ireland.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ash Wednesday, 

March 5, 2014

I happen to love Ash Wednesday because it’s a chance to make a silent statement about my faith.  If you live in a large city like I do, the ashes on your forehead offer a chance to show solidarity with all kinds of people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. With that very visible mark we all become what St. Paul called us, “ambassadors for Christ.”

"Jesus in the Desert" by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy,
The origins of Ash Wednesday are lost in the mists of time.  We do know that since the time of the Old Testament ashes have been associated with repentance. Ash Wednesday introduces Lent's 40 days of fasting and penance.  This is said to be modeled on Jesus's 40 day fast in the desert when he wrestled with the devil.  

The current ceremony has not changed very much since the 9th century.  The priest still makes the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead and intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Something it never hurts to remember.

Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.  Catholics are not required to attend mass, although it wouldn’t kill you to do so.  If you can’t attend, it’s still worth reviewing the readings for the day.  They kind of say it all.  Here are some excerpts:

From the prophet Joel (2:12-18): 
            “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.  For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. . . “

From Psalm 51: 
            “A clean heart create for me, O God,
And a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
And your Holy Spirit take not from me.” 

From St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians (5:20-6:2):
            Brothers and Sisters: we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. . .working together, then, we appeal to you not receive the grace of God in vain. . .”

And, finally, from the Gospel according to Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18)
            “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people see them. . .When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you. . .”

Credit: Loyola University, MD

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Joseph of Cupertino—Patron of Astronauts

In the last few weeks I got to see the movie Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut marooned in space) and Hubble 3D, a short documentary about the real-life 2009 shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.  IMAX 3-D cameras accompanied the crew of five into space.  I watched from my comfortable seat in an Upper West Side theatre as they made five spacewalks to repair and upgrade the Hubble.  After the film, Mike Massamino, one of the astronauts seen in the film, spoke to us a little about the mission and the whole experience of outer space.

Joseph of Cupertino in a typical pose.
All this got me thinking about the patron of astronauts—Saint Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663), sometimes called “the Flying Friar.” 

Joseph was born in the small village of Cupertino in the Kingdom of Naples and as a child he was labeled a dunce and a loser.  He was hot-tempered and given to ecstasies (religious trances) while in school.  Even his own mother considered him a fool.  He was apprenticed to a shoemaker but washed out.  He felt called to religious life but was rejected by the Conventual Franciscans.  (Astronaut Mike Massamino told us that he and several of his colleagues had been rejected numerous times before they were finally accepted into the space program.  It took some of them years, but, like Joseph, they refused to give up.) 

Joseph was finally accepted into a Capuchin monastery as a lay brother (a servant) but when he went into one of his ecstasies he would drop whatever he was holding.  After eight months and too many broken dishes, the Capuchins dismissed him as incompetent.  He left the monastery with nothing and headed home in rags.  On the way, a rich uncle refused to see him.  He reached Cupertino where even his mother scorned him.  The superior of the monastery of Grottela saw something in Joseph, however.  He let him stay in the monastery stable and look after their donkey. 

Joseph embraced this lowly task and impressed everyone with his cheerfulness and willingness to serve.  The superior thought he might make a religious after all.  A religious, maybe, but a student, no way.  He could only master one passage of Scripture well enough to explain it: “Blessed be the womb that bore Thee” [Luke 11:27].  Nevertheless, under circumstances that can only be called miraculous, he passed his examination for the diaconate and, a year later, the examination for the priesthood.  On March 4, 1628 he was ordained a priest. 

 “From the time of his ordination, Saint Joseph’s life was one long succession of ecstasies, miracles of healing and supernatural happenings on a scale not paralleled in the reasonably authenticated life of any other saint.”  (Butler’s Lives of the Saints).

Most remarkable was Saint Joseph’s power of levitation:  “he would fly straight from the church door to the altar over the heads of worshippers; once he flew to an olive tree and remained kneeling on a branch for half an hour.  Happenings like these were almost every day occurrences, witnessed by hundreds of persons.” (Book of Saints)

Not everyone understood or appreciated all this.  For thirty-five years Saint Joseph was not allowed to attend choir, dine with his fellow Franciscans, walk in procession or say Mass in church.  He was ordered to remain in his room where a private chapel was prepared for him.  He was even interrogated by the Inquisition.  The Franciscans kept him moving from one lonely monastery to another, but he kept on flying.   He arrived at Osimo in 1657 and died there peacefully at the age of sixty.  He was canonized in 1767. His feast day is September 18 and it's no surprise that he is also the patron of struggling students.  You can make a virtual tour of his shrine in Osima, Italy, here:  The pictures here are from

Monday, February 17, 2014

Saint Rita of Cascia—Still Helping Brides

You probably know Rita of Cascia as a patron of desperate causes.  Few are more desperate than the bride looking for the perfect dress, unless it’s the parents who are expected to pay for it. And that is where St. Rita is still interceding.   At her convent in the Umbria region of Italy, Sister Maria Laura is busy matching brides with wedding dresses.  We could call the convent a recycling center but that doesn’t do justice to the story filed by Gaia Pianigiani of the New York Times, on February 12.

Piangiani writes that at the convent, which is attached to St. Rita's shrine, Sister Maria Laura “runs one of Italy’s most unlikely ateliers,” For years women have been donating their wedding gowns to the convent, in thanks for favors granted.  And a growing number of brides-to-be come there to find the perfect dress among these donations. 

You might recall that St. Rita herself had a miserable marriage to a bully who smashed all her wedding china.  He made many enemies and he was finally murdered, whereupon she entered the local Augustinian convent and devoted the rest of her life to good works.  She was associated with many miracles both before and after her death.  Her shrine in Cascia has always been visited by women seeking her help with their own marriages.  Many of them, grateful for favors received, donate their wedding dresses to the convent.

Today prospective brides come from all over Italy, often accompanied by their extended family, seeking a dress from those that have been donated.   Brides who can afford it make a generous cash donation, but nothing is required. 

Sister Maria Laura oversees all this.  She was a designer and seamstress in Lucca before entering the convent 20 years ago at the age of 28 and she makes all the necessary alterations.  She told the Times that she’s dressed brides in all shapes and sizes.    

One bride described her visit to the convent: “I’ve felt at home here from the very first minute.  After all, nuns have a calling.  Love is a calling, too.” 

Thank you, Gaia Pianigiani for a lovely story!

Complete story here:   Picture from You can visit the shrine of St. Rita at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

21st Century Martyrs

This amazing painting is from, but Christian martyrs are not just ancient history.  A brief item in The Tablet, a British weekly led me to a big story about the war on Christians today.    

On January 18, they cited the World Watch List, the annual report of a U.S.-based non-denominational group called Open Doors.  They report that documented cases of Christians martyred for their faith almost doubled in the year 2013 compared to 2012.  Most of these deaths occurred in several Muslim-majority countries. 

According to the Tablet,   "2,123 killings were credibly documented in 2013, after 1,201 the previous year, and the 1,213 deaths in Syria alone were more than all those reported in the whole world in 2012.  Other reports put numbers of martyred Christians in 2013 at as many as 8,000."  
 I couldn’t find the story on the Tablet’s website:  but  I tracked down the complete report here:  

The awesome thing is that in spite of these persecutions, people still choose Christianity.  Their faith is strong.  Not much has changed since the 3rd century when Tertullian told us, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”