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Pandemics, a long-standing classic

In the first centuries of Christianity, there were pandemics of singular virulence. Church Fathers such as St. Cyprian, bishops and historians recall how Christians cared for the sick and dying, while pagans abandoned them.

Carlos Carrasco-December 6, 2021-Reading time: 4 minutes
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Josh Appel /Unsplash

In the third year of the pandemic, when perhaps we can pause to reflect on what should be the specific Christian contribution to this crisis, history can serve as a teacher, for before us, when medical knowledge was still rudimentary, there were already those who had a very clear idea of how to take advantage of occasions.

In 165, a smallpox epidemic devastated the Roman Empire, including Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. The plagues caused extremely high mortality rates - up to a third of the population - as they afflicted people who had never been afflicted by these diseases. Modern historians refer to these epidemics as one of the possible causes of Rome's decline, together with the drop in the birth rate.

A century later, in 251 came another measles epidemic, which afflicted both rural areas and cities. At the peak of its spread, it is said that in the city of Rome alone, 5000 people died every day. Of this second epidemic, we have testimonies of the time, especially from Christian sources. Cyprian writes from Carthage in 251 that "many of our people also die of this epidemic", and Dionysius - Bishop of Alexandria - writes in his Easter message that "this epidemic has fallen upon us, more cruel than any other misfortune".

Medicine was rudimentary and unable to offer any effective treatment, which led to the abandonment of the sick and isolation for fear of contagion. Galen himself refers above all to the first of these epidemics because, once he managed to survive, he escaped from Rome and took refuge in a country village in Asia Minor.

And yet the Fathers of the Church refer to these plagues in a surprisingly positive way, as a gift for the purification and development of the Christian cause, with reflections charged with hope and even enthusiasm. In contrast to the pagans' neglect of the sick, love of neighbor was taken to heroic extremes, and this led to a remarkable growth in the number of Christians and, surprisingly, a much higher survival rate than among the pagan population.

This is the context of the letter of the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, in 251: "Along with the unjust die also the just, and this does not happen so that you think that death is the common destiny of the good and the bad. The just are called to eternal rest and the unjust are dragged to torment (...) How opportune and necessary that this epidemic, this plague, which seems horrible and lethal, should test the sense of justice of each one, that it should examine the feelings of the human race; this scourge will show if the healthy really put themselves at the service of the sick, if the relatives love their relatives as they should, if the heads of families have compassion for their sick servants, if the doctors do not abandon their sick ..... And if this dire circumstance had brought no other consequence, it has already served us Christians and servants of God by the fact that we begin to ardently desire martyrdom, while learning not to be afraid of death. For us, these events are exercises, not mourning: they offer the soul the crown of firmness and prepare us for victory thanks to the contempt of death. (...) Our brothers have been freed from the world thanks to the call of the Lord, for we know that we have not lost them definitively, but that they have only been sent ahead of us and precede us, as happens to those who travel or embark. These dear brethren are to be sought in thought, not in lamentation (....). The pagans, moreover, are not to be offered an occasion of deserved mockery if we mourn as dead and lost forever those whom we claim to live in God."

A few years later, Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote in his Easter letter: "The greater part of our brethren, without any compunction for themselves, in an excess of charity and fraternal love, united with one another, carelessly visited the sick and served them in a marvelous way, helped them in Christ and died joyfully with them. Contagious of the sickness of others, they attracted the sickness of their neighbor and joyfully took on their sufferings. Many, after having cared for and given strength to others, ended up dying themselves. (...) The best among us lost their lives in this way: some priests, deacons and lay people were justly praised, to the point that this kind of death, the fruit of great piety and courageous faith, did not seem at all inferior to martyrdom".

"Completely opposite," writes Eusebius of Caesarea, "was the conduct of the pagans: they drove away those who began to fall ill, avoided loved ones, threw the dying out into the street, treated unburied corpses as refuse, seeking to escape the spread and contagion of death, which was not easy to drive away in spite of all precautions. 

He was not exaggerating about the contrasting attitude of Christians, who did not fail to go to the sick at the risk of their own lives. A century later, Julian (the apostate) launched a campaign to institute initiatives in imitation of Christian charity.

In a letter to the (pagan) high priest of Calata, the emperor lamented the unstoppable growth of Christianity, due to its "moral qualities, although fictitious" and its "benevolence towards strangers and its care for the tombs of the dead". In another letter, he writes: "I think that when the poor were forgotten and rejected by our priests, the impious Galileans saw it and decided to dedicate themselves." "The ungodly Galileans," he adds, "do not offer support only to their poor but also to ours; everyone sees that we do not care for our people."

Julian hated the "Galileans," but he recognized the efficacy of the surprising state of well-being they had achieved by putting into practice the commandment of Christian charity. Thus they overcame the fear of suffering and death.

The testimony of the first Christians, encouraged by their Shepherds, surprises us and fills us with admiration. And above all, it raises the question of whether the first reaction of people of faith should always be fear. They did not invent epidemics; they brought a new way of life, capable of overcoming all human difficulties with joy.

(Based on Rodney Stark, Epidemics, Network ad the Rise of Christianityin Semeia56, 1992, pp 159-175).

The authorCarlos Carrasco

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