A Proper Catholic Response to a Public Health Crisis

Catholic Apologetics #60

Rather than closing churches, forbidding Masses, and hiding, the proper Catholic response to a legitimate health crisis is one that has at its core prayer and the Sacraments, the source of God’s grace. While we must make use of the natural means God gives us for cures and aides, such as healthy foods and useful vitamins, adequate hygiene, healthy exercise, and proper medicine, such natural means do not replace our responsibility to intensify our prayers during a crisis.[1]

Holy Communion during Epidemics

While the Church may, in periods of real and legitimate crises, or for just punitive measures as in the cases of an interdict, omit the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful, if Holy Communion is to be distributed, no authority may force the faithful to receive Our Lord in the hand.[2]

Public Processions

In 1576 a plague struck Milan and the civil authorities abandoned the city and its people. Yet, St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of the city, and his priests remained. He rebuked civil authorities for “having placed their trust in human rather than divine means.” Rather than flee, he organized efforts to feed roughly 60,000 – 70,000 people, bury the dead, administer Sacraments to the dying, and lead public processions. In fact, St. Charles Borromeo, as depicted in a famous image by Giovanni Battista della Rovere, led a procession through the streets with a relic of one of the Holy Nails which pierced Our Lord on the cross.

Likewise, centuries before in 590 when the plague ravished Rome, Pope St. Gregory the Great (whose feast is today, March 12th) led a public profession through the streets with the people to implore God’s mercy. As he led the people through the streets on the way to St. Mary Major, they crossed the Bridge of the Angels when St. Michael the Archangel appeared above Castle Sant’Angelo. The Archangel sheathed his sword which signaled the end of the plague. This event gave rise to the liturgical feast known as Major Rogation, which is celebrated annualy on April 25th.

The Fourteen Holy Helpers

Devotion to the Fourteen Holy Helpers originated in the 14th century largely as a result of the bubonic plague.  The miracles attributed to this group of saints, especially for medical miracles, won for them the distinction as the Fourteen Holy Helpers. The 14 Holy Helpers are:

  • Agathius
  • Barbara
  • Blaise, bishop
  • Catherine of Alexandria
  • Christopher
  • Cyriacus, deacon
  • Denis, bishop
  • Erasmus, bishop
  • Eustace
  • George
  • Giles
  • Margaret of Antioch
  • Pantaleon
  • Vitus

Bonaventure Hammer, in The Fourteen Holy Helpers published in 1995, summarized their patronage:

“Saint Christopher and Saint Giles were invoked against the plague itself. Saint Denis was prayed to for relief from headache, Saint Blaise for ills of the throat, Saint Elmo for abdominal maladies, Saint Barbara for fever, and Saint Vitus against epilepsy. Saint Pantaleon was the patron of physicians, Saint Cyriacus invoked against temptation on the deathbed, and Saints Christopher, Barbara, and Catherine for protection against a sudden and unprovided for death. Saint Giles was prayed to for a good confession and Saint Eustace as healer of family troubles. Domestic animals were also attacked by the plague, so Saints George, Elmo, Pantaleon, and Vitus were invoked for their protection. Saint Margaret of Antioch is the patron of safe childbirth.”

We should not neglect to pray especially to the 14 Holy Helpers during epidemics. In fact, making a novena to the Fourteen Holy Helpers would be a highly appropriate Catholic response that the bishops and priests should be encouraging the laity to perform.[3]

Votive Masses

During times of health crises, more priests should offer Votive Masses for the intention of averting the wrath of God and for mercy and health for those on earth. We find in the 1962 Missal the Votive Mass for Deliverance from Death in Time of Pestilence.[4] The Collect from the Mass reads: “O God, Who willest not the death of the sinner but that he should repent: welcome with pardon Thy people’s return to Thee: and so long as they are faithful in Thy service, do Thou in Thy clemency withdraw the scourge of Thy wrath.” We can pray this daily in our own prayer lives during epidemics.

Likewise, the Votive Mass for the Sick, also found in the 1962 Missal, implores in its Collect prayer: “Almighty, everlasting God, the eternal salvation of those who believe, hear us in behalf of Thy sick servants, for whom we implore the help of Thy mercy, that being restored to health, they may render thanks to Thee in Thy Church.” We can likewise pray this on behalf of the sick.

Bishops may also order that an additional Collect prayer be added to the Mass for an on-going public calamity, which is said on certain days throughout the crisis.[5]

[1] We do not put God to the test and demand miracles when He has already given us the natural means to find relief. In Question 1154 of the Baltimore Catechism, we read: “In all our devotions and religious practices we must carefully guard against expecting God to perform miracles when natural causes may bring about what we hope for. God will sometimes miraculously help us, but, as a rule, only when all natural means have failed.”

[2] Holy Communion may never be denied on the tongue. No one may force Holy Communion in the hand. In fact, it is sacrilegious and should never be done. If you are unable to receive Holy Communion on the tongue you can learn how to make a proper act of Spiritual Communion. The Vatican has affirmed that if Holy Communion is given to the faithful then Communion on the tongue is never to be denied. See https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2020/03/holy-communion-on-tongue-may-never-be.html

[3] All Fourteen of the Holy Helpers, except St. Giles, were martyrs.
You may download and print a novena prayer card of the Fourteen Holy Helpers at the St. Vincent Ferrer Foundation website here.
You can also make a Novena to them using the prayers available here: http://www.catholickingdom.com/Cathedral/Prayer/novenas/14-Holy-Helpers.html

[4] For those with Angelus Press Daily Missals, the Propers for this votive Mass may be found on page 1578.

[5] In the 1962 rubrics, such a votive Collect prayer can be said for the whole duration of said calamity, but only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And the Collect is prohibited on all liturgical days of the First and Second Class. In the pre-1955 missal, which incorporates the liturgical reforms of St. Pius X, the rubrics state: “If at the command of the Ordinary, Collects of this sort (i.e. votive Collects for a specific cause) are to be said for a grave cause, they are omitted only on the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, on Palm Sunday, and all Doubles of the First Class. But if they are expressly ordered to be said even on Doubles of the I class, then they are omitted only on Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart and Christ the King.”


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