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Ask a Priest: How does the Church’s response to the coronavirus crisis compare to its role in earlier pandemics?

In Matthew 10:8, Jesus enjoins the apostles, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” This has led the Church in every age to undertake the corporal works of mercy with great zeal, especially in times of widespread illness and pandemic. Catholic physicians, nurses and health-care workers, as well as family members, friends, religious and clergy have sought throughout history to care for the afflicted despite great personal risk.

One of the earliest recorded examples of the Church’s work in such a crisis was during the plague that ravaged the Roman Empire in the middle of the third century. It has often been called the Plague of Cyprian, named for the bishop of Carthage who faced the pandemic’s arrival in North Africa around 252 A.D. St. Cyprian mobilized workers and raised funds for the care of those who fell ill and the burial of those who died.

In the 14th century, during outbreaks of the plague known as the Black Death, many monasteries saw their infirmaries filled to capacity, and many monks and nuns fell victim themselves after caring for victims of the pestilence. Beyond the monasteries, mendicant friars with medical training were also called upon to assist the sick. In the Holy Land, Franciscan physicians cared for plague-stricken pilgrims and locals.

The First Session of the Council of Trent was interrupted in 1547 due to a plague outbreak in the city. Over several decades, the epidemic spread throughout the Italian Peninsula. When it arrived in Milan in 1576, the 38-year-old archbishop, St. Charles Borromeo, refused various pleas for him to leave the city. Instead, he led the efforts of the city’s remaining clergy and religious to minister to those afflicted, personally helped to fund St. Gregory’s Hospital, ordered collections to be taken for the victims and made frequent visits to the sick and dying both in the hospital and around the city.

When plague and famine struck Rome in 1591, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit seminarian, left his studies to minister to the sick. Fr. Tom Rochford, SJ, has described how Gonzaga “threw himself into caring for the victims of the plague. He begged alms for the sick and physically carried those he found in the streets to a hospital where he washed and fed them and prepared them for the sacraments.” Although his superiors urged him to take precautions, Gonzaga contracted the infection and died that same year, at 23 years of age.

Century after century, Catholics have followed Christ’s mission of serving the sick. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, St. John Henry Newman marveled at the priests who bravely ministered to those dying of typhus and cholera in Ireland and England in the 1850s. More than 30 priests fell victim to the outbreak after bringing the sacraments to the bedsides of the dying.

Such courage was also exemplified by the women religious and nurses who readily ministered to the sick in each of these crises. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini wrote of the role of her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus during an outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans in the 1890s: “When doctor and priest were forbidden to enter the houses of our conationals for fear of contamination … a sister was always welcome at the bedside of those dying from yellow fever; when assured that the victim’s children would be cared for by the sisters, the victim expired peacefully.”

In 1918, the Spanish Flu ripped through the country and the world. In Philadelphia, especially hard hit, nurses were in short supply due to the First World War. Responding to the need, 2,000 religious sisters, many with little previous training in nursing, worked tirelessly to aid victims of the pandemic. “Dressed in white gowns and gauze masks,” as Kiley Bense described them in a recent New York Times tribute, “the sisters treated patients who represented a cross section of Philadelphia: immigrants from Italy, Ukraine, Poland and China; Black families, Jewish families, and the city’s poorest, its orphans, its homeless and destitute, all in need of care.” Twenty-three sisters would contract and succumb to the virus during their service as nurses.

On Christmas Eve 1985, working with Cardinal John O’Connor, Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity responded to the AIDS/HIV epidemic in New York City by opening a hospice at St. Veronica’s Church in Greenwich Village. The missionary sisters subsequently opened HIV/AIDS hospices and care homes in Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and numerous international cities. In 1989, ArchCare opened the first long-term care facility for HIV/AIDS patients in New York City.

Today, many Catholic religious, clergy and lay missionaries are serving people around the world suffering from outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever and the effects of malnutrition, armed conflict and natural disasters. During this pandemic, we marvel once again at the tireless and selfless efforts of our brothers and sisters: medical professionals, first responders, chaplains, clergy, religious, pastoral ministers, family members and loved ones, who have come to the aid of the sick and suffering. They have truly heeded the call of Christ in this moment.

Rev. Michael J.S. Bruno, STD

Dean of Seminarians

Professor of Church History

St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers

Ask a Priest: Can a non-priest perform a baptism? If so, how is it done and when is it appropriate?

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament” (1257). Our Lord himself told Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Because baptism is the one sacrament necessary for salvation, it is the easiest to receive. We see this ease in the matter of the sacrament – water, the basic sustenance of life – as well as in the minister. Ordinarily, a bishop or priest (or, in the Western church, a deacon) administers the sacrament; but, if necessary, anyone can validly do so.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that a non-Christian or even an atheist can perform a baptism. As long as he or she says the correct words (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) and puts “living water” (that is, water that flows in some manner) in contact with the body of the person being baptized, then the baptism is real.

The person administering the sacrament simply has to intend to do what the Church does in baptism. He or she does not have to know anything about baptism or sacramental theology. Rather he must wish, if only implicitly, to baptize, even if he has no idea what that entails. In other words, he just cannot explicitly not want a baptism to take place while administering it. That’s a pretty minimal criterion.

It used to be quite common for hospital nurses to know how to baptize. In fact, every Catholic should know how to administer the sacrament in case the need ever arises. The fact that we can do something, however, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. A layperson should baptize only in an emergency such as a sudden illness, accident or natural disaster in which the unbaptized person is in imminent danger of death and a priest or deacon is not readily available.

If the newly baptized person survives, he or she (or in the case of a child, his or her parents) should contact their parish so that the baptism can be properly recorded and a ceremony arranged for other baptismal rites, such as the anointing with chrism and the presentation of a lighted candle. After that, a celebration is definitely in order!

Fr. Brian A. Graebe, STD

Pastor, Basilica of St. Patrick’s

Old Cathedral

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