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.
For the past 141 years on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (16th of July) in my hometown of Hammonton, New Jersey, there is a procession through the streets of the statues of various saints that usually reside inside the local parish church. The faithful who are devoted to each saint distribute prayer cards of their patron as they process with the statues through the streets – St. Joseph, St. Anne, St. Anthony, St. Rita, St. Jude, St. Rocco, St. Lucy, St. Vincent Pallotti, and so forth. The Blessed Mother, while at the end under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, appears also in the procession under various names – Milagrosa, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception, whose Solemnity we celebrate today.
Sometimes, these various titles and ways of representing the Blessed Mother can be confusing for some of those who line the streets of the procession route. My mother, Angela, who has been part of the procession for over 50 years, makes a float with a large Rosary and a statue of the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception on it, although some would call the statue “Our Lady of Grace.” The statue, which is over 100 years old, is patterned after the image on the “Miraculous Medal,” around which is inscribed the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Since many who come to the procession are not necessarily practicing Catholics, my mother always offers a form of “street evangelization” to those who come to her float to receive a prayer folder that provides instructions on how to say the Rosary.
Since the statue of the Immaculate Conception is on a special float, many will come and ask if it is of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Sometimes, my mother is asked what the difference is between the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She responds cheerfully, “Same Lady, different dress.” My mother then goes on to explain why the Blessed Mother has so many titles. She also assists these curious onlookers in understanding how Mary offers us the greatest example of how to follow Jesus as his disciple. She helps them learn that Mary was prepared from the time of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, to receive Jesus and did so throughout her life.
We, too, are meant to be prepared to receive Jesus into our lives in an ongoing way, especially during the Advent season. We have not been conceived without sin, but we have been washed clean of Original Sin at Baptism (and all prior sin, if one was baptized as an adult). While we have all sinned since that time, our Baptism offers us a share in the mission of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Though followers or disciples, he also sends us as apostles, or as missionary disciples, out into our challenging world to witness to him by what we say and do. The Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the best example of how to follow Jesus Christ. No matter what title of hers might appeal to us spiritually, she is always “same Lady, different dress.” She was the same in her following of Jesus during her life and continues from her heavenly home to invite us to follow her Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a ministry of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). The Pallottines and the Center staff will remember you in special prayer on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Fr. Frank S. Donio, S.A.C., D.Min. is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and Provincial Rector of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers).