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Good Shepherds In The Face of Danger, Natural And Otherwise

March 20, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


It was little less than a year ago that the beauty of a sunny spring day in Paris during Holy Week was turned into frightening darkness when the great cathedral of Notre Dame burst into flames. The event had an apocalyptic feel to it, and coming just a day after Palm Sunday, one could not help but think that there was in this catastrophe a word of warning to a world that had turned its back not only on divine worship but on the most elemental commandments of God.
Nearly a year later, this past weekend the weather here in the New York area was bright and beautiful. Yet there is fear in the air, fear of an invisible enemy so tiny that it can only be seen under a microscope. On Ash Wednesday, a young man commented to me that he wasn’t religious and didn’t need religion in his life, but that if the coronavirus outbreak became serious he would turn to God. I gave him a pair of rosary beads and said, “You might decide you need them.” He accepted the rosary, but added that he hoped he wouldn’t be needing them.
Perhaps those rosary beads are beginning to get some use now. In the nearly two weeks that have passed since that conversation, the coronavirus outbreak has become a serious epidemic in this part of the country. Coming during this penitential season not unlike the Notre Dame fire last year, it certainly seems to be yet another word of warning for all of us. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.”
The Church has a long history of battling against pestilence — communicable diseases — with the weapon of prayer, dating back to AD 590, when the deacon and future Pope St. Gregory the Great organized a series of processions through the streets of Rome to beg for deliverance from the plague through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the conclusion of which the epidemic ceased.
Across the centuries that followed, epidemics were a recurrent danger for Christian Europe, with the deadliest pandemic of all, the “Black Death,” striking in 1347, in which about half of Europe’s population perished.
In seventeenth-century Germany as elsewhere, the plague was still a threat. The hugely famous Oberammergau Passion Play is the fulfillment of a vow that the people of this Bavarian village made in 1633 when they prayed for protection from the plague. When in 1673 Archbishop Albert Sigismund of Bavaria issued a new edition of the ritual for his south German see of Freising, the book included detailed instructions for how a pastor should respond to epidemics (Rituale Frisingense. Munich, Johann Jaecklin, 1673, digitized text, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, pp. 721-723).
The text begins by admonishing pastors that when faced with the threat of pestilence they cannot abandon their people and run for their lives, like the hired shepherds whom Christ condemns (John 10:12-13), but rather they must devote themselves more than ever to their duty as pastors, “that they might set aside their life for their sheep.”
The ritual goes on to explain how pastors should encourage and comfort the faithful, exhorting them to have recourse to God in facing the danger at hand:
“. . . the pastor, should vigorously animate his parishioners by virtue of a sermon, driving out all fear from their souls. He should endeavor, that he might lead all men to Confession, and the reception of the Holy Eucharist. For placating the wrath of God, and averting the scourge of the present necessity, they should establish on certain distinct days processions, also the prayer of the Forty Hours, with an assembly in the church daily (provided that the pestilence has not yet invaded the place, for otherwise those processions and assemblies would be ruinous, and should not be done), as well as also other exercises of piety at an opportune time and according to the capacity of the people.
“On certain determined days he should appoint fasts. He should take heed that almsgiving and other spiritual works of mercy both spiritual and corporal be done. . . . The calamity of disease advancing, he should urge a vow to St. Sebastian be made by the people.”
The pastor is instructed to commit himself by a vow to inducing the people to set aside all trivial, worldly festivities, that they might turn to God:
“He should gravely and continually call the same away from their sins; he should incite them to the practice of the virtues and the use of the sacraments. He should omit nothing that shall be seen in this to be expedient for the salvation of the people, the security of consciences, the reconciling to God, and supporting the necessity at hand.”
Returning to the inalienable duties of a pastor, the ritual stresses that the parish priest must never deny the Sacraments of Baptism, Confession, and the Holy Eucharist to those who are worthily disposed to receive them. In the case of extreme unction, the ritual permits the pastor to abbreviate the rite to simply the essential anointings, according to the necessity of the urgent circumstances during an epidemic.
The Freising instructions continue with a section entitled, “Preservation against the Pestilence,” in which the pastor is given practical advice on how to fulfill his priestly duties to the faithful without unnecessarily putting himself at a heightened risk for contracting the contagion. Thus the priest is advised to confine his exposure to the sick to the administration of the sacraments. The reason for this is obvious: If a priest is to continue attending to the spiritual needs of his people, he must do what he can to preserve his own health for the sake of the souls who need him for what only he as a priest can do for them.
The priest is also told to cleanse his fingers with vinegar or the heat of a lit candle after each administration of the sacraments to the sick, not unlike the instruction given to doctors and nurses that they should wash their hands when going from one patient to another.
The Freising ritual concludes this instruction by reminding the pastor that in such a time of public adversity he must be a model for his people:
“Above all, however, the priest should be established in the grace of God; that which he teaches others by word, he himself should fulfill first by deed and example; he should keep a singular solicitude of the poor; he should pray ceaselessly to God for his salvation and for the salvation of his flock; he should surpass in all the splendors of chastity, humility, magnanimity, devotion, patience, temperance, meekness, and the other virtues.”
In the rubrics that the Freising ritual provides for conducting a procession to pray for protection from pestilence, there appears the following sequence of three Collects, in which the calamity of an epidemic is perceived as a call to repentance and the need to beg for forgiveness:
“Hear us, O our saving God, and with the blessed and glorious Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, and blessed Sebastian thy martyr, and all the saints interceding, deliver thy people from the terrors of thy wrath, and make them secure in the bounty of thy mercy.
“Be merciful, O Lord, to our supplications, and heal the infirmities of our souls and bodies, that with thy forgiveness having been received, we may ever rejoice in thy blessing.
“Grant us, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy answer to devout supplication, and mercifully turn away this pestilence and death, that the hearts of mortals may see such scourges going forth from thee in thy wrath to cease by thy mercy” (Rituale Frisingense, p. 688).
The courage and heroism in the face of danger to which the Freising ritual summoned the pastors for whom it was compiled go well beyond the threat of plagues. Amid all the worrisome news concerning the coronavirus outbreak, this past weekend brought a compelling reminder of the highest form of pastoral courage, the willingness to suffer imprisonment or worse in defense of the doctrines and truths of the Catholic faith.

A Powerful Sense
Of The Sacred

On Saturday I attended a very beautiful twentieth anniversary Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of a man who in the eyes of very many, including myself, was a living martyr, Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000), the bishop of Shanghai who because of his unflinching fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff suffered an imprisonment of over thirty years at the hands of the Chinese Communist regime. Quite fittingly, the Mass was celebrated by a prelate we all deeply revere, His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke.
The Mass took place amid the splendor of the Basilica of St. John in Stamford, Conn., in which luminescent stained-glass windows, a magnificent stone high altar and lofty vaulting above converge to create a powerful sense of the sacred.
But on this occasion what particularly captivated the eye and spoke to the soul was the catafalque erected at the crossing in the central aisle of the nave. Encircled by sixteen unbleached wax candles and draped with dark bunting as well as a red “cappa magna,” the great ceremonial cape that is one of the solemn vestments of cardinals, the catafalque bore the coat of arms of Cardinal Kung. Resting upon a pillow at the top was his cardinal’s hat.
The music for the Mass featured Victoria’s Missa pro Defunctis for six voices. With the majestic catafalque of the late cardinal before my eyes, the chanting of the Dies Irae was particularly compelling.
In his homily, Cardinal Burke reminded us all of Cardinal Kung’s unfailing fidelity to Christ, to His Church, and to His Vicar on Earth, adding that Joseph Cardinal Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong who has become the great living voice of the underground Catholic Church in China, has been following in Cardinal Kung’s footsteps as a faithful and courageous shepherd.
With all the uncertainties we face during this season of Lent in 2020, may we trust as Cardinal Kung did in the loving Providence and unfailing mercy of God.

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