Throughout the coronavirus crisis, there have been countless “next-door saints,” as Pope Francis describes them. They include volunteers working with their parishes and Catholic Charities, who responded to the increased demand by the needy who were homeless, jobless and without food. They include priests in hospitals, nursing homes and churches who ministered to the sick and the dying. Some of them, following the example of St. Charles Borromeo, walked through their neighborhoods or flew above Fairfield County with the Blessed Sacrament, offering prayers and blessing to abate the COVID pandemic.
Msgr. Gregory J. Fairbanks, a church historian who is Dean of the School of Diaconal Formation at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Penn., says that during plagues and pandemics, heroism has been a common characteristic demonstrated by followers of Christ. And these periods of crisis have proven to be the times “when the greatest saints are born.”
“Christians have tried to do their best to minister to those who were suffering and didn’t have anyone else to take care of them,” he says.
An example within his own community occurred a century ago during the Spanish flu of 1918, when 300 seminarians from St. Charles assisted at area hospitals and helped bury many of those who died in their homes in Philadelphia.
The Spanish flu in some ways rivaled the medieval plague. Many of the victims woke up in good health and were dead within 24 hours because their lungs filled up with fluid and they suffocated. Health experts believe the flu infected up to 500 million people, or a third of the world’s population.
Philadelphia was the epicenter of the flu in America, Msgr. Fairbanks says, and its spread was accelerated by a large gathering at a war bond rally downtown. A week later the number of deaths spiked.
“The real problem was people were dying in their homes because the hospitals were full, and there was a nurse shortage,” he said. “And because the grave diggers couldn’t keep up with the number of burials, bodies were piling up in rows at the city’s cemeteries.”
The new archbishop of Philadelphia mandated that religious go into the city and that the sisters and priests care for the poor and help in hospitals. He also asked the seminarians to dig graves in the cemeteries, and they all volunteered. One or two seminarians died from the flu.
“The city was not ready for a crisis of that magnitude, but the Church came out big and was later recognized by the city and the state for how well it responded,” Monsignor said.
He uses that example in his classes to remind seminarians that they are descendants of “a long tradition of caring for the poor and the sick and the downtrodden.”
A century later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 seminarians from St. Charles continued the tradition by helping to feed the hungry in Philadelphia through the private organization Caring for Friends, while six others handed out food to the homeless at the Hub of Hope shelter.
This January, four seminarians from the Diocese of Bridgeport will begin studies at St. Charles and join 149 others from dioceses across the nation.
“When we look back in Church history, we see men and women who stood up in times of great trial and turmoil and made a difference,” Msgr. Fairbanks said. “They really showed that their faith could lead them through the difficulties of their times, whether it be plague or great periods of war or whatever the cause.”
Early Christians helped victims of the Antonine Plague in the second century, during the Plague of Cyprian in the third century and the Plague of Justinian, which began in 542 CE.
In the fourth century, when another plague spread across the empire, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, wrote: “In the midst of such illness, the Christians alone showed their sympathy and humanity through their deeds.
Every day some continued caring for and burying the dead, for there were multitudes who had no one to care for them; others collected those who were afflicted by the famine throughout the entire city into one place, and gave bread to them all.”
During the 16th century plague in Northern Italy, Archbishop of Milan Charles Borromeo told his priests, “Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to a holy one.”
He made them increase the number of Masses, which were celebrated outside, and erected 19 pillars throughout Milan to show where Mass was held every morning. Catechism classes were conducted on street corners, and priests heard confessions in the doorways of homes and brought Communion to the faithful on Sundays. There was public prayer and penance, and three times a week, the Archbishop walked through the city barefoot with a penitential cord draped around his neck. Every day, he went to the leper house to administer the sacraments. He gave last rites to the dying and baptized newborns.
One Capuchin friar said of him: “He fears nothing. It is useless to try to frighten him. He exposes himself to much danger, but so far he has been preserved by the special grace of God. He says he cannot do otherwise — indeed, the city has no other help and consolation.”
Three centuries later, Servant of God Fr. Patrick Ryan, whose cause for sainthood is before the Vatican, showed heroic virtue in fighting the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. The pastor of Saints Peter and Paul parish in Chattanooga, Tenn., he died at 33 after refusing to leave when the virus swept through the city. Instead, like St. Charles, he stayed and ministered to the sick and dying in one of the poorest neighborhoods. On his grave is the epitaph, “The just shall be in everlasting remembrance.”
During the Spanish flu pandemic, Fr. James Coyle, pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham, Alabama, saw the city’s churches shuttered after the governor ordered schools, houses of worship and theaters to close to prevent spreading the flu.
However, Father Coyle continued to write sermons and columns, which were published in the Birmingham News, and offer encouragement to his flock during the pandemic.
In a column that appeared October 1918, he wrote: “Indeed, the times are out of joint. Holding as we do with firmest faith a belief that to many is folly — that Holy Mass is Calvary continued, that our sins when repented sincerely and confessed are washed away, that the Holy Eucharist is the true, real substantial Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of God’s Son — small wonder that deprived of these we hope and pray fervently the epidemic will soon pass away, that our churches may once more be thrown open to our devout worshippers. Darkness is over the face of the city. May there soon be a fiat lux — ‘Let there be light.’”
(The above report is Part II of a three-part series by Joe Pisani on “The Church during plagues and pandemics.” Part 1 offered a look at how the Church of today’s pandemic and the Church that coped with the plague are united in their faith and attempts to safeguard life. Part III will reflect on “Standing with Christ during the Crisis.”)