St. Charles Borromeo administering the Blessed Sacrament to the Sick (Infinite Art)
Over the centuries, the response of great Saints in times of crisis give us insight to the proper virtuous reaction we should have to today’s crisis. There are many examples throughout history but let us take a look at these few below.
In year 590 Pope Pelagius II had succumbed to the plague that swept Rome that year and St. Gregory the Great was elected pope. According to tradition, St. Gregory led a penitential Eucharistic procession to Santa Maria Maggiore during that plague to pray for an end to the plague and for the salvation of souls.
In the year 1374, the great Black Death Plague broke out in Europe. The great St. Catherine of Sienna, had no hesitation working alongside the victims. When a beloved priest friend of hers, who oversaw a hospital caught the illness and was close to death, St Catherine came bursting into his room. “Get up Father”, she said. “Have something to eat. There’s work to be done. there is no time for you to be lying in bed”. The priest was so surprised; he got up and discovered he was miraculously healed. In other places where the Black Death was a major hotspot, she along with other brave women would meet up with another devoted little army, namely, Fra Raimondo and his friars, who had vowed to lay down their lives, if need be, for their people. Day and night they labored in the hospitals, infected houses, and the common streets, carrying the succors of religion to the sick and the dying and making sure they had the Sacraments for the good of their souls.
In the year 1576, a plague broke out in Milan, the great St. Charles Borromeo was convinced that the epidemic was “a scourge sent by Heaven” as chastisement for the sins of the people and that recourse to spiritual measures was necessary to fight against it: prayer and penitence. He rebuked the civil authorities for having placed their trust in human measures rather than divine ones. And what was his response during this time? He was found on the streets tending to the plague-ridden victims, distributing Holy Communion to them and giving them the Last Rights.
In the early 1600s, during an epidemic in Lima, many of the friars in the Convent of the Rosary became very ill. They were locked away in a distant section of the convent, to be kept away from the other religious. However, on more than one occasion, the great St. Martin miraculously passed through the locked doors to care for the sick. One day, he was caught and was to be disciplined for not following the rules of the Convent and the lockdown, but after replying, "Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity," he was given full liberty to follow his heart of mercy.
In the year 1824, during the Cholera Epidemic, the great St. Don Bosco in Turin, Italy, collected his boys together into 2 teams to help carry the sick to hospitals and the dead to the graves. He urged his boys to trust in God and had them wash their hands in vinegar. Not one of them got sick nor died of the disease.
Now compare that to two good recent examples during our crisis of the Corona virus (A.K.A. China virus or COVID 19):
In an interview with Diane Montagna, Bishop Athanasius Schneider answers her question: Your Excellency, what is your general impression of the way the Church is handling the coronavirus epidemic?
Bishop Schneider: My general impression is that the prevailing majority of bishops reacted precipitously and out of panic in prohibiting all public Masses and — what is even more incomprehensible — in closing churches. Such bishops reacted more like civil bureaucrats than shepherds. In focusing too exclusively on all the hygienic protective measures, they have lost a supernatural vision and have abandoned the primacy of the eternal good of souls.
Montagna: Priests are in a difficult position in this situation. Some good priests are being criticized for obeying the directives of their bishop to suspend public Masses (while they continue to celebrate a private Mass). Others are looking for creative ways to hear confessions while seeking to safeguard people’s health. What advice would you give to priests on living out their vocation in these times?
Bishop Schneider: Priests must recall that they are first and foremost shepherds of immortal souls. They are to imitate Christ, who said: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me.” (John 10:11-14) If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful. Such directives are a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls. Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments. Such was the pastoral behavior of all confessor and martyr priests in the time of persecution.
President Magufuli of Tanzania also spoke these encouraging words: “The coronavirus cannot survive in the Eucharistic body of Christ; it will soon be burnt away. That is exactly why I did not panic while receiving Holy Communion, because I knew that with Jesus in the Eucharist, I am safe. This is the time for building our faith in God.”
St. Gregory the Great, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Martin de Porres, St. Don Bosco and St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us!