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Catholic Origins

Pandemics and Christian Compassion

26th January 2021

The church has been handling pandemics for over 2,000 years and whilst we have recently become reacquainted with this familiar invisible enemy, we must look at the epidemic experiences of generations past and take what we can from their actions.

During plague periods in the Roman Empire, Christians made a name for themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered an spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God. Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark mounted am argument that one of the principal reasons Christianity grew while Roman paganism waned in the 1st-4th centuries was because of the mercy Christians displayed toward people who physically suffered, and in particular, how Christians showed mercy during two plagues that ravaged the Roman Empire.

But the more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colourful account of this disease in his sermons. Probably a disease related to Ebola, the Plague of Cyprian helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

Nor was it just Christians who noted this reaction of Christians to the plague. A century later, the actively pagan Emperor Julian would complain bitterly of how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” The sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been just half that of other cities.

In 1918, the Spanish flu killed millions worldwide. Church buildings in affected areas were closed while believers continued worshipping from house to house. Some churches opened their doors to serve as health clinics as hospitals were bursting at the seams with patients. As was often the case, many sacrificed their lives to care for the sick.

In the outbreak of the Ebola Crisis that reached Liberia in 2014, the missionary compound of ELWA became ground zero for medical treatment, and many Liberian nationals and Western missionary ex-pats like Nancy Writebol courageously served others at great risk and cost to themselves. Times like this are opportunities for the body of Jesus Christ on earth to show what she truly believes by exhibiting an unshakable faith and hope in God while continuing to do good in love toward one another. In dark times, especially, be on the lookout and watch for extraordinary rays of light, faith, hope, and love.

What can we draw from these reflections about the practices of early Christians during the two great plagues?

By all means, practice meticulous hygiene, both for your own sake and for the sake of others. Wash your hands, cough into your arm, elbow-bump instead of shaking hands. Follow the rules and stay away from public meetings that your local health authorities recommend you avoid. However, think long and hard about your own contributions throughout this difficult time. It is very easy to become forlorn and disheartened by current circumstances but more often than not, there are people in much more difficult situations with little hope to hold onto. If you are able, volunteer and serve your communities in the best way you can and above all, show compassion and understanding to those around you. People handle difficult situations in different ways, and it is important to remember that most people are simply doing everything they can to keep moving forward.

So whilst we might not all be called to the frontlines of caring for the sick, but there are other ways we can show loving concern and compassion toward others during this time of crisis, and certainly, our response through this disruption will reflect where we place our hopes and the strength of our faith. The Church will come through this as it has many times in the past, though not without scars. But remember – this is not a first. Plagues much more unrelenting than the one we currently face have often reared their ugly head to challenge societies of the past. These people, with less resources, less connectivity and more challenging environments,  banded together to support each other in the fight against uncertainty and turmoil.