The other day I drove past a grocery store that had people waiting in line to get inside and stock up on food and other supplies due to the continuing spread of COVID-19. Most of us have seen pictures of empty store shelves devoid of food and medicine as people make a mad rush to make sure they have what they need to self-quarantine for an extended period.
An equally startling yet vastly different image is that of empty church pews during the numerous Sunday Masses being livestreamed from Catholic parishes around the world. Whereas the emptiness of store shelves suggests the preparedness, albeit over the top at times, of consumers, the emptiness of Church pews suggests the possibility of the Christian Faithful not having the spiritual support which they need during this pandemic. Fortunately, the Church has been through pandemics before, and an examination of our past offers insight for our days ahead.
At the outset of the Bubonic plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, Europe’s faithful sought heavenly aid to withstand the suffering caused by the plague. Various communities invoked the Blessed Mother and the saints for protection against the plague. One of the most interesting and enduring of such devotions comes from Western Germany where 14 “auxiliary saints” were venerated together as the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
The Fourteen holy helpers were:
Pious legend tells of a shepherd boy receiving a vision of the 14 Holy Helpers in a field near the German town of Bad Staffelstein. After this, a church was erected on this spot and miraculous healings began to occur on account of the intercession of the Holy Helpers. A shrine church still stands in Bad Steffelstein to this day where pilgrims continue to go and seek the help of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. As this group devotion spread to other countries, new helpers were added for more popular saints in any given region including St. Nicholas, St. Sebastian, and St. Rocco (Roch). Regardless of which saints composed the group of helpers, the people of Europe implored the Helpers’ aid against the harsh symptoms of the Black Death.
Today, the world once again suffers from a pandemic, the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. Though medicine and science have surely advanced and we know much more about diseases and how they spread than medieval Europeans, maybe those Christian faithful of the past can teach us an important lesson: the lesson of faith and trust in God.
As we adapt our lifestyles to work from home, social distance ourselves, and view Mass via livestream, let us not forget the great cloud of witnesses who watch over us from heaven. May we turn to their help during these challenging times.
Fourteen Holy Helpers, Pray for us!
Joseph Basalla is a graduate from The Catholic University of America living in the Washington, DC area.
When I think of role models for Catholic men, I think of St. Joseph, St. Christopher, St. Thomas More, St. Vincent Pallotti, and men in my life like my father, grandfather and even certain professors. When I think of who teaches me best about how to be a Catholic man, I think of Mary. Now, before you laugh, let me point out that Mary can be a source of both masculine and feminine spirituality. Typically, Mary is viewed primarily as a role model for women. So what can Mary teach Catholic men about our faith and how to live our lives today?
First, Mary is introduced to us in the Gospels when an angel appears to this timid young Jewish girl, and addresses her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Immediately, we can tell that the life of Mary is deeply intertwined with the love and charity of God. How is it that a young woman managed to achieve such favor with God? Or maybe to phrase it in another way, what is it about Mary that made God choose her?
The Old Testament is filled with stories of women answering God’s call. Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Judith and Esther are just a few of the many that could be named here. They all paved the way for Mary’s role in the Incarnation. “Mary stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from Him” (CCC #489). Throughout salvation history in the Bible, God constantly chooses the weak to lead the strong, men and women alike. This choice of God goes against what society often tries to tell us as men. Society tells us that men should be brutish with no need for a Savior because we can “do it on our own.” Mary stands out among all believers because of her eagerness to do God’s bidding. It is her desire for God, not independence, which brings her closer to God.
Mary exemplifies complete obedience in God and submits herself to his will. In saying “yes,” Mary showed us a unique holiness. While God chose Mary from her conception, she was still given the opportunity to consent to God. Many Catholics today have the fear of speaking about faith in public. What if faith wanted to manifest itself in you? That may be shocking to think about, but the obedience of faith that Mary professed is what revealed her grace to us. As men, we look to Mary for strength and as a witness to doing the Lord’s will under immense pressure.
Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, came from this humble woman. Mary’s love, grace, and faithfulness brought Christ into this world. Mary’s choice brings us closer to Christ’s humanity. While Christ is the Son of God, he is also the Son of Mary. This helps us to come to know God and build our relationship with him. By better understanding Mary, we can better understand Christ.
Mary is key to God’s plan. The willing “yes” became the center of our faith. God did not need to wait for Mary’s acceptance, but her consent was vital for the birth of the Church to come out of love, charity, and grace. It is for that reason that “Mary is the symbol and most perfect realization of the Church” (CCC #507). Her “role in the Church is inseparable from her union with Christ” (CCC #964).
For these reasons, Mary serves as the model for how the Church should practice faith and charity. She is the model servant of God for both women and men. As members of the Church today, we can look to her for the attributes of obedience, faith, hope and burning charity as a way to lead more masculine lives. Instead of feeding of off the stereotypes of what men should be, we can turn to Mary for direction on how to live our lives according to God’s plan. She is an “advocate and helper” for us all (CCC #969). The “Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men…flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ” (CCC #970). Mary advocates for us and helps us to come to know Christ. Our prayers to Mary extend beyond praying to a humble woman, in praying to Mary, we acknowledge our faith in the Incarnation in Christ and the sacrifice Christ made because he loves us.
By praying to Mary, we can come to understand how much both Mary and Jesus Christ love each of us. It is our duty to have faith in Christ through Mary. In doing so, we can become true men for God, and not simply men chasing our own ambitions. Mary accompanies us on this pilgrimage of our faith (CCC #972). She intercedes for us in our attempts to know Christ, and just because we are men does not mean that we cannot try to become more like Mary.
Thomas Coast works in the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire and is working on his M.A. in Theology through the Echo Faith Formation Program at the University of Notre Dame.