A Memory from August
My first introduction to the cultus of San Rocco came, through, of all things, a screening of The Godfather II. A close friend of mine had been so taken with the scene where young Don Corleone rubs out...well, I honestly can't remember who was shooting who, or whether it was before or after they ended up stealing that sofa from Fanucci's house, but the point was, the tenement murder was juxtaposed against the procession outside, profane blood against the sacred, gunshots muffled by celebratory firecrackers. As a consequence, San Rocco and his procession have since been surrounded by a strange and holy halo in my mind, a primal, earthy good full of the sun and grapes of Italy that will forever justify and counteract whatever petty violence crops up in a culture.
Also, it's hard not to remember the supremely odd and rather oddly wonderful image of a gilded, wooden saint cloaked in a feathery fringe of a hundred dollar bills, one of those apparently inexplicable but somehow significant bits of folk-Catholicism that so impress themselves on the mind.
The word earthy is particularly appropriate here--and the Frenchman Roque's feast comes from the Italian earth of Potenza, where, as San Rocco, he is highly venerated. His spiritual children brought him and the festival with them across the sea to the new world, a rooted, organic presence to turn to in the grime, confusion, smoke and steel of the New World. He is popular--as in the sense of in the people, and his festival is full of the popular enthusiasm and deep-rooted and God-given spiritual cravings that humanity can only manifest, can only express and attempt to satiate through the medium of the physical. It's the sort of impulse that some might call pagan, and indeed it was prefigured in some pale way by the dim, smoking sanctuaries of the Greeks and Romans, but it reaches its ultimate apotheosis and justification in the Christian ideal, the redemption of the physical that is the Incarnation.
San Rocco's feast is a commemoration of the long-suffering saint's life, of his pilgrimage, his plague-wound, and his anonymous, humble death, but it is also an opportunity to present the first-fruits of the harvest to God. There are the dollar-bills--an ancestral muscle-memory of the days when San Rocco might have been garlanded with wheat and grapes, something that an outsider might condemn in five seconds as idolatry, but in five minutes makes perfect sense. And then, as we processed around, I realized that every time we stopped in front of a restaurant, a mortician's, another restaurant and deli, we stopped and turned the statue around with a florish of Little-Italy brass and clapping and "Viva San Rocco!" each proprietor had put an elegant display out along the processional route of all his produce--a dinner-plate of pasta, plastic-wrapped, bottles of wine, glasses, slices of mozzerella, as an ex-voto of thanks for another good year, passed on to God via his saint Rocco. A literal mind might condemn this as a superstition, seeing only its physical form, but the Italians and Italian-Americans are too forthright and sensible not to see its true spiritual significance.
Prayer is a sacrifice of time, a superfluous and "excessive" act--just as is the gift of a bushel of grain or a sack of flower to the cultus of a saint who would seem to have no immediate use for it. Like the Magdalene and her jar of perfume, sweetening the feet of Christ for the sake of sacred excess.