Perhaps by this time, having become frustrated by the fact that even for a relatively short period of time we have been forced into isolation, we might find ourselves asking: “Why now?“ , “Why this bad?”, and perhaps even cursing the fact that this pandemic has so radically turned our lives upside down in what seems but a few moments. It might be an experience so taxing because it is so very different for us, but certainly not to human history.
Between 1830 and 1837, a cholera epidemic swept through Europe and North America. It began in India, spread to what was at the time called Arabia, and then to Iraq. In 1831, the epidemic reached the Caucasus and soon after spread to Poland, Hungary, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and eventually to Italy. Like epidemics in the past centuries, this epidemic also spread from city to city by way of local ports.
In Rome, news of the spreading illness was met with the usual responses of apprehension and fear. But there was no small number of people who actually doubted that the disease would have a significant impact on Rome. In July of 1837, the first three people in Rome died of cholera. However, the news media denied that cholera was in fact the cause of these deaths and claimed that lies were being spread by persons seeking to cause panic and attempting to disturb the social well- being of the city. Is it not true that our initial reaction to the news of the Coronavirus was that it was far away in China and so our concern for the spread to the U.S. was rather limited?
During the time of the cholera infestation of Rome, the charity of a Roman priest, now St. Vincent Pallotti, emerged in a special way. He immediately saw to it that his priests of the Congregation of the Catholic Apostolate, which he had founded, were on hand constantly (as was he) to meet the spiritual needs of the many penitents who were constantly entering the Church of Spirito Santo where Vincent served as rector to have their confession heard. Assisting the sick, caring for their families, and also spending many hours in the confessional, Fr. Vincent was extremely busy.
To respond to the numerous and varied appeals he received from so many, Vincent divided the city of Rome into three sectors, entrusting each sector to his priests working in collaboration with the lay members of the Union of the Catholic Apostolate, which he had also founded, to meet the various spiritual and material needs of a then desperate people. Funds were collected and distributed to families throughout the city who had lost the person responsible for their principal source of income. The rectory of Spirito Santo became a center where families who overnight had become destitute could in writing request whatever it was they needed, and the priests with their lay cooperators would bring to the home whatever was required: bread, meat, fruit and other necessities of life as well. They found beds for the sick, redeemed articles that had been pawned out of desperation for ready cash, and helped families to pay bills that would allow them to purchase further necessities. Vincent and his priests were ever on the move, caring for the ill. They were, at the same time, finding an increasing number of children who had lost their immediate family and now had no one to care for them.
In 1838, the year following the end of the epidemic, Vincent organized a lottery offering excellent and expensive prizes donated by his more affluent friends in order to raise funds to begin a program of caring for the orphans left behind by the epidemic. Many of those who won returned the prizes to Vincent that they might be sold and thereby add further monies to the orphan fund.
It might well happen, as it did in Vincent’s day, that one or other of us might be called upon to meet certain needs of persons made quite helpless by the present pandemic. No one of us knows either the day nor the hour when we might run into a situation that calls for immediate involvement and appropriate response with no questions asked. May the life of St. Vincent Pallotti, who prayed that “the work of the Blessed Trinity be realized in us,” be a model and inspiration for us during this time.
Cf St. Vincent Pallotti: Prophet of a Spiritual Communion. Ed. Fr. Francesco Todisco, SAC. Trans. Kate Marcelin- Rice. Herefordshire, United Kingdom. Gracewing, 2015