I was supposed to be in Italy with a group of twenty-plus students this spring break. It has been a tradition for almost two decades now: to spend spring break exploring some of the most fascinating sites in human history. We were supposed go to Sicily then to central Italy–to the where all roads meet, in the Eternal City. We were going to stay until March 9, giving students the opportunity to participate in the Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square with Pope Francis, again an experience of a lifetime for young men and women, Catholic or non-Catholic, to see the Holy Father leading the faithful in prayer and giving his Apostolic Blessing to students, their loved ones, and blessing devotional items they had purchased.
But our spring break study abroad trip to Italy was canceled this year, as is the case for many other universities in the United States due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Not only are spring break study abroad trips canceled, the live Angelus is also canceled. The Holy Father’s most proximate communication with the faithful in St. Peter’s Square is being put on hold due to the virus. A 66-year-old tradition is being canceled. It was Pope Pius XII who in October 1954 began to recite the prayer with the pilgrims who congregated in St. Peter’s Square. So did Pope John XXIII and all pontiffs who succeeded him. The dialogue between the pontiff and the people became ritual, a ritual of communicated love. Sister Pascalina Lehnert, the pontiff’s personal confidant and secretary for four decades until the death of Pius XII in 1958, recalls that the Holy Father did not have any rest behind his window. He had to open and close the window several times because the crowds would not go away, persistently asking for more blessings.
According to the latest news coming from the Holy See, the Angelus of March 8 will take place “from the Library of the Apostolic Palace and not in the square, from the window. The prayer will be broadcast live via Vatican News and on screens in St. Peter’s Square and distributed by Vatican Media to the media that request it, so as to allow the participation of the faithful.” Does this mean that the virus is in the air? The piazza is big enough to respect the recommended interpersonal distance of six feet, as the coronavirus is believed to spread from person-to-person contact. What are the odds of exposed or coronavirus-stricken people, especially in Italy – which has been a geographic hotspot of the virus and a vanguard of taking drastic measures to contain the virus – going to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus?
On the other hand, what are the odds that the Holy Father could be infected, given the distance between the piazza and the Pope’s Window, which is probably more than three hundred feet away from Saint Peter’s Square? I was heartbroken our study abroad was canceled, but the cancellation of the live Angelus made me move beyond a personal, visceral response and reflect more deeply on the role of the Church in times of crisis – both in past eras and today.
The medievals thought that viruses were in the air, and it was because of the air, via inhaling infected droplets, that people got infected. The famous physician and professor of medicine at the Universities of Perugia and Bologna, Tommaso del Garbo (1305-1370), and his authoritative manual Advice of How to Live in Times of Pestilence (Consiglio contro la Peste) comes to mind. The famous medieval physician was eulogized by Petrarch who was known for his aversion to physicians and the medical profession in general. Surprisingly, in a letter to his physician friend John of Padua, Petrarch eulogized “[Tommaso del Garbo was] so esteemed in his art that he was reputed capable of resuscitating the dead.” Del Garbo was an eyewitness of the epidemic of 1348 which devasted especially the urban cities of Medieval Europe, including his native Florence. Eventually, Del Garbo became famous for his work Advice of How to Live in Times of Pestilence, as he was a physician-eyewitness who came up with practical ways to fight the spread of disease.
Besides practical advice on what to eat and drink, breathe and bathe, as well as to wash hands and body, the famous Florentine physician developed some practical advice for priests in the time of pestilence. Del Garbo dedicated a chapter to all those who took care of the sick in the time of pestilence in Italy: the caregivers of the body and the soul, the physicians priests – those individuals who labored selflessly in the hospitals using the power of medicine and in the churches using the power of prayer. In his manual of precautions against the spread of pestilence Del Garbo seemed not to be much worried about the physicians, because they knew how to take precautions, but was more worried about the priests – the physicians of the soul. As medical doctors were on the front lines, acting in persona Christi, fortifying the infirm and afflicted who had fallen in the field, these brave priests were the front-liners of a wounded and diseased Body of Christ, or what Pope Francis today calls the priests laboring in the field hospital.
For the famous physician, taking care of the body and soul was a unified venture; these were the “two right hands” of the art of medicine as St. Basil the Great (330-379), who himself was a trained physician, wrote. According to Del Garbo’s manual, the priest is the one who enters the rooms where the sick of pestilence are lying, facing a disease that most probably will kill them. During the time of pestilence thousands of priests braved the pestilence and did not leave the sick dying alone. His advice to priests is to open wide the windows so that fresh air enters and renews; wash the hands not with soap and water, as we do to protect against the coronavirus, but with vinegar and rosewater (acqua rosata); and keep two clove buds in the mouth.
The priest who confessed the sick in their rooms were advised by Del Garbo to ask family members to leave the room so that the infirm confessed using a louder voice if possible so that the priest be able to keep some distance from the sick and not put his mouth near that of the infirm, so that he [the priest] could avoid breathing the same air. Breathing the same air, that was the proximity of the priest, the Church of the hospital to those hospitalized or confined during the pestilence.
The early and medieval Church understood the art of medicine as putting mercy into practice, and the priest – the physician of the spirit – was the front-liner of doing exactly that: putting mercy into practice. There was a positive theology of illness, as illness comes from God, and nothing that comes from God could be evil. Consequently, illness and the suffering related to illness was seen as a means of unity with or returning to God. That was the benefit of suffering: for the sick: participating first-hand in the sufferings of Christ; and the priest, by acting in the person of Christ, fortified the spirit with prayers and confession.
If there is a take-home lesson to be learned from the coronavirus, it is the fact of the extreme fragility of human nature. People, in their helplessness, look up to the front-liners. Medical doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers are on the front lines courageously fighting the virus in China, Iran, South Korea and Italy, which are considered level three and red zones of the coronavirus by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Is the Church a front-liner on the same front line as the medical professionals? Broadcasting the Angelus, closing churches, making the Lourdes pools off limits, distributing Communion in hand only: do all these closures, cancellations, and changes meet the front-line expectation of the spiritual hospital? One thing is sure: afflicted or not, sick or not, people are in need of both the physicians of the body and those of the soul, now more than ever. Presence is a gift, and dispensing mercy a high calling – and in a coronavirus-suffering world, the Church is called to do both.
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