When the plague struck the Italian city of Milan and the surrounding area in the 1570s, St. Charles Borromeo, then a cardinal, became well-known for his efforts to remind people of their faith in a time of sickness and death.
According to multiple accounts, St. Borromeo would process the streets of his diocese barefooted, carrying a cross, as an act of penance. He also visited the sick with a relic of one of the nails of the Cross, and promoted the practice of 40 Hours Devotion, in which people take turns praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for 40 straight hours.
“St. Charles Borromeo actually is one of the (clerics) who is often associated with the 40 hour devotion during the plague,” Fr. Jonathan Meyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in Indiana, told CNA.
The history of this devotion is part of the reason Meyer and a group of priests and laypeople in the U.S. are hosting a Virtual 40 Hours Devotion streamed on Facebook starting this Friday, just before the start of Holy Week.
The devotion comes at a time when much of the world is experiencing another pandemic, and when most public Masses and other services are closed to slow its spread.
The number of hours of devotion comes “from the 40 hours from our Lord being in the tomb from Good Friday to Easter Sunday morning,” Father Meyer explained.
“So there’s 40 hours of darkness, of very few people believing. And we’re at a period of darkness in the Church,” he said. The number 40 frequently signifies a time of darkness in the bible – the 40 days of Jesus in the desert being tempted, the 40 years of the Jewish people wandering in the wilderness, the 40 days of rain Noah experienced on the ark.
“But at the end of all of those, the story of hope.” Father Meyer said. “And so (we) gather around our Lord for 40 hours..to pray and petition and to be a people of hope. Our Lord is in the Blessed Sacrament, he is our hope. And so, God willing, our ability to gather with him and spend time with him as a Church will bring people hope.”
The idea, Father Meyer said, originated on a Facebook group of priests who were sharing best practices of how to bring Christ to people during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
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