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Popes and Epidemics

Many may be worrying a lot about the world’s current situation. There’s the threat of terrorism, coronavirus, and the stock market’s fluctuations. But consider the hand that was dealt to Pope Benedict XV. He was elected pope six weeks after the beginning of the World War I or, as he called it, “the suicide of civilized Europe.” He had to lead the church not just through war, but also the Spanish flu pandemic that killed some 50 million around the world in 1918.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took that name in honor of this saintly predecessor. “I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict,” the pope emeritus said at the beginning of his pontificate. “Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war.”

Pope Benedict XV survived World War I and the initial epidemic, but in January of 1922, he succumbed to a bad case of the flu that had killed so many people just three years before. After celebrating Mass for the nuns at Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XV had to wait for his driver in the rain. He fell ill soon after.

The site where the pope celebrated Mass that fateful day was the St. Martha Hospice, a place built in 1891 amidst fears of the cholera epidemic that affected Europe in the 19th century. The hospice was built as a preparation for an epidemic that luckily never reached Rome.

Like the Spanish flu of 1918, the current epidemic — COVID-19 — has reached Rome, and Pope Francis lives in Casa Santa Marta, where he is recovering from a mild cold. Yes, our fears are justified — the current epidemic has killed more than 4,000 people as I write this column. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that this situation is not unprecedented in either scale, or gravity.

Nevertheless, coronavirus has paralyzed China, the world’s second-largest economy, and the tourism industry. Oil prices are dropping and the Dow Jones index is also down. We are not facing a pandemic like the Spanish flu, but prevention is essential. Masses have been suspended until April 3 in Italy, one of the countries most affected by the virus. Last Sunday, Pope Francis recited the Angelus by video streaming instead of at the Apostolic Palace balcony. He didn’t want the faithful and tourists that usually fill the plaza to risk getting, or spreading, the virus. Here in Brooklyn and Queens, our diocese has published guidelines to avoid contagion at Mass.

During this week, I also remembered Clement VI, who was pope during the Black Death pandemic that killed nearly two-thirds of the population of Europe from 1347 to 1350. In 1348 alone, Pope Clement saw six of his cardinals die. But he survived the pandemic.

Many people at the time blamed the Jews for the plague. Pogroms became common. Pope Clement confronted the crisis issuing two papal bulls in which he affirmed that whoever blamed the epidemic on the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He asked bishops and priests to protect the Jewish population in their diocese and parishes.

Almost seven centuries later, we are seeing similar reactions. On Ash Wednesday, Bishop DiMarzio issued a pastoral letter in solidarity with the Chinese community in our diocese. “During the beginning of an epidemic, unfortunately, we see people looking to blame others,” the bishop said. Like Pope Clement, Bishop DiMarzio urged the faithful not to succumb to fear and prejudice. “In our day and age, we must recognize that we are not to assess blame,” the bishop said.

The present epidemic reminds us that nothing is new in the church. But, at the same time, it also reminds us that the announcement of the good news and the call to love one another should be constantly renewed.

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