During the 1576 plague that menaced Milan and eventually took 25,000 lives, the civil government fled the city out of fear. The Archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo, took over, assured the people he would not abandon them and, together with priests from the parishes and religious orders, began to care for their material and Spiritual needs.
He organized hospitals, cared for orphans, and brought the Sacraments to those who were quarantined in their homes. He got priests to offer Masses in public squares and the middle of streets so that people could participate from their houses. He sold his personal goods and much of the diocesan treasury to feed the hungry and had the tapestries of his residence converted into blankets to warm the poor.
As a Good Shepherd, he was willing to risk his life to care for the souls and the bodies of those entrusted to him and was able to persuade so many of his brother priests to join him. Recalling how Christ died for them first, he declared that Christ “does not even request this pathetic life of ours, but only that we put it at risk.”
He challenged them to pay attention not only to what can kill the body, like the pestilence, but also to what can harm the soul, commenting, “the devout souls of our brethren languish with desire for Divine things.”
And providing them, he argued, is not a small matter.
“I will certainly say that the sick do not need our assistance in such a way that without it they would have no hope of Salvation, but often our services are necessary. Besides, it is indisputably clear that we all understand how much [the Sacraments] benefit not only the bad but also the good, and how much alleviation they usually bring to the sick body and above all to the soul solicitous for its Salvation.”
The greatest illustration of that point was how he scaled a mountain of corpses to give absolution and viaticum to a man at the top of the heap who had been placed there prematurely.
His example of courage tied to charity is a mirror for the Church and her leaders in every age, most especially at times of crisis. As all of us confront the Coronavirus, we can all profit from how St. Charles put the Catholic faith into action in the most demanding and dangerous circumstances. I would heartily recommend reading Msgr. John Cihak’s superb 2017 work, “Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings.”
To become courageous like he was, what virtues do we need?
The first is faith, to recognize that Christ, Who promised to be with us always until the end of time (Mt 28:20), is good to His word. Faith likewise helps us trust in God’s providential care. There’s a temptation, in times of crisis, to try to take control even over things that human beings cannot control. This can come from a practical atheism, from living as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. Faith inspires us to do all we can, but in tandem, rather than apart, from God, knowing that our life is in God’s hands.
The second is prudence, which helps us to discern the good in each circumstance among many competing goods — and to choose the right means to achieving it. It helps us set a proper rule or measure, something desperately needed in times of crisis when certain goods can be emphasized out of measure and others can be forgotten. Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas after him, taught that moral virtue is a middle point between two extremes, deficiency and excess. Compassion, for example, is the mean between apathy and sentimental indulgence. Courage is found within the extremes of cowardice and recklessness.
In this present circumstance, prudence can help us to see that an “overabundance of caution” is not a virtue but a vice. Prudence focuses on the right measure of caution, balancing, for example, the duty we need to protect those most vulnerable to infection by “flattening the curve” through social distancing, hand-washing, and various other practices, with other needs, like providing for one’s family, nourishing one’s soul and others’, providing goods and services, etc. Prudence assists courage in helping people know how to take the right risks.
The third virtue is charity, which helps us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. “No one has greater love,” Jesus said during the Last Supper, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13), and charity motivates us to take risks, even dangerous ones, to protect and provide for those we love. Moms and dads, even the most temperamentally timid and conflict adverse, instinctively protect their children in the face of gunmen, bombs, and tornados. The greater the love, the greater the audacity. Courage does not mean fearlessness, but doing what we ought despite our fear, and love gives us the strength to overcome fear and do what love demands.
The fourth is patience, which means principally not an ability to wait but a capacity to suffer. The word patience comes from the Latin patior, to “suffer,” which is why we call the sick in hospitals “patients.” Courage requires that we do not have an excessive fear of pain and of where our fear of pain ultimately derives, the fear of death.
In the present circumstance, many, including young people at very low risk of serious consequences from COVID-19, are terrified of contracting it, as if it were an automatic death sentence, even though, for 80 percent of those who get it, the symptoms are mild and pass like a cold or flu, and only those whose bodies are compromised by old age or other serious health conditions are in serious danger.
We should all be doing everything reasonable to prevent transmission out of concern for those who would be most vulnerable, conscious of the reality that our health care system is inadequate to handle more than 120,000 people in ICUs at the same time. We need to work together to ensure that no one dies when medical services, received promptly, could save their lives. At the same time, however, we should not be giving in to an epidemic of fear as if catching COVID-19 is getting leprosy or stage-four pancreatic cancer. Hysteria, based on fear of pain and death, doesn’t help.
“The Imitation of Christ,” Thomas à Kempis’ 15th-century Spiritual classic, advised us that the easiest way to overcome the fear of death is to ponder it each day. “In every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day.”
Once we start doing that, we start taking every day more seriously: we do not procrastinate on telling family members and friends that we love them, we ask forgiveness from God and those we’ve wronged while we still have time, we let pass so many things that in the final analysis don’t matter much, and we start to get our real priorities straight.
When we pray each day Jesus’ last words from the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit” (Lk 23:46), we become emboldened, like Jesus, not to have our life taken from us but rather freely to lay it down (Jn 10:18). When we’re not afraid to die because we’ve rehearsed it daily in prayer, we will be ready to offer our life without fear should that prove necessary.
Crises, like the present situation of the Coronavirus, are times for Catholics united with Christ truly to shine. As salt, light and leaven, Catholics are called to help everyone else to become courageous in the face of the threats, to be willing to act to help others and save their lives, and to show everyone how to unite their situations to God.
It’s a time for Catholics to show that we truly believe Jesus’ words, “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid!” (Mk 6:50), and, like waves of Apostles and martyrs throughout the centuries, and saints like Charles Borromeo, boldly lead not only in response to people’s material needs, but to care for their even more important Spiritual needs.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.