Pandemics and the ancient Church
Wednesday 25 March 2020
When we reflect upon our city’s collective response to the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with images of closed church doors on Sundays, empty streets, and people pushing mountains of groceries through supermarket carparks.
While we self-isolate, it’s important to see this pandemic in perspective and avoid panic: if history has taught us anything, it is that the Christian family has not only withstood the viral outbreaks of the past, but has flourished because of them.
In Ancient Rome, 249-262AD, the eternal city suffered an outbreak of a disease akin to Ebola, and those who caught the plague were often left for dead. It was a minority sect, the Christians, who tended to the needs of not only their own sick during this time, but everyone else’s.
Seeing the actions of the faithful, Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria reported, ‘most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ’ noting too that, ‘with the heathen, everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick and fled from their dearest friends. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.’
It wasn’t just the clergy who noted the Christian reaction to this plague. A hundred years after the Plague of Cyprian Pandemic, pagan Emperor Julian would complain about ‘the Galileans’ who cared for both non-Christian and Christian sick alike.
According to sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark, this may have been one important factor leading to the rapid spread of Christianity across the known world.
We can also see echoes of our current situation in our more recent past.
Consider the 1918 influenza pandemic. While we may not have seen every church around the world close in recent times, it isn’t a new concept. Such measures were taken during that desperate period, and the faithful were encouraged to engage in ‘home worship’ and read sermons published in newspapers. In the same way, we are encouraged to access Mass at home digitally. Then, as now, the Church was able to be a source of guidance, comfort and care.
The church doors may be closed, but we still gather in spirit. Today, if we self-isolate, it is an act of service and sacrifice to our neighbour, caring for those who may be vulnerable.
Today we face uncertain times. Yet it is worth reflecting that Christians have endured such circumstances in the past through actively loving our neighbours as Christ taught us, through charity, sacrifice and community. And as in ancient times, together in faith we will do it again.
‘So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets’ Matthew 7:12
Image: Jules-Élie Delaunay's "Plague in Rome" (1869). Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres. Licence at cc by-nc-sa 2.0.