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 pastor 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.
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. 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 neighbors 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.
Many of us shrink from going to the hospitals from fear of infection or from the sights and smells that await us there. Courage! We are not in the world to follow our own will and pleasure, but to imitate the Lord.
John Baptist de Rossi, himself worn out by his unselfish service, suffered a stroke in 1763 and died a year later. “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.”