My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We are living in a time of great anxiety and uncertainty as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic. Health care experts and government officials are indicating what the proper responses should be in terms of the natural means of confronting this crisis. This response in the realm of science and medicine is critically important, but it is not the only response needed. We as people of faith must also consider the supernatural measures that are needed to respond properly to this health care emergency. Fortunately, we have two thousand years of history that provide stellar examples of how Christians respond in times of sickness and disease.
Before reviewing some highlights of that history, I want to anticipate an objection that some may raise. People who are skeptical of religion might be inclined to scoff at looking to the past for examples of how to respond to the medical challenges of today, viewing religion as superstitious and mired in ignorance of the medical knowledge we have today. In answer to such skeptics, I would agree that our medical knowledge is far more advanced today, but people of the past were not entirely ignorant of the dangers. They may not have known precisely how diseases spread, but they did know that certain diseases were contagious, as we shall see from the examples I will provide. Moreover, before we get too smug about our advanced medical knowledge, we should remember that in fact there are still no cures for many diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and indeed the coronavirus or even the common cold.
In that regard, let’s look at a disease described as leprosy, also known today as Hansen’s Disease, an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs, and skin areas around the body. While the Biblical references to leprosy may actually have been referring to a variety of skin diseases and not just Hansen’s Disease, we read in the Gospel of Matthew (26:6) that “Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper” and in the Gospel of Mark (1:41) that “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged Him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’ The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”
The best-known Christian example of care for lepers was St. Damien of Molokai. Born in Belgium in 1840, Damien arrived in Hawaii in March 1864 and was ordained a priest that same year on May 20. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Father Damien volunteered to serve the Molokai leper settlement in 1873 “and was subsequently given permission to remain there permanently. The colony’s 800 lepers had only clothing and food rations supplied by the government. Officially, Damien was the pastor of the Catholics in the colony, but actually he served as the lepers’ physician, counselor, house-builder, sheriff, gravedigger, and undertaker. For 10 of his 16 years with the lepers, he was without the companionship of other priests … . By 1884, when he had contracted leprosy, he wrote that he would not wish to be cured if the price of his cure involved leaving the island and giving up his work. He continued that work untiringly until the month before his death.”
Christian works of charity on behalf of the poor and the sick go back to the first centuries of the church. The historian Eusebius, who became bishop of Caesarea (in Palestine) about 313 A.D., wrote about the conduct of the faithful during the plague that devastated Alexandria in 259: “Most of the brethren, in their surpassing charity and brotherly love did not spare themselves and clinging to one another fearlessly visited the sick and ministered to them. Many, after having nursed and consoled the sick, contracted their illness and cheerfully departed life. The best of the brethren died in this way, some priests and deacons, and some of the laity. The conduct of the pagans was just the opposite; they would drive away those beginning to fall sick and people fled from their dear ones; they threw the dying into the street and bodies were left unburied.”
In 589, an overflow of the Tiber River in Rome brought about a terrible epidemic. St. Pope Gregory the Great, according to his biographer, dedicated himself to the people, who were dying off as though they were “shot down by arrows from the sky.” He organized a three-day penitential procession in which clergy and laity marched “to meet together at the basilica of the Blessed Mother.” Gregory suggested to the people that “the plague was a divine affliction that they should accept as a means of turning to God, and with fatherly encouragement he raised their panic-stricken spirits.”
St. Frances of Rome served the sick for 30 years in the 15th century. According to her biography, “Many diseases were rampant in Rome. Fatal diseases and plagues were everywhere, but the saint ignored the risks of contagion and displayed her deepest kindness toward the poor and needy. Her empathy would first bring them to atone for their sins … . During epidemics like this, it was difficult to find not only doctors to care for the body but even priests to provide for the soul. She herself would seek them out and bring them to those who were disposed to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.”
St. Aloysius Gonzaga was attending the sick during an epidemic in Rome in March 1591 when he contracted the plague and died three months later at the age of 23. The list of such saints dedicated to serving the sick, especially those with contagious diseases, could go on. Saints such as these should inspire us to use the supernatural means of God’s graces in responding spiritually as well as medically to the challenges of sickness and disease.
May God give us this grace. Amen.