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Lessons from History on the Coronavirus Pandemic

In a recent article for Catholic World Report I offered some “lessons from literature on the coronavirus”, focusing on the three chapters in Manzoni’s classic novel, The Betrothed, which are set during the plague that struck the city of Milan in 1630. In this companion article, I’d like to offer some lessons from history on the coronavirus, focusing on an earlier plague which struck Milan in 1576 and on the heroism of a great saint during this time of pestilence.

Saint Charles Borromeo, as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, lived at a time of great corruption within the Church, epitomized by the laxity of the clergy. According to one of his biographers, he was sickened by “the slackness, ignorance, and open immorality of many priests and religious”. Many priests did not even know the correct forms for confession and absolution and many others were living scandalous lives. Things were so bad that a proverb current among country folk expressed the contempt in which the clergy was held: “If you want to go to hell, become a priest.” On his travels around his diocese Saint Charles found that many country churches were “ruinous, neglected, and filthy, sacred vessels and vestments rotted with rust and moth”. As for the laity, they did not avail themselves of the sacraments and they did not know the Pater or Ave and often could not even make the Sign of the Cross correctly.

In the midst of this sorry state of affairs, the Council of Trent proved to be the very catalyst for the great Catholic Reformation which followed in its wake. Particularly close to Charles Borromeo’s heart, was the reading and passing of the General Reform Decree, with its insistence on simplicity of life among cardinals and bishops. Needless to say, the more lax and lackadaisical among the clergy and religious, and the more worldly-minded of the nobility, were not too happy with this new spirit of zeal. As Charles continued to reform decadent religious orders, such as the Umiliati, an order of monks, ostensibly Benedictine Oblates, who had become immensely rich, living in luxurious private houses independent of any ecclesiastical supervision, opposition to his reforms reached new and dangerous levels. On October 26, 1569, as the Archbishop was kneeling before the altar at Vespers, a would-be assassin stepped forward and shot him at point blank range. The kneeling figure reeled but remained erect, signaling for the choir to resume their singing. Vespers continued. After the service it was discovered, astonishingly, that the bullet had only bruised and had not even broken the Archbishop’s skin. To the people of Milan the Archbishop’s escape from death was nothing less than miraculous.

Having endured much in his struggles to reform the ailing Church, Charles’ greatest test was still to come. In August 1576 the plague struck Milan. Almost immediately the wealthy fled the city, including the city’s Governor. In the Governor’s absence, Charles assumed the de facto role of secular ruler as well as his de jure role as shepherd of his flock. Already accustomed to the rigors of a life of mortification, he embraced even more demanding hardships, offering himself as a sacrificial victim in expiation of his sins and those of his suffering flock. In the few hours of rest that he allowed himself, he slept on bare boards or sat up in a wooden chair. Already accustomed to a meagre diet, he reduced this to bread and water with a few supplementary vegetables. Every day he walked the streets, visiting the sick and dying.

Read more at Catholic World Report

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