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Friday, March 13, 2020

Being Pro-Life in the Time of Coronavirus

In 8th grade, I chose “Rocco” for my confirmation name. I didn’t know anything about Saint Rocco. I just thought his name was funny. It turns out that Rocco was one of those heroic saints who dared to care for victims of the bubonic plague in the 14th century. 

They say that, when Rocco was 17, he was so struck by the pope’s visit to his hometown, he decided to give all his possessions to the poor and travel across northern Italy tending to dying victims of the plague. He cleaned and bound their wounds, he made the sign of the cross over them, he prayed with them. He was not afraid to touch them. He was not afraid to get the plague himself, and he was eventually infected. Many of these people were healed. 

Similar stories are told of Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Francis grew up rich. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and, as a young man, Francis had a deep distaste for ugly things. Above all, he found lepers particularly repulsive. How odd then, that Francis, upon handing over his fine clothing, found himself aiding the sick in a hospital for lepers. But that is precisely where Francis’s vision was transformed. They say that, one day, when walking down the road, he even embraced and kissed a leper, not fearing contagion.

Today, the entirety of the Italy in which Saints Rocco and Francis ministered and healed has been put in lock down. People have been instructed not to go out and, if they must go out, not to stand within about 4 feet of each other. There is, it seems, a new plague. It can be hard for modern people to hear and accept something like this, especially since we don’t see pandemics very often in the contemporary world. But this is serious and real.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control announced this week that the effort to “contain” this new coronavirus has failed and that community spread has begun. They have instructed older adults to avoid crowds. Travel has been cut off from Europe.

In light of people like Saint Rocco and Saint Francis, some people have been a little confused by the Catholic response to all this. Across the entirety of Italy, for instance, Mass has been suspended. There are no church weddings or funerals. The churches are deserted. Perhaps most ironically of all, even the healing pools at Lourdes in France have been closed to visitors. Some Catholics have been enormously unhappy about this, accusing the Church of cowardice. Shouldn’t we be like Rocco and Francis, bravely leaving the churches open so people can pray together?

We have seen this same thing beginning in the United States. In major dioceses across the country, public Masses have been cancelled indefinitely. An enormous number of Catholic colleges like Franciscan University (which is even named on account of Saint Francis!) and my own alma mater have ended their semesters early, sending students home to finish their classes online. Is this just giving in to hysteria and fear? How can this be the Catholic response? And, maybe more pointedly, is this what Rocco and Francis would do in the time of coronavirus?

By now you’ve heard what makes this virus particularly dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, though most young and healthy people experience only “mild” symptoms, the mortality rate for people in their 70s and 80s, is somewhere between 8% and 14%. That’s stunning. 

Rocco and Francis wanted to care for the drastically ill and for the most vulnerable. In their time — in the Middle Ages — the vulnerable were bubonic plague victims and lepers. They were willing to do anything for them, even catch the disease themselves. Right now — in a time of spreading coronavirus — the most vulnerable are the elderly and those with preexisting conditions.

Here’s the difference: when Rocco and Francis bravely approached a leper or a plague victim, the only people who could have been harmed were themselves. With this new coronavirus, it is simply not the same. It’s a different disease. If someone picks up the virus, they may carry it around for two weeks before showing any symptoms at all. Indeed, they may hardly even get sick. But all that time they would have been spreading it to the people around them, including the elderly and vulnerable. This is decidedly not what Rocco and Francis were doing. They wanted to care for the vulnerable, not infect them.

As a result of all this, Italian hospitals have become so overrun that their medical associations have been forced to issue guidelines outlining which patients are to receive care and which should be left to die. They simply do not have the resources to care for everyone. 

It is imperative that all people ― Christians too ― act to slow the spread of this virus in the United States. The health care system simply cannot handle the rapid spread of this virus. As this outbreak strengthens ― even if you’re young and healthy ― to ignore the seriousness of it and to carry on without any increased effort to wash your hands, or to stay home when you're sick, or to limit and be careful about physical contact would be seriously grave. It would not be fearlessness but foolishness. It would be spreading it to the vulnerable. It would be a work of death.

The Catholic Church has been shutting its churches and schools down across the world because it does not want to create venues where this disease can spread uncontrollably. It’s been shutting down its venues because it is pro-life, because it wants to see its elderly and vulnerable people live.

We are Christians. And Christians are always on the side of the weak and of the vulnerable. Always. No exceptions. I implore you. People’s lives are at stake. Go to church, if you’re able. Pray. But when you're there, be proactive and be enormously careful. Be pro-life. These are my grandparents and yours, my sick and yours. This is my responsibility and yours.

Saints Rocco and Francis, pray for us!


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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