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.

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