Plague was recurrent during the middle ages and up to the industrial age. In general, for many centuries, whatever organized medical care existed in Catholic Europe was offered under Church auspices through the monasteries and religious orders.
The “Black Death” is the plague to which all others are usually compared. This bubonic plague that swept again throughout the world between 1347 and 1354, killing up to 40-50 % of Europe’s population. The mortality was such (25 million people) that many believed it to be the end of the world. Indeed, it changed the face of the European world: bereft of laborers, the value of land declined, undermining the foundations of the feudal system and easing the way for centralized monarchies. For many, religious fervor was renewed, and new manifestations of piety appeared. Others, however, reacted with a pessimism that threw them into despair or a senseless hedonism, which were in turn reflected in the arts and literature. Many others responded with random acts of violence against those thought to have caused the plague, not only Jews but also people affected by other illnesses, as well as beggars and foreigners.
Amidst that upheaval, priests stepped into sickrooms, materially and spiritually assisting the sick and the dying, knowing that they faced an unseen enemy that very likely would kill them. Nonetheless, thousands of priests took those steps anyway, risking their lives to give hope and comfort to those in pain and fear.
Widespread diseases reappeared continuously throughout the world even into our century, and every time the Church’s response was the same.
During the plague that ravaged Milan in 1567, St. Charles Borromeo was convinced that God permitted it as a punishment for the sins of the people. Still, it also offered an occasion for purification and conversion. Therefore, the decisive remedy was to be found in prayer and penance.
Because in their efforts to curb the contagion, the civil authorities had forbidden religious meetings and processions, St. Charles blamed them for putting all their trust in human means, without a thought for the divine. When frightened people quarantined themselves in their homes, he ordered the erection of crosses in the main squares and street junctions so that the people could attend Masses and public rogations from their windows.
He ministered to the sick himself and encouraged his clergy to do the same, for, where the world saw death and desolation, he saw the possibility of saving souls. Even more, he encouraged the priests, telling them that service in a time of epidemic is “the stuff of martyrs.” In his words, this was “a desirable time – now, when without the cruelty of the tyrant, without the rack, without fire, without beasts and in the complete absence of harsh tortures which are usually the most frightful to human weakness, we can obtain the crown of martyrdom.”
During the plague that struck Marseille in 1720, Msgr. de Belsunce dedicated himself, personally, along with the resources of the Church, to the assistance of the sick. His words mirrored St. Charles’ attitude: “God forbid that I abandon the people of whom I am obliged to be a father. I owe them my care and my life since I am their Pastor.”
Closer to our times, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, also known as the “Spanish Flu,” is considered one of the worst pandemics in history. An estimated 50 million deaths worldwide were attributed to it, far more than the total casualties of World War I. One of its victims, Jacinta of Fatima, offered her sufferings for the conversion of souls.
In the United States, deaths from the Spanish flu have been estimated at around 675,000. In every State, all places of public gathering were closed against the spread of the disease, churches included. The ban was obeyed, although many argued that keeping the churches open would help to appease the panic and fear in which epidemic thrives.
In any case, everywhere, the Church remained at the forefront of the medical and spiritual battle against the disease. Thus, when the Board of Health of Philadelphia ordered the closing of all schools, and suspended church services until further notice, Archbishop Dennis Dougherty offered the use of archdiocesan buildings as temporary hospitals. He further enlisted all priests, non-cloistered nuns, and the lay members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to aid the victims of the flu.