Catholic churches in the UK are now closed to the public. This is unprecedented in modern times, but it has happened before in time of plague.
At the height of the 1576-7 plague in Milan, the city imposed a near-total quarantine. This was on October 29, and it was intended to last until St Thomas’s Day (December 21), but was repeatedly extended, only being completely lifted the following May. Heads of families were permitted to buy provisions but almost no one else (save those dealing with the disease) was allowed to leave their homes. Whether or not the churches were closed, nobody could go to them.
This did not mean the Church disregarded the spiritual needs of its people. As his biographer Giussano recounts, the archbishop of Milan, St Charles Borromeo, had altars set up in the streets so that people could see Mass celebrated from their windows (livestreaming for the 16th century). St Charles saw it as imperative that during the quarantine people knew that God was still with them, and he himself was constantly about the city so that people could call to him from their homes.
St Charles’s popularity was in large part due to his behaviour during that plague: he returned immediately to Milan even as the richer citizens began to flee. Accounts from the time show how seriously he took the need to isolate both those infected and (separately) those exposed, applying the medical understanding of contagion held at the time. We have the address he gave to members of religious orders asking them to join him in ministering those isolated in the plague hospitals, the parish clergy being unable to do so because they would then have to separate themselves from the healthy. As he was in constant contact with the sick, he practised social distancing, avoiding direct contact with the healthy and putting up a grille to divide his audience chamber, so that those consulting him would not be infected by him. Those who gave Communion to the sick were told to hold the fingers they had used in a candle flame immediately afterwards.
Like today, the collapse of ordinary economic life threw many into sudden desperation: St Charles devoted a lot of attention to the condition of servants and artisans who were suddenly out of work, moving many to an empty palace some miles outside of Milan and cutting up his tapestries to make winter clothes for them, it being said that by the end of the plague the Archbishop’s Palace was empty of furniture and fabric.
Samuel Cohn’s Cultures of Plague describes how 16th-century writers saw the fear caused by plague as greater than that of any other disaster. This may be because it attacks our support for each other and trust in our neighbours in a way that floods, fire and war do not: more than any other threat it makes us afraid of each other and afraid of the people suffering. “Hunted down by plague, men become cruel … losing all humanity, wives came to abhor then abandon their husbands … friends and family refusing to assist one another.”
The need to fight against this, not to let fear take hold, is stressed in the earliest Christian writing about it: St Cyprian’s “On Mortality”, a sermon written during the early AD 250s when his city Carthage (along with much of the Empire) was hit by something that sounds similar to Ebola.
He writes how plague “searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence …”
Similarly, when St Charles asked for help among the religious orders of Milan he told them: “Here is your opportunity to prove your title to the name of religious, to effect all your good desires and resolutions, to show forth that you are striving to be saints, for it is chiefly by works of piety and mercy that perfection is to be shown …”
He made clear to them that they could and should take precautions (which seem to have had significant success), and might indeed survive; but that this was absolutely a request that they risk their lives together with him.
The Church’s visible presence during the plague in Milan was seen as important for the spiritual health of the people and to implore God’s mercy on the city, but it also encouraged people not to panic and keep to the public health measures: writers at the time saw lifting the spirits of the poor and the quarantined as vital.
St Charles authorised public processions of small groups of magistrates and religious orders so that only those who were already in close contact would be exposed to each other – but people could see from their homes that the city was still active in prayer and that their officials and clergy had not fled.
During the quarantine, priests went from house to house to hear Confessions through closed front doors, holding a white stick to measure the distance they should stand from the threshold (a similar idea, perhaps, to what we are seeing in some places with priests hearing Confessions in car parks). Booklets were distributed to all households at the beginning of the quarantine with prayers to use at certain times of day, when the Cathedral’s bells would be rung so everyone knew that they were praying together.
As well as the practical question of how to help and protect others, the saints who lived through plague were confronted with the question of where Christ and his promises were in this: what God was doing by allowing this to happen.
Cyprian tells his flock not to be surprised or alarmed at this disaster: Christ had warned us that “wars, famines, pestilences” would arise, “adversity would increase more and more in the last times” but that “when you see all these things come to pass, know that the kingdom of God is at hand”. He told them not to be surprised that they suffered as the pagans did around them: “It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains …? When the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.”
Cyprian’s main theme, though, is that as Christians we should not be terrified of death or national disaster, because our hope is not founded in this world, which is coming to an end. CS Lewis once answered a questioner worried about nuclear war by pointing out that Christians had always expected the world to end in fire, they just hadn’t expected it might be mankind’s fault. Our hope is in Christ and the full flourishing of the life to come, and that is what He promised, not any lasting security in our lifetimes.
Of course, everyone in rich or poor countries is in constant danger of seeing heaven fall and the world (as they know it) ending, brought individually by an unlooked-for diagnosis, a bereavement, an arrest, a betrayal. As the writer Eve Tushnet has recently said, “In every age the eschaton is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” What we aren’t used to in the West is it happening to all of us at once (it’s something still familiar in much of Africa and the Middle East).
That sense that this sort of national disaster was a thing of the past may be why the Church has not adopted an Ordinary Form version of the Mass for Deliverance from Plague, though there are plenty of places where people must have wanted to express that particular fear and need through the liturgy throughout the last half century. The introit brings out another feature of Christian response to plague: the way it is seen as being in the hands of, and in some sense attributable to, God, in a way that war, for example, is not. “Remember your covenant and say to your destroying angel, Hold back your hand, and let the land not be made desolate, and destroy not every living soul.”
Uncomfortable though it is when we are staring it in the face, one of the ways Christians (and their Jewish forebears) have tried to understand what God is doing when he allows these things to happen is the language of divine judgment on a society. It is a difficult idea because we tend to think of justice on an individual level, which may be part of why the environmental movement has had such difficulty getting us to connect our apparently harmless purchases of vegetables flown around the world (for example) with systemic destruction and injustice. A Madrid hospital director put it this way: “We have sinned from too much confidence,” believing that epidemics could spread in China but not in a place like Europe.
Judgment also, though, means revealing things as they really are, “letting the nations know that they are but men”: dependent, connected to each other, weak, mortal. A similar idea perhaps to St Charles’s and St Cyprian’s exhortations to help the sick: plague puts to the test our good resolutions and reveals how much we really care about the needs and suffering of others, with the opportunity to change if we don’t like what we see in ourselves.
What this doesn’t involve (and never has) is a suggestion that the particular people who get sick deserve it, any more than Jeremiah was suggesting the particular people who would die when Jerusalem was besieged were the ones who were to blame for the condition of Judah. Christ specifically attacks that idea, and we see from the Gospels how often His presence was shown in healing. As Cyprian writes, Christians, good or bad, should not expect to escape the common fate of their people, but should remember that they are expected to serve and comfort the suffering and that we are called by Christ not to be afraid; not because what we are frightened of isn’t really going to happen (it may very well happen) but because our hope is in something greater than our comfort or even our lives. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but it is also what we are learning to long for.
Thomas Chacko is a lawyer based in London
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