Pope Gregory to Pope Francis: What to Do When a Plague Hits Rome

News: Commentary
by Jules Gomes  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  March 10, 2020   

Saint called for three days of fasting and prayer, processions to Santa Maria Maggiore

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Querido Francisco,

Forgive me plagiarizing the title of your apostolic exhortation! But Heaven abounds not in leaden lugubriousness but in good humor, and the angelic choirs have their bouts of celestial chuckling especially when it comes to Borgia jokes.

Do also accept my apologies for writing to you in this most unconventional manner. You already have one earthly pope emeritus whose writings spark media controversy, and I'm sure you could do without the writings of a heavenly pope emeritus — particularly a pope with the prefix "Saint" and the suffix "Great" appended to his name.

Moreover, we are both successors of the Rock on which Our Lord built His Church and it was the first bishop of Rome himself who suggested I write to you.

St. Michael sheathing his sword on Castel Sant'Angelo

I can quote St. Petrus' exact words to me: "Tell Francis, the pope is mightier than the plague. Encourage Francis by telling him how you dealt with the plague."

Carissimo Francesco, you know I had to deal with a plague far more pestilential than the coronavirus. The plague struck even my predecessor, Pope Pelagius II, and swiftly killed him.

I learned my lesson from two bishops. When the plague first surfaced in Gaul in 543, Bp. Gallus of Clermont asked God to spare his diocese and the angel of the Lord came to him in a vision to assure him that his prayers would protect his people. Gallus continued to lead his people in prayer, pilgrimage and the sacraments and not one of them at Clermont died of the plague.

But then the plague returned to Clermont in 571. Bishop Cautinus behaved very differently from his predecessor and scurried from one place to another to avoid the plague. So many people were killed in the whole region that it was not even possible to count them. According to Bp. Gregory of Tours, "In St. Peter's church alone on a single Sunday, 300 dead bodies were counted."

A couple of decades later, incessant rains caused the Tiber to flood much of Rome, destroying many churches and even the papal granaries.

In 589, the flooding brought with it a plague, which caused swellings in the groin and in other delicate places a swelling of the glands accompanied by intense fever. The victim died on the third day. If the patient survived beyond the third day, he had some hope of recovering. Sons abandoned the rotting corpses of their fathers and fled; parents fled from their fever-stricken children.

It is interesting that even during a major plague epidemic, Gregory's principal preoccupation was ensuring the triumph of the Catholic faith over heresy and paganism.

People were dying so suddenly that there was no time for them to repent and put their lives into a state of grace. One day, in a single solemn procession, 80 people fell dead on the ground. So, in one of my sermons I preached on how "I see my entire flock being struck down by the sword of God's wrath."

I admired Bp. Gallus for his faith and courage and I despised Bp. Cautinus for his unbelief and cowardice. So, when they made me pope in 590, I called for three days of fasting and prayer and processions from seven major churches, all directed towards Santa Maria Maggiore.

The Triumph of Death (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c.1562)

I also authorized a seven-fold litany to be offered for the cessation of the plague.

I did this so that "there we may at great length make our supplication to the Lord with tears and groans, and thus be held worthy to win pardon for our sins."

You see, Francis, my actions were the result of my belief in divine punishment — so unlike your cardinals Scola and Bassetti shooting their mouths off to La Repubblica and denying the reality of divine punishment! I'm sure you would never do something like this, now, would you, Francis?

My papacy was predicated on belief in a God who intervenes in history, a God who loves us so much that He wants us to repent and turn to Him and will sometimes use pain as his megaphone to shout out to a deaf world.

After much prayer, repentance and fasting, God gave me a vision. I saw, just above the castle that used to be called Hadrian's Tomb, the angel of the Lord wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. I understood that our prayers had been answered and that the plague was over.

I also understood that this had happened in the past to King David when God sent His angel to inflict a pestilence that killed 70,000 Israelites. Remember how David made an altar and made offerings and supplications that persuaded God to relent and order the angel to stay his hand?

Beloved Francis, do take a short walk from Casa Santa Marta just down the road to Castel Sant'Angelo and pause to look at the huge 18th-century bronze statue on top of the castle of the archangel St. Michael sheathing his sword and you will be reminded of God's mercy and of my role as your predecessor in securing it.

Of course, knowing you as a Jesuit who thrives on academic literature rather than devotional mush, may I recommend Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750, published by Cambridge University Press in association with the American Academy in Rome?

I see my entire flock being struck down by the sword of God's wrath.

You might find a sentence in the book pertinent to your own papacy. This historian writes: "It is interesting that even during a major plague epidemic, Gregory's principal preoccupation was ensuring the triumph of the Catholic faith over heresy and paganism."

Perhaps with St. Peter's permission I will write to you in another letter about your central role as pope in fighting against heresy and paganism?

Meanwhile, I'm pleading with you to to call Italy and the world to repentance and faith in Christ. Be assured that the saints and angels in Heaven will join the Church Militant on earth when you call for a day (or more!) of penitence, fasting and prayer.

And then, watch and rejoice as the angel of death withdraws and sheaths the sword of God's wrath.

Deus benedicat,

Gregory the Great

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