Christian History Home > Issue 94 > Contagious Compassion
Deadly epidemics and social traumas haunt the news and test the limits of our kindness and courage. How should Christians respond, when the church itself is so divided? Perhaps we need another Catherine of Siena.
These are disturbing times: We cannot escape news of the global AIDS crisis, the impending flu pandemic, the plight of political prisoners, the resurgence of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and the failure of leaders. The last century's fascination with progress has given way to longings for hope and belonging.
Harvard historian Clarissa Atkinson has observed, "Today, an awareness of dangers we can't seem to stop makes us, in some ways, more like medieval people than like our own great grandparents." If so, there may be no better mentor for us than the medieval saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena. She lived in a time of almost apocalyptic fear. The Black Death and the institutional convulsions of the Catholic Church caused a devastated populace to cry out. Catherine stepped courageously beyond her own fears and society's conventions to heal the sick, speak truth to papal authority, and build a network characterized by dialogue and reconciliation in Christ's name.
Your love should be sincere: you should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love Me.
Rebel in Rearing
Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347, probably the 23rd of 25 children. As a young girl, she was known for her unquenchable cheer and golden brown hair. At age six, while walking home from church with siblings, she had a vision of Christ smiling and blessing her. The sense of affirmation that God was calling her to ministry was powerful and permanent.
Though her mother longed for a "normal" daughter, Catherine refused to be stereotypically feminine. On one occasion, she frantically chopped off her hair in hopes of being rejected by a suitor and being taken seriously by her family. She was steadfastly devoted to God's call and even dreamed of joining a monastery disguised as a boy. She did not want to marry or become a nun, yearning instead to serve God in her own way.
After great perseverance, she persuaded her family to let her join the Third Order of Saint Dominic at the age of 16. She participated in the community's devotional activities (in addition to her own stringent disciplines) while she lived at home, largely in her room. Seeking purity, humility, and communion with God, she wrestled for three years to gain dominion over her heart and fleshly impulses. Hers was a total surrender, with Word and sacrament as the foundation.
These three years concluded with a fervent awakening to the needs of the world outside. God led her away from thinking that she could not help her neighbor without losing her mind ("I want only to do good," she thought, "but let it be my way.") And he gave her a devotion that reflected Jesus' words: "Not my will, but yours be done." Arguably, the supreme test of her Christian character was her response to the most devastating pandemic in human history—the Black Death—and its aftermath.
"They Died by the Hundreds"
In the mid-1330s, there were initial reports of a widespread epidemic in China. Traders carried the infection to the Middle East and Europe. Contemporaries called it "the Great Mortality" and "the Black Death" because the skin of sufferers would often become blackened from infected lesions and hemorrhages beneath the skin. As more than half of the local population in many areas died, traditional social systems broke down and economies were left in upheaval. Dread and depression shrouded the land. One survivor in Siena described the scene:
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. … Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices … and they died by the hundreds both day and night. … I, Agnolo di Tura, the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.
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