In 1636 much of London was in lockdown. Individuals with bubonic plague were sent to the “pesthouse” or locked in their homes with their families. Whole streets were quarantined. Bonfires were lit everywhere, in the hope of “purging” the air. Thousands fled the city, making an economic crisis even worse. At this moment, the Jesuits appointed a young priest, Henry Morse, to bring comfort and the sacraments to those afflicted. According to one of Morse’s contemporaries, the priest was elated. “He went about in high spirits, unable, it appeared, to restrain himself. No better news, he said, could have been given him.”
The full story of St Henry Morse’s heroism, and that of his comrade St John Southworth, will be told in a forthcoming issue of the Catholic Herald. But that little episode reminds us that epidemics affect people in very different ways. Some, like Morse, discover a new spiritual strength and purpose. For others, it can be a desperate trial of faith. Some will be at peace, others almost overwhelmed with grief and anxiety – an anxiety which may well be justified. So various are people’s reactions that you might wonder whether there really is a “Catholic response” to the coronavirus.
But there are at least two certainties. The first is that, as Cardinal Nichols said this week, “At this moment we stand before God. That is never to be forgotten.” Indeed, now more than ever we realize how little else we can truly depend on. The structures of ordinary life – the school day, the commute to work, the familiar faces, even the rhythm of public liturgy – have evaporated. We do as the government tells us, but governments are only relying on what the scientists tell them. And the scientists admit that there are limits to their knowledge. They can’t say whether the virus will get worse later in the year, or how easy it is to become immune, or whether we’ll have a vaccine by 2021. Everything is plunged into doubt – everything except God’s promises, since we know that, even if this is the worst disaster of our lifetimes, Divine Providence can bring a greater good out of it.
The other certainty is a practical one: that our thoughts and actions must put the sick and the vulnerable first. This virus is frightening not just in its effects, but in how cruelly it targets the weakest and the oldest. Moreover, it drives us apart, by making the simplest human contact fraught with risk. And it does most damage among those already most in need of help. The more fortunate among us need to look out for our frail neighbours; for the homeless, who cannot easily self-isolate; for the low-paid, who will find it harder to avoid the workplace; and for prisoners, who have to endure new restrictions on visitors.
In this issue, Eve Tushnet and Simon Caldwell discuss how, already, people are finding ways to practise the corporal works of mercy in an era of social distancing. We want to report on this more, so please let us know what is happening near you: the struggles your community is facing and the ways the Church, the state and local groups are dealing with them. If you have a story to tell or ideas to pass on, let us know via social media or by emailing [email protected].
This magazine will also be taking a long view. Catholics have dealt with epidemics before. We can pray to saints like Morse and Southworth – and many others, not least St Corona. Studying their lives will help us see that God never abandons us. We can be pretty sure that He is raising up saints even now who, in the midst of catastrophe, will “show an affirming flame”.
For many institutions, this will be an era of change. It is likely to be one for the Herald as well: already we have had to suspend parish distribution, and this week’s issue has been harder to produce than any other that the editorial staff can remember. If you’re reading this, you may be a new print subscriber who is used to buying the magazine at the back of your church; you may be a new reader trying our website for the first time. Whoever you are, a thousand thanks for your patience and your support.
Five years ago we became a magazine, after 126 years as a newspaper. It was a significant shift, with one goal: to better serve you, the reader. Whatever happens next, it will be with the same single end in mind.
Luke Coppen, outgoing editor
Dan Hitchens, editor from Friday March 27
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