Alarm over the spread of coronavirus has led the Italian government to place more than a dozen northern provinces—including Lombardy, which totals 16 million people with its city of Milan—under travel lock-down for three weeks. The Italian bishops’ conference has followed suit, announcing a nationwide ban on all public Masses, including weddings and funerals, until April 3, just two days before Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday. How unnerving to think of the Eternal City of Rome, the Mater and Caput—“the Mother and Head” of all the Churches on Earth—without public Mass for the duration of Lent! How sorrowful the thought of so many souls in the Christian heartland of Europe, already overcome by secularism, being deprived of these sacramental graces!
The physical nature of the virus has been analyzed thoroughly enough, but these new drastic measures should reveal to us the spiritual dimension of coronavirus. It is more than just a physical evil, but a spiritual one as well, and the truest remedy to this potential pandemic is spiritual in nature. By all means, we should take every practical measure to prevent the spread of this highly contagious virus. We should wash our hands, not touch our faces, avoid shaking hands, and so forth, but we must not let the Enemy use our fear to turn us away from God. We must not lose sight of the efficacy of prayer, especially in the public offering of Holy Mass on the Lord’s Day.
I am hoping to still go on pilgrimage later this year to a small German village that teaches this lesson. Situated in the Bavarian mountains, the village of Oberammergau is not a well-known pilgrimage destination like the Holy Land or Lourdes. It only comes to the attention of the Catholic world every 10 years, when the villagers perform their famous passion play. They do this as a fulfillment of a promise made by their ancestors nearly 400 years ago. This promise was motivated by the same fears we face today in light of the coronavirus.
The outbreak of the Black Death in the 14th century killed perhaps half of Europe’s population. Although the plague died out in most places, there were continual recurrences of it until the 19th century—a period known as the “second plague pandemic.” In 1632 it arrived in Oberammergau and by the next year, just about every family in the village experienced the sadness and pain that comes with the death of a loved one. Staring death in the face, the villagers made an extraordinary act of faith. As a community, they solemnly promised to put on a passion play to honor the sufferings of Christ in perpetuity if they were delivered from the pestilence. After the promise was made, not another villager died of the plague, and those already infected recovered.
In thanksgiving and in fulfillment of their promise, the people of Oberammergau performed the first passion play the very next year on Pentecost in 1634 in their parish church. The next year the audience grew, so they decided to hold the performance on a stage built in the village cemetery over the mortal remains of those who had died of the plague. It was now being performed with the added intention of the repose of souls.
The play was performed annually until 1680, when it was decided that from then on, the staging of the play would take place every 10 years. This ought not be interpreted as a mitigation of the villagers’ enthusiasm or gratitude; staging the play once a decade enables them to perform it on a grand scale that draws pilgrims from across the globe to meditate on the Passion of Christ.
Today, the village of Oberammergau has 5,000 residents with up to 2,000 taking part in the play, either performing or supporting the efforts backstage. The rest operate shops, restaurants, and hotels to accommodate pilgrims. Only residents are able to participate. The zeal they have for the production shows that the Catholic faith and the gratitude of their ancestors still survive after 400 years. Preparations for the play begin a year in advance, and the men of the village begin growing out their beards on Ash Wednesday to lend an authenticity to their roles. Performances are held in May and last until October, five days a week in an open-air theater seating 4,700 people. The performance begins at 2:30 in the afternoon, pauses at 5:00 for a dinner break, and then resumes from 8:00 to 10:30 in the evening. It is expected that more than 750,000 will attend the play this year.
As alarm and fear engulf the world over the coronavirus, let us look to the example of our ancestors in the faith of Oberammergau and not overlook the spiritual dimension of this crisis. In times like this we should turn to God and the sacraments more than ever.
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