If there was ever any expectation that the coronavirus would be relatively brief and contained, that idea has long since disappeared. On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that coronavirus, or Covid-19, was now a “pandemic”, a term used only when a disease has become truly calamitous.
Detected in China late last year, the virus has spread rapidly across the globe; and the WHO declaration expressed concern about both its extent and “the alarming levels of inaction” to it by many nations.
The international community is finally coordinating a response, but how effective it will be remains to be seen. What is clear is that even medical experts, who are pouring their energies into stopping it, cannot say when the virus will end, or even be controlled.
As of this writing, nearly 200,000 cases have been confirmed, and more than 7,000 deaths, with those numbers certain to rise – perhaps exponentially. The pandemic has already led to quarantines, lockdowns, border restrictions, and abrupt cancellations of major secular and sacred events – including Masses. Economic instability, if not financial panic, has ensued. In some ways, the modern world, for all its technology and progress, has been plunged back into the Middle Ages, when governments and leaders had to take actions against terrible pandemics. But if there is one institution which has endured more plagues than any other – and done so with fortitude and grace – it is the Catholic Church. The saints have always played a central role in the Church’s response to plagues, and now that the world faces a new one, they are being asked to intercede once again.
Perhaps the most famous plague saint is St Sebastian. After his embrace of Christianity in the 3rd century, Sebastian joined the Roman army to help other Christians being persecuted by the Romans. Even as he became an elite member of the Praetorian Guard, under the notorious anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian, Sebastian secretly brought many soldiers into the Church.
But as soon as his courageous witness was discovered, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be executed. Tied to a post, Sebastian was pierced with a band of arrows and left for dead – until a Christian woman, Irene of Rome, found him breathing, astonishingly, and nursed him back to health.
Sebastian became a hero to Christians everywhere. Records reveal that St Sebastian was celebrated in Rome (in 680), Milan (1575) and Lisbon (1599) for protecting the faithful against plagues. During the Renaissance, he became a favourite subject of artists, who often depicted the saint movingly with arrows tormenting his body, as he stoically gazed towards heaven. St Sebastian became a symbol for suffering humanity during recurring plagues, and his miraculous recovery gave those afflicted hope and consolation. Abbeys, churches and basilicas were founded in his name; and after the recent outbreak of coronavirus, Sebastian was one of the first saints Catholics were encouraged to pray to.
Another prominent protector of plagues is St Roch. The son of a wealthy family in the early 14th century, he was born with a striking red cross across his chest. After his parents died when he was only 20, St Roch handed the government of Montpellier (which he had inherited from his father) to his uncle, and then donated his entire fortune to the poor.
Setting out to Italy as a pilgrim, Roch began visiting various plague-infested cities, miraculously curing its citizens with the Cross. Everywhere he went, it appeared, the terrible scourge vanished, and the supernatural powers God had granted St Roch became the talk of Italy.
After finally succumbing to the disease himself, he withdrew to obscurity, but he recovered from an infection which killed almost everyone it touched. Not wanting to be honoured for his good deeds, the humble saint returned to France in disguise, and was mistakenly arrested for a spy, eventually dying in prison.
Only after his death was St Roch’s identity rediscovered, owing to the signature cross on his chest and a document in his possession. He was soon given a triumphant funeral, and additional miracles followed his death, attesting to his sanctity. By then, the Church’s hierarchy revered St Roch. “In 1414, during the Council of Constance,” reports the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the plague having broken out in that city, the Fathers of the Council ordered public prayers and processions in honour of the saint, and immediately the plague ceased.”
A centuries-old Prayer to St Roch is still recited to this day:
O Blessed St Roch,
Patron of the sick,
Have pity on those
Who lie upon a bed of suffering.
Your power was so great
When you were in this world,
That by the sign of the Cross,
Many were healed of their diseases.
Now that you are in heaven,
Your power is not less.
Offer, then, to God
Our sighs and tears.
And obtain for us that health we seek
Through Christ Our Lord
The wonders of these men have been matched by female saints resisting plagues. Among them is St Rosalia, who was born in the 12th century, but whose sanctity would not become known until the 17th.
According to Catholic legend, Rosalia was born of a Norman family descended from Charlemagne. Intensely religious, she decided to devote her life to prayer and sacrifice in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, where she inscribed on a wall: “I, Rosalia … have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Five hundred years later, when a plague beset Palermo, St Rosalia appeared to a hunter, whom she told to bring her bones to the Sicilian city, after revealing where they could be found. The hunter followed Rosalia’s instructions, and the desperate people of Palermo carried her remains throughout the city three times – bringing a dramatic end to the plague. Soon thereafter, St Rosalia became the patron saint of Palermo, and a sanctuary was built where her remains were recovered.
She, too, has a special prayer to heal illness, pestilences and plagues: “O God, Our Father, mercifully look upon Your people who come to You and grant through the intercession of St Rosalia, who turned away from earthly delights to the joys of contemplation, that we may be delivered from all harm here on earth and one day be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
“St Rosalia, confessor and virgin, we pray to God for our families and friends. Through your powerful prayers, may we obtain health, life and eternal salvation.”
Trusting that spiritual power can be increased by numbers, Catholics have also sought out the Four Holy Marshals and Fourteen Holy Helpers – a group of powerful saints who have been invoked for centuries to conquer diseases and epidemics.
What is most impressive – and perhaps least known – about the Church’s fight against pandemics is its consistent support for physicians, nurses and medical assistants involved in them. As the Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage notes, “Saints’ shrines … were a natural refuge during plague epidemics.” However, “miraculous healing was not an alternative to learned medicine. Most people understood that a saint’s intervention was a normal part of a continuum that included learned medicine.”
The Church, knowing there is no conflict between authentic science and authentic faith, has always combined the best of both to combat deadly diseases. An example from the 20th century would be the extraordinary medical aid the Church provided during the Spanish Influenza (1918-1920), even as ardent prayers were simultaneously made to saints chosen by God to combat epidemics.
Today, more than ever, we need all the resources the Church can marshal to fight the coronavirus, which attacks both bodies and souls. The sight of Pope Francis, in his live-streamed homilies and addresses, commending all those attending to the physical and spiritual needs of the afflicted, and then walking the deserted streets of Rome to pray at two shrines, highlights the hope and serenity the Church can always convey during moments of human crisis.
William Doino Jr is a writer on religion, history and politics and a contributor to First Things and Inside the Vatican