Some people come to Venice for the canals, some for the romance, and some for the history, seeing it as the quintessential Italian city. I came because I’ve always loved dogs.
It’s not that the city has any more dogs than anyplace else in the world but, admittedly, Italians are very fond of their canine companions. And as any Italian can tell you, there are only three physical examples of God’s unconditional love for us here on earth: the love from one’s mother, the love from one’s grandmother, and the love one receives from a very large dog.
Only a large dog will suffice to adequately feel unconditionally loved; the dog has to be of sufficient mass (50-pound minimum) to be able to knock you down to the ground in gratitude and vigorously lick you against your will. The little ones are merely grateful that you’re not sitting on them.
I recall a Twilight Zone episode in which a character named Hyder Simpson, played by Arthur Hunnicut, and his hound dog Rip suddenly find themselves dead and walking down a long road. A man behind a gate pretending to be St. Peter, played by Robert Foulk, is trying to convince Simpson to abandon his dog and enter into his heavenly reward. Rip, however, understands the man to be Satan and refuses to let his master enter blindly into hell. Simpson refuses to abandon Rip and decides to forgo eternal life because heaven wouldn’t be heaven without Rip. As Simpson describes, “A dog’s got a right to have a man around just the same as a man’s got a right to have a dog around. If’en he wants to be anyways happy.”
St. Rocco, also known as St. Roch, was born to a wealthy family in 1340 in Montpellier, France. He was orphaned at a young age and raised by his uncle, the Duke of Montpellier. When he grew up, St. Rocco renounced his wealth and distributed his possessions to the poor. He took on the cloak and staff of a pilgrim and made his way to Rome.
While on his way there, he stopped at Aquapendente, Italy and devoted himself to helping those who were stricken by the plague, curing them with prayer and the sign of the cross. He next visited Cesena and other cities en route to Rome. Each city in which he sojourned was cleansed of the plague.
Rocco was ultimately stricken with the plague and was banished from the city. He took refuge in a nearby cave where, though he had nothing to eat, a dog faithfully brought him bread daily and licked his wounds, healing them. The dog belonged to a nearby nobleman, Count Gothard Pallastrelli, who was curious to know why his faithful dog stole a loaf of bread and carried it off to the woods every day.
We may all rest assured of St. Rocco’s sanctity; he must have been a very good man indeed for a dog to have approved of him.
The count followed the dog and found Rocco. He took pity on the stricken saint and brought him to his castle to tend to his illness. Thus, we may all rest assured of St. Rocco’s sanctity; he must have been a very good man indeed for a dog to have approved of him.
St. Rocco is venerated throughout Southern Italy, Sicily, and Spain, and his patronage includes dogs and protection against disease—especially against epidemics such as cholera and the plague. In addition, he is prayed to for knee problems, skin diseases, cattle diseases, and against being falsely accused. He is also the patron of invalids, surgeons, veterinarians, tile makers, gravediggers, bachelors, thrift store owners, pilgrims, druggists, and the cities of Venice and Potenza.
A cursory examination of scripture will find that dogs are much aligned in it. But, as bad as the anti-dog references are, cats aren’t mentioned at all in the Bible, which I love to point out to cat lovers. Here are some of the less irritating examples:
A fool doing some stupid thing a second time is like a dog going back to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11).
Getting involved in an argument that is none of your business is like going down the street and grabbing a dog by the ears (Proverbs 26:17).
St. Rocco is always shown accompanied by a dog carrying a loaf of bread in its mouth. Being depicted along with a dog is not particularly uncommon in Christian iconography, and any saint who likes dogs is OK by me. Despite this strong love between saints and their canine companions, St. Rocco is the only official patron of dogs. All of my dogs have had St. Rocco medals attached to their collars clinking away along with their rabies and ID tags. All of my dogs converted to Catholicism some time ago. I never proselytized them and can only presume they converted because I offered them a good example.
Venice’s Chiesa di San Rocco (Church of St. Rocco) is the saint’s major shrine. The church’s blanched stone façade is both imposing and familiar. The church has a single nave over which lies a flat ceiling, typical of Renaissance-era churches. The will-lit church contains eight opulent Tintoretto paintings in its Sala dell’Albergo, most of which depict St. Rocco. Tintoretto is considered the Venetian school’s greatest painter and the last great painter of the Italian Renaissance. His paintings exhibit a phenomenal, dramatic vibrancy; viewing Tintoretto’s depictions of St. Rocco, one feels spiritually drawn into the saint’s life and faith.
I stood in the church before the glass tomb which contains the saint’s relics and offered a silent prayer to St. Rocco for my dogs, living and otherwise. I took out my cell phone to take a peek at photos of my dogs. A dog will love you whether you are rich or poor, sick or healthy, educated or not. St. Rocco depended upon the unconditional love offered by his faithful companion to bring him his daily bread. Dogs offer perfect, unconditional love for which we, sinful creatures that we are, are completely undeserving.
Dogs are like that: never forgetting, never relenting, always loving, always appreciative, and always forgiving of our excesses, narcissism, foolishness, and diableries. It can even be argued that loving a dog might influence one into a greater appreciation and belief in the lord and master of all.
His patronage includes dogs and protection against disease—especially against epidemics such as cholera and the plague.
Do dogs go to heaven? They might, considering they never fell from God’s grace in the first place. But such profound questions are for greater theological minds than mine. I am merely grateful for the occasional strongly presented cold and wet snout that prompts me to continue my scratching and petting.
All Christian pet owners are stewards of the most helpless and most loving members of God’s creation we’ve taken into our homes. With every doggy treat we offer them, they prompt us to become the kind of saints they already presume we are.
This article also appears in the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 10). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Andreas Praefcke