The Church and the Plague - The Early Centuries (Part two of four)

March 30, 2020
One of the world’s first epidemics, a form of smallpox or measles, was first brought to Rome by legionnaires returning from a siege in modern-day Iraq. At its peak, the disease may have killed up to 2,000 people a day.

The first pandemic in the Christian era was the “Antonine Plague” of 165-180, perhaps smallpox, which ravaged the Roman empire and caused more than five million deaths. Soon after, in 249, the so-called “Plague of Cyprian” broke out, amidst an already chaotic time in the Empire and lasted until well into 271. It could have been smallpox or perhaps a disease similar to Ebola, but at its peak, it caused 5,000 deaths per day in Rome alone and set off the political anarchy of the 3rd century.

St. Dionysius of Alexandria witnessed the pagan reaction to the plague: “At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”

In his view, the plague was a providential schooling and testing of Christians. And their response was up to the test: 

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

An early biographer tells us that St. Cyprian of Carthage encouraged the faithful to minister to the needs of all:

There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect, he who should do something more than heathen men or publicans; overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, he should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.

But St. Cyprian also pointed out the providential effect of these calamities:

By the terrors of mortality and of the times, lukewarm men are heartened, the listless nerved, the sluggish awakened; deserters are compelled to return; heathens brought to believe; the congregation of established believers is called to rest; fresh and numerous champions are banded in heartier strength for the conflict, and having come into warfare in the season of death, will fight without fear of death, when the battle comes.

In the pagan empire, the Christian attitude towards the sick and the dying, believers and unbelievers alike, triggered an explosive growth of Christianity. Because of their compassion during the plague, the Christians’ deeds were on everyone’s lips, with admiration and gratitude, and such actions brought many to the Faith.

Even the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, rebuked the pagan priests for falling short of the example given by Christians during another great plague, in 362. He recognized that the Christian compassion and sacrificial service was one cause behind the ascendancy of the Church.

Later, in the 6th century, “The Plague of Justinian,” the bubonic plague – accompanied perhaps by other plagues, pneumonic and septicemic – arrived in Constantinople in 542. The outbreak lasted four months, but the plague continued to sweep intermittently throughout the Mediterranean world for another 225 years, with the last outbreak reported in 750. (Justinian Plague) It is estimated that, throughout the last half of the 6th century, the population of the Byzantine Empire and its neighbors declined by as much as 40%. There would be no more large-scale outbreaks of the plague until the Black Death of the 14th century. (Sixth Century Plague)

In 590, Rome was ravaged by “The Plague of Justinian” – it even claimed the life of Pope Pelagius II. As soon as St. Gregory the Great was elected Pope, he called on God’s mercy for the end of the plague by organizing a massive procession around the city, carrying an image of Our Lady and chanting the litanies. When the procession reached the Mausoleum of Hadrian, "The pope saw an angel of the Lord standing atop the castle of Crescentius, wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. Gregory understood that that put an end to the plague, as, indeed, happened." (Plague of Justinian)

In thanksgiving, St. Gregory had a statue of St. Michael placed atop the castle, as a constant reminder of the mercy of God and how He responded to the prayers and supplications of His people.