You can read about it in the history books, though I doubt that any written words could ever really convey its terror. For when the bubonic plague first raised its ugly head in Sicily in 1347, not only were there few medicines to treat it, it was so lethal that some patients went to bed feeling okay and died before morning. Likewise, as historian Mark Galli has shared, some doctors caught the illness at a patient’s bedside and passed away before the patient. In some places the mortality rate was as high as ninety percent, and as the “Black Death” passed through medieval Europe, in fact, it is estimated that 20 million people succumbed to it. Or to put it another way, between 1347 to 1350, “one third of the world died.”
It’s no wonder thus that people shut themselves up in their own homes, with few daring to help or visit the sick. Still, in the midst of the greatest catastrophe in human history, there were some rather incredible examples of Christian charity. One French chronicler, for instance, cited by Galli, recorded that the nuns in the city hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” And when they too fell ill, others simply replaced them until almost all of had died as well.
What’s more, when another wave of that plague came back to Italy in 1374, a woman who had been born in Sienna, Italy, during the first outbreak, likewise stayed to nurse the ill and bury the dead. She was, in the words of an earlier historian, Philip Schaff, “indefatigable by day and night,” performing the most distressing nursing chores to patients who were not just incurably ill but in pain and often abusive.
But in that regard, Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa, or St. Catherine of Sienna (for whom a church in my own neighborhood is named) was simply following the example of countless believers before her. When a terrible plague passed through the Roman world in the third century, for instance, a bishop named Cyprian told his flock not simply to grieve for the victims (as they were now in heaven) but to redouble their efforts to care for the living, heedless of the danger. Later on, it was Christians who established the first hospitals in Europe as sanitary places providing care during numerous times of disease. And as Christians did good not just to their own, but to all around them, it was not only noted by others (even if begrudgingly), but it’s estimated that the death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been cut in half of that of other places.
Fortunately, as challenging as it has been across the world, the current coronavirus has not risen to those dramatic mortality levels. But the call for followers of Jesus to continue to step into the breach remains the same, I think, by finding ways to give and serve, and by following quarantine guidelines meant to prevent the spread of the disease any further, including moving to livestream or on-line worship services only.
Or, in short, as has long been a part of our faith, this is not a time for the church to seek to save its own life, but to follow the Lord in giving our lives over to save others. Even if that means we give up “church” as we’ve all come to know it for a while.