Saint of the Day – 23 May – St John Baptist de Rossi born Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi (22 February 1698 at Voltaggio, diocese of Genoa, Italy – 23 May 1764 at Trinita dei Pellegrini, Italy of multiple strokes) Priest, Preacher and Teacher and apostle of Charity.
St John Baptist was born at the beginning of 1698 in Voltaggio as the last of four children to Carlo de’ Rossi and Francesca Anfosi who were poor but pious. His initial education was under the care of the two priests Scipio Gaetano and Giuseppe Repetto who noted his potential and brilliance and held him as their favorite student. In 1708 he met a noble couple (Giovanni Scorza and Maria Battina Cambiasi) from Genoa after a Mass who took him in as a page after noting his potential – after his father approved – and he went to school there until 1711. His father’s sudden death in 1710 saw his mother plead with him to return home but Rossi was firm in his resolve to continue with his studies; his sole brother (older than him) died not long after their father. Rossi met two Capuchin friars at the Scorza residence one evening (he had begged to meet them) who thought well of him and offered to help him continue his studies. He had known the friars – or of them – for an uncle was one of them as he mentioned to them. ] At the suggestion of his cousin Lorenzo de’ Rossi – the canon of Santa Maria in Cosmedin – he travelled to Rome in 1711 in order to commence his studies at the Collegium Romanum under the guidance of the Jesuits (he first had to receive his mother’s permission). Rossi also studied at the Dominican College of Saint Thomas (underwent his philosophical and theological studies under them). It was around this time that he joined the “Ristretto of the Twelve Apostles”. On one occasion he attended Mass but fainted and was found to have had suffered an epileptic seizure; this would be something he would have to grapple with for the remainder of his life and it meant he would not be able to attend classes sometimes due to the tiredness and the pain.
His desire to become a priest was strong but was hampered due to his suffering of epileptic fits which would exclude one from the priesthood in normal circumstances. Nonetheless he was granted a special dispensation on 3 March 1721 and was ordained to the priesthood soon after on 8 March. He worked in Rome on behalf of homeless women who wandered the streets while being careful to the needs of the sick while helping to found a hospice for homeless women near Saint Galla’s. He also aided prisoners and workers and became an ultra-popular confessor. Rossi became known as a second Saint Philip Neri and he was known for a strong and special devotion to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.
On a superficial level St. John Baptist de Rossi’s life was uneventful. A simple priest, for forty years he worked in the capacity of an assistant priest in Rome. On a spiritual level, however, he touched thousands of needy people—the sick, the homeless, prostitutes, transient cattle drivers who came to market in Rome, and other rough sorts. By day he devoted himself to the sick poor in Rome’s hospitals. By night he ministered to street people at a refuge.
Caregivers can look to John Baptist as a model. Before he would speak to a dying person about salvation, he did all he could to relieve their suffering. No service for the sick, no matter how repugnant, repulsed him. And his selflessness won people’s hearts. Here is an excerpt from one of his sermons to his fellow priests:
“Ignorance is the leprosy of the soul. How many such lepers exist in the church here in Rome, where many people don’t even know what’s necessary for their salvation? It must be our business to try to cure this disease. The souls of our neighbours are in our hands and yet how many are lost through our fault? The sick die without being properly prepared because we have not given time or care enough to each particular case. Yet with a little more patience, a little more perseverance, a little more love, we could have led these poor souls to heaven.”
Once, for example, a young man dying of syphilis rebuffed de Rossi’s attention until the priest emptied his bedpan. Touched by John Baptist’s humble care, the fellow finally listened to him and made a good confession before he died. Other priests and penitents were amazed by John Baptist’s persuasiveness in the confessional. With a few gentle words he turned people’s lives. Once a young man came to him who was sexually entangled with a woman who kept coming to his house under the pretense of washing and mending his clothes. A brief conversation with John Baptist broke the youth’s addiction. As a sign of his cure, the next day he brought the priest a pile of his clothes he had taken from the woman.
John Baptist exhorted others to follow his example in caring for souls and assisted his fellow priests and seminarians by his words and his life, in a homily to them he said:
“The poor come to church tired and distracted by their daily troubles. If you preach a long sermon they can’t follow you. Give them one idea that they can take home, not half a dozen, or one will drive out the other and they will remember none.”
John Baptist de Rossi, himself worn out by his unselfish service, suffered strokes in 1763 and died a year later.
The cause for canonisation began under Pope Pius VI on 27 June 1781 but suffered brief though significant setbacks due to the French Revolution and the ensuring Napoleonic Wars and Revolutions of 1848. Rossi was beatified after Pope Pius IX attributed two miracles to his intercession on 7 March 1859 and presided over the celebration in Saint Peter’s Basilica on 13 May 1860. On 8 December 1881 the acknowledgement of two more miracles in 1881 enabled Pope Leo XIII to canonise him as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. His relics initially at Saints Trinita church but were translated to Saint John Baptist Rossi parish church in Rome, Italy in 1965.