By early July, the coronavirus pandemic claimed more than 507,000 people worldwide, with almost a quarter of the global fatalities occurring in the United States, where more than 125,000 people had died since February.
Pandemics are nothing new; humanity has been ravaged by them throughout history. In Christian Europe, the clergy, religious, and laity often responded to pandemic outbreaks with heartfelt prayer and acts of penance.
Five canonized saints are spotlighted here for their care of the sick and dying during plague times, at the risk of their own lives. Their responses, rooted in Jesus’ commands to care ‘for the least of these,’ show how they were willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors.
St. Charles Borromeo
Milan cardinal perdured with his stricken, abandoned flock
In 1576, St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), a leading figure of the Counter-Reformation, was serving as cardinal- archbishop of Milan when famine, and later a plague broke out.
In stunning similarity to recent events, the city’s economy collapsed and health conditions deteriorated; the local governor and many nobility even fled Milan. But not Archbishop Borromeo, who stayed behind to care for the affected and minister to the dying.
“I have sought outside priests, and not in vain, but we need still more,” Archbishop Borromeo said in a sermon wherein he asked for assistance from the religious superiors of monasteries and religious congregations in his diocese.
With civic officials abandoning their posts, Borromeo issued critical guidelines to control the plague’s outbreak and organized makeshift hospitals. He donated his clothes and tapestries, and spent his own money, even going into debt, to feed as many as 70,000 people daily.
The saintly archbishop also organized processions. Though he shuttered churches to prevent the plague from spreading in enclosed spaces, Borromeo ordered outdoor altar spaces to be built outside each church or chapel for the faithful’s spiritual needs.
Having never contracted the plague, the archbishop credited his good health to fasting and prayer. In his sermon to religious superiors, Archbishop Borromeo vowed to care for any of them if they became ill.
He was canonized in 1610.
St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli
Widowed mother created hospital refuges for sick, underprivileged, and destitute
A widow and mother of two young children by the time she was 20, St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli (1587-1651) spent most of her adult life doing charitable works and assisting the poor, sick, elderly, and abandoned in Genoa.
When her mother-in-law died in 1625, Virginia turned her home into a refuge for the poor, founding the Cento Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo (The Hundred Ladies of Mercy, Protectors of the Poor of Jesus Christ).
The house was overrun when plague and famine struck Genoa in 1629. To house the sick, Virginia rented the vacant convent of Monte Calvario and had extra housing constructed. By 1635, Virginia was caring for 300 patients. The local government officially recognized her institution as a hospital.
Virginia cared for the spiritual and temporal needs of the women in her houses, teaching them religion and how to earn a living. She had a church built in honor of Our Lady of Refuge, where the women who worked with her formed two congregations: the Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge in Mount Calvary, and the Daughters of Our Lady on Mount Calvary
Though the plague in Genoa eventually ended, Virginia’s hospital continued caring for the sick. Virginia devoted her later years to serving the poor, mediating peace between noble families and working to reconcile civic and ecclesial authorities.
The most well-known quote attributed to Virginia is: “When God is the only goal, all disagreements are smoothed out, all difficulties overcome.” She was canonized in 2003. Her remains are still mostly incorrupt.
St. Jose Brochero
20th-century Argentinian priest befriended lepers, became one
Affectionately known during his lifetime as “the Gaucho priest” and the “cowboy priest,” St. Jose Gabriel del Rosario Brochero (1840- 1914) could often be found riding through Argentina on a donkey, with a poncho over his shoulders, a sombrero, and a cigar in his mouth.
Father Jose, who traveled long distances in Argentina to serve the spiritual needs of his flock with his Mass kit, prayer book, and an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was well-known for his motto: “Woe if the Devil is going to rob a soul from me.”
He was particularly devoted to the poor and sick people of his huge parish. He cared for the ill during a cholera epidemic in 1867. He befriended a parishioner with leprosy, an affliction that Father Jose would himself contract.
The leprosy eventually caused Father Jose to lose his sight and hearing in later years, and forced him to relinquish pastoral duties. He spent his last three frail years living with his sisters in Cordoba.
Before taking his last breath on Jan. 26, 1914, Father Jose’s last words were, “Now I have everything ready for the journey.”
A few days after his death, a Catholic newspaper in Cordoba wrote: “It is known that Father Brochero contracted the sickness that took him to his tomb, because he visited at length and embraced an abandoned leper of the area.” He was canonized in 2016.
3rd-Century Roman army captain’s intercession still sought during plagues
The common image many have of St. Sebastian (AD 256 – 288) is of a young man tied to a post or tree, his body “full of arrows as an urchin” for his fidelity to Christ.
According to tradition, Sebastian was born in Gaul, went to Rome, and joined the army of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Carinus. An excellent soldier, he became an army captain and a member of the Praetorian Guard to protect the emperor Diocletian, who was persecuting Christians.
It is said that Sebastian, a Christian, joined the Roman army to protect Christians from the emperor’s persecutions. However, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be executed after learning he was a Christian who had converted Roman soldiers.
Tradition says Sebastian survived being shot with arrows and nursed back to health, only to later be clubbed to death upon returning to Diocletian and chastising him.
In medieval Europe, Sebastian’s intercession was often sought during outbreaks of the plague. The image of the martyr shot with arrows, and surviving, may have been seen as a symbolic Christian response to the pagan deity Apollo, the archer-god who sometimes shot his enemies with plague-infested arrows.
In 680 AD, Sebastian was credited with defending Rome from a pestilence. As a patron of soldiers whose intercession was sought during plagues, Sebastian was a popular saint during the Middle Ages, and a favorite subject for Late Gothic and Renaissance artists. He is buried along the Appian Way in Rome.
Divested riches and adopted poverty, to be Christ-presence to poor and sick
Saint Roch (1295 – 1327) was a Third Order Franciscan who, having lost both parents when he was 20, inherited a sizeable fortune. But he chose to divest of his worldly possessions when he visited Italy as a mendicant pilgrim in the early 14th century.
During his Italian journey, a plague struck the northern Italian town of Acquapendente. Roch did not hurry away to preserve his life as others did, but offered himself in the service of his brethren in Christ. He tended to the sick in several hospitals throughout Italy, curing many people with the sign of the cross and the touch of his hand.
In Rome, according to tradition, he healed a cardinal by blessing the prelate’s forehead; the sign of the cross miraculously remained.
Roch was ministering to plague victims in Piacenza when he himself finally fell ill. He was expelled from the Italian town and sought refuge in the woods, where he recovered and is said to have performed several miraculous healings.
Upon returning to his French homeland, he was thrown into prison, where he spent five years. As he lay dying there, a tablet appeared upon the wall on which an angelic hand wrote in golden letters the name of Roch, and the prediction that all who invoke his intercession would be delivered from the plague.
Shortly after his death, miracles were reported through his intercession. He is still invoked against plague. He was later canonized by Pope Urban VIII.
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.