Lessons from History on the Coronavirus

Stories abound of St. Charles Borromeo’s heroism during Milan’s plague.

Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), “St. Charles Borromeo Ministering to Plague Victims”
Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), “St. Charles Borromeo Ministering to Plague Victims” (photo: Public Domain)

In a recent article I offered some lessons from literature on the coronavirus, focusing on the three chapters in Manzoni’s classic novel, The Betrothed, which are set during the plague that struck the city of Milan in 1630. In this article, I’d like to offer some lessons from history, focusing on an earlier plague which struck Milan in 1576 and on the heroism of a great saint during this time of pestilence.

Saint Charles Borromeo, as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, lived at a time of great corruption within the Church, epitomized by the laxity of the clergy. According to one of his biographers, he was sickened by “the slackness, ignorance, and open immorality of many priests and religious.” Many priests did not even know the correct forms for confession and absolution and many others were living scandalous lives. Things were so bad that a proverb current among country folk expressed the contempt in which the clergy was held: “If you want to go to hell, become a priest.” On his travels around his diocese Saint Charles found that many country churches were “ruinous, neglected, and filthy, sacred vessels and vestments rotted with rust and moth.” As for the laity, they did not avail themselves of the sacraments and they did not know the Pater or Ave and often could not even make the Sign of the Cross correctly.  

In the midst of this sorry state of affairs, the Council of Trent proved to be the very catalyst for the great Catholic Reformation which followed in its wake. Particularly close to Charles Borromeo’s heart, was the reading and passing of the General Reform Decree, with its insistence on simplicity of life among cardinals and bishops. Needless to say, the more lax and lackadaisical among the clergy and religious, and the more worldly-minded of the nobility, were not too happy with this new spirit of zeal. As Charles continued to reform decadent religious orders, such as the Umiliati, an order of monks, ostensibly Benedictine Oblates, who had become immensely rich, living in luxurious private houses independent of any ecclesiastical supervision, opposition to his reforms reached new and dangerous levels. On Oct. 26, 1569, as the Archbishop was kneeling before the altar at Vespers, a would-be assassin stepped forward and shot him at point-blank range. The kneeling figure reeled but remained erect, signaling for the choir to resume their singing. Vespers continued. After the service it was discovered, astonishingly, that the bullet had only bruised and had not even broken the Archbishop’s skin. To the people of Milan the Archbishop’s escape from death was nothing less than miraculous.

Having endured much in his struggles to reform the ailing Church, Charles’ greatest test was still to come. In August 1576 the plague struck Milan. Almost immediately the wealthy fled the city, including the city’s Governor. In the Governor’s absence, Charles assumed the de facto role of secular ruler as well as his de jure role as shepherd of his flock. Already accustomed to the rigors of a life of mortification, he embraced even more demanding hardships, offering himself as a sacrificial victim in expiation of his sins and those of his suffering flock. In the few hours of rest that he allowed himself, he slept on bare boards or sat up in a wooden chair. Already accustomed to a meagre diet, he reduced this to bread and water with a few supplementary vegetables. Every day he walked the streets, visiting the sick and dying.

The city’s leperhouse had been transformed into an emergency hospital for the plague victims. Its three hundred rooms were filled to overflowing. Those suffering from the plague were huddled together alongside those who had already died from it. There were no beds, no nurses, no food, and no priests. As Charles arrived at the building he looked in horror at the blotched, livid faces pressing against the iron bars, begging for food, drink, a priest or a blessing. From within, he could hear the shrieks and wild cries of the dying. Aghast at his sense of helplessness in the face of the sheer magnitude of the problem, and aware that thousands of people were dying without the presence of a priest to minister the Last Rites, the saintly Archbishop drafted “The Testament or Last Will of the Soul,” which was printed and distributed widely around the city. These were then signed by those who were sick with the plague as a “spiritual insurance policy,” asserting the person’s desire for the sacrament of extreme unction, and serving as a “confession of desire” in the absence of a priest. In this way the saintly Shepherd was supplying his sickly sheep with a standard formula by which they could prepare themselves for a holy death in difficult circumstances.

The “Testament” declared that the signatory asserted that he desired to “pass out of this life, armed with the last sacrament of extreme unction: the which if through any let or hindrance I should not then be able to have, I do now also for that time demand and crave the same; beseeching his divine majesty that he will be pleased to anoint my senses both internal and external with the sacred oil of his infinite mercy, and to pardon me all my sins committed by seeing, speaking, feeling, smelling, hearing, touching, or by any other way whatsoever.”

Item VII of the “Testament” declared that the signatory laments his sins of “murmuration against god, or the Catholic faith” and his giving “any sign of bad example,” renouncing “all the evil whatsoever, which I might have then done or said.”

Item IX rendered “infinite thanks” to God for all the benefits the signatory has received including “Vocation to the holy knowledge of him and his true Catholic faith,” and Item X invoked the Communion of Saints with the Blessed Virgin named as the “chief Executress” of the will:

I am willing, yea, I do infinitely desire and humbly crave, that of this my last will and testament the glorious and ever Virgin Mary, mother of god, refuge and advocate of sinners, (whom I honour specially above all other saints,) may be the chief Executress, together with these other saints, my patrons, all whom I invoke and beseech to be present at the hour of my death, that she and they may comfort me with their desired presence, and crave of sweet Jesus that he will receive my soul into peace.

“I am in great anguish,” the Archbishop had cried, referring to the unwillingness of many priests to risk their lives by ministering to stricken families. Some even of his own household fled and many of those who stayed refused to accompany him to infected houses. In the face of such fear, Charles wrote an impassioned plea to the priests of Milan:

We have only one life and we should spend it for Jesus Christ and souls, not as we wish, but at the time and in the way God wishes. It would show great presumption and neglect of our duty and God’s service to fail to do this, with the excuse that God could not replace us by others more capable of working for His glory. This does not mean you should neglect human means, such as preventatives, remedies, doctors, everything that you can use to keep off infection, for such means are in no way opposed to our doing our duty.

The ultimate admonishment was a call for the heroism of holiness: “Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to a holy one.” With such a holy and heroic leader, the priests began to rally to his side and to the sides of the thousands of sick and dying Milanese. The secular priests were the first to rally but the Capuchins were perhaps the most heroic, devoting themselves to working with the afflicted souls in the leperhouse. Astonishingly, none of the Archbishop’s companions caught the plague and the only religious house stricken with it was one which held aloof, in spite of the Archbishop’s pleas, refusing to help. As for Charles’ own heroism, we have the testimony of a Capuchin, Brother James:

He often goes to the lazar house [i.e., leperhouse] to console the sick … into huts and private houses to speak to the sick and comfort them, as well as providing for all their needs. He fears nothing. It is useless to try and frighten him. It is true that he exposes himself much to danger but as so far he has been preserved by the special grace of God, he says he cannot do otherwise. Indeed the city has no other help and consolation.

Stories abound of Charles’ heroism. It is said that he was walking the streets of Milan on his daily rounds, visiting the sick, when he heard a baby crying in what appeared to be a deserted house. Climbing a ladder and scrambling through an upper window from whence the noise seemed to be coming, he discovered a baby, alive but distressed, lying between its dead father and mother. Wrapping the half-frozen infant in his robes, he climbed down the ladder and carried the child until he found a home for it. He opened a children’s home and supplied it with goats so that babies could have milk in the absence of their mothers.

After 16 purgatorial, plague-ridden and seemingly interminable months the pestilence finally left the city in the New Year of 1578. It was estimated that 17,000 people had perished in the city itself, with a further 8,000 perishing in the surrounding countryside. Apart from his ministering to the sick during the plague, the Archbishop had established a number of charities in response to it, including a hostel for beggars and tramps, orphanages for boys and girls, a home for reformed prostitutes, another for homeless girls, and yet another for married women seeking refuge from abusive husbands, or what would now be called a women’s shelter.

In the few years left to him after the passing of the plague, Charles Borromeo continued to practice what he preached, inspiring all by his life of prayer and self-sacrificial devotion. He died peacefully on the evening of Nov. 3, 1584, desirous of the rest that his labors deserved. The love that he had inspired was evident in the endless stream of Milanese who filed past the chapel in the cathedral in which his body lay in state and in the miracles attributed to his intercession. He was canonized at St. Peter’s on All Saints Day, 1610. “He was always a giver of light,” said the panegyric on the newly canonized saint, “no clouds of weakness or passion could ever darken this light. No bodily obstacle could obscure it. … Leaving this world, he was not extinguished but began an eternity in heaven, there to give light to the Church he loved so deeply.”

This article was first published in Catholic World Report and appears here with permission.