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.
The story of Christmas illustrates that there are no perfect families (or parishes) but we can hope to be a holy one. Part of becoming a holy family at Christmas means turning our attention to the spiritually lost among our family and friends. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we look to welcome disconnected Catholics to our churches and homes this season.
Make Room for the Lost and Lonely
For some people walking through the church doors, the Christmas season is a difficult and lonely time, a reminder of the families they don’t have. How do we show hospitality to those without a human family? If you are on a church staff or volunteer, slow down and consider the place you are making for those who feel lost and alone. You could, for example, make sure that the elderly and handicapped are able to find seating appropriate to their needs. Or, personally invite those who are alone to join in any parish fellowship that might be happening after Mass. Perhaps you could even invite a few of these people to bring up the gifts during Mass. A special role in the Mass during this important liturgical season can show those who feel unloved how honored we are to have them as members of our parish family. The goal is not to expose or make a scene around these types of parishioners, but to consider their needs and communicate that they are valued.
Make Occasional Visitors Feel Loved, Not Judged
For those coming to church at Christmas for the first time in a long time, many already carry a mild feeling of guilt that they don’t go to church regularly and expect to feel a little judged. Let us welcome these occasional visitors with open arms and encourage them to return by modeling the joy of the Lord through our actions. Joy is persuasive. If we let the love of Christ beam through us this Christmas season it might just be enough to help these occasional visitors desire more frequent encounters with our Lord in the Mass.
Give a Gift to the Poor
The Christmas gift-giving tradition began with St. Nicholas giving a gift to a poor family. While many church budgets are spread thin during this time of year, consider making room in your budget to help the church provide a gift to a local charity or foreign mission. Not only is this celebrating the authentic tradition of Christmas presents, it a sign of generosity that encourages church communities to remember their brothers and sisters whose basic material needs often go unmet. When we demonstrate charity as a parish family, we send a powerful message about what it means to come together on Sundays. Our faith is what is called a “corporate faith,” meaning, that we are all working toward salvation together. For those who have never been to Mass, or haven’t been in a long time, demonstrating parish-wide charity can show how much we as a community care about individual members of the body of Christ who are in need. For those who feel unwelcome or unworthy of joining the Church, communal Christian charity is a great way to demonstrate that we want them with us on Sundays and that we will work together to make sure their needs are provided for.
Evangelize Through Beauty
The Advent and Christmas seasons are rich with light and melody, in both a sacred and worldly sense. Advent is the liturgical season when we encounter beauty in the sparseness and fragility of the barren winter. The Christmas octave and season is full of color and sounds. Beauty has the effect of lessening our defenses and heightening our receptivity to the message of Jesus. What are the elements of beauty present in your church and home? How can you enhance them? Consider playing some soft sacred music in your home during the holidays or decorating your home with a nativity scene or poinsettia plant. It doesn’t take much, just something small to celebrate what a miraculous time Christmas is for all Christians.
Jesus was born in an “irregular” family situation - not a perfect family by worldly standards, but a holy family in God’s plan for the world. Would we Christians today recognize and welcome this same Jesus? He is among us. He is knocking at the doors of our hearts, homes, and churches in the form of family, friends, and strangers in need of peace and hope. Let us welcome Jesus in!