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.
Summertime in the United States brings about a lot of great traditions. It brings longer days, shorts, flip-flops, trips to the beach, barbecues, and processions. Processions are large public demonstrations of faith and piety that have been handed down from generation to generation. In Italian American communities, processions are filled with music, color, and, of course, great food—lots and lots of great food. We celebrate in this way because our fathers did before us, and their fathers did before them. This summer I've already been able to attend to two processions and I look forward to a few more. I attended the 107th annual Festa Dei Ceri in Jessup, Pennsylvania, and the 112th feast of St. Anthony Italian Festival in Little Italy Baltimore, Maryland. Each has a long tradition and there are as many differences as there are similarities. At the core, each is a faith that is embedded within its community that is rich and deep.
Festa Dei Ceri, or simply St. Ubaldo’s Day, is a tradition that was brought from Gubbio, Italy by immigrants to Jessup, PA in 1909. Tradition states that in the early 1100s, Ubaldo Baldassini, the Bishop of Gubbio, met with Frederick Barbarossa , the Holy Roman Emperor who was on a military campaign in Italy, and convinced him not to invade and to spare the town from destruction. When the bishop returned with the good news, he was raced through the streets on a platform to reassure the town’s safety. The residence commemorated this event by racing a statue of him, along with statues of St. George and St. Anthony, through the narrow streets of the medieval town. Immigrants brought this tradition with them when they emigrated to Jessup in large numbers in the early 1900s. The Running of the Saints occurred from 1914 to 1952, then from 1976 to 1990, and has consistently been held since 2000 after being revived by local high school students. The day begins with the high school marching band waking the town up and calling them to Mass. After Mass, the statues which are about 30 inches tall are placed in 15 foot wooden structures that are designed to carry the saints and weigh about 400 pounds each. The saint statues are then blessed with holy water, first by the parish pastor or the Bishop of Scranton, then by the team captains and carried through the town by three different teams of men. A relic of St. Ubaldo is also processed and venerated with a significantly larger statue of him throughout the town. In the late afternoon, the three statues are then raced through the town at breakneck speed and over steep terrain. St. Ubaldo always wins, followed by St. George and St. Anthony. After the statues are removed and the platforms are disassembled, they are brought back to the church. The whole weekend is an expression of faith, family, and tradition.
A few weeks after that, I was able to attend the St. Anthony Festival in Little Italy in Baltimore, Maryland, which dates back to the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. While massive fire raged in parts of the city, parishioners gathered at Saint Leo the Great Church in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore. The parishioners prayed to St. Anthony for the protection of their neighborhood. Luckily, the neighborhood was spared. Many attributed this to the intercession of St. Anthony. The parishioners celebrated his feast day with a Mass, procession, and street fair which has continued ever since. Just five years after the beginning of celebration of the feast, the parish became a ministry of the Pallottine Fathers and Brothers. This year, I attended the events along with two Pallottine students in formation. The three of us served Mass and partook in the procession through the streets. Many people came out of their houses and cars to watch us. It was great fanfare with a full band, 4th Degree Knights of Columbus color guard, and a highly decorated statue of St. Anthony. Many people pinned money to strips of cloth tied around the statue as a small offering and prayer to St. Anthony. There was food, music, and an intense bocce ball tournament.
Each of the celebrations has a few core elements that all processions have. Processions are about faith and community. Processions help increase our faith by publically displaying various statues and images. It is a form of evangelization in the streets. At the same time, they help build community by calling all those together for a common cause. They reinforce not only our proud heritage and traditions, but also our faith. They promote our faith being celebrated together. Processions are also about the individuals' participation. Attending a procession invites us to feel that we are a part of the community and reinforces our own faith. When I go to procession, for example, I not only enjoy the fanfare, but am also reminded that my faith is connected to those around me.
I encourage you to seek out processions and bring your friends and family. Pray, eat, and enjoy each other's company. Processions can be beneficial for every group that continues the practice, not just the Italian American community. Ours just happen to have a bit more tomato sauce and wine than most! As the summer goes on, I look forward to many more processions and I invite you to go out and either attend or partake in a procession.
Pope Gelasius (d. AD 496) said of St. George that he is one of the saints "whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God." Little can be verified about the life of St. George. He is remembered as a martyr for the faith, and claimed as a patron by thirteen European countries. His intercession is sought constantly on behalf of soldiers and farm workers (and those suffering from the plague, though luckily with less frequency as of late).
St. George is best remembered for his defeating a dragon to rescue the fair maiden (which naturally makes him a favorite of this fairy-tale loving girl). The beast attacked a quiet little kingdom, and his hunger demanded hefty payment, leading up to the necessary sacrifice of the king’s own daughter. Just as the dragon is about to devour the princess, St. George rides by, conveniently enough, and after making the sign of the cross and proclaiming the name of Jesus, he defeats the dragon. In thanks, the entire kingdom is baptized. The end. 
But clearly it's not the end, because this myth has been a favorite for 1500 years.
So what can a 3rd century saint, whose life and deeds are wrapped in myth and legend, tell us about being a Christian in the 21st century? Like in so many other tales and stories, the facts are less important than the message they bring. In this case, we learn that dragons are indeed real. Sometimes they are obvious and obtrusive, demanding immediate attention, like road rage or constantly breaking into conversations with “Well, in my opinion.” Often, however, they emerge in the form of redundancy, mediocrity, boredom, or the benign. What do we do about these sneaky, shadow dragons which creep into our lives in the form of a snooze button or accidental rude comments? These dragons grow slowly in the secret and dark where nobody can see them and think poorly of me.
This tale also reminds us that courage takes many forms. Often, courage is speaking out in defense of the faith in the face of blatant injustice, as is still seen in too many places in the world. For my life today, courage takes the form of remaining steadfast in seemingly benign moments, like laundry and emails. My challenge is to remain dutiful and prayerful while I wait. For this twenty-something, courage is taking the waiting as seriously as what I am waiting for. I wait to finish my Masters; wait until I get married; wait to move closer to my family; wait for a job. Lately I have been praying for a heart like Mary's, courageous in all matters, great and small. She allowed God to break into her quiet life, and then she waited for her Son to be born, waited to find him in the Temple, waited for the Resurrection. As the psalmist says, “Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).
I recently stumbled upon an icon of St. George which I bought for my fiancé. It is currently hanging in his bedroom, and in less than four months will hang in ours. I love to see it when I visit, because George’s story is one I can relate to. For, as G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Fairy tales are not important because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” St. George, pray for us that we may develop courageous hearts to maintain our faithfulness to Christ in small moments and defeat the less obvious dragons in our lives.
Abigail Craycraft is an apprentice with the Echo Program through the University of Notre Dame where she is currently serving at Bl. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood, NJ.
 The tale is found in the book The Golden Legend, a compilation of saints’ fantastic deeds, published in 1483..