Solemn feast days of our Lord trump every other feast, most particularly Easter, which is why we won’t be celebrating Saint Joseph Moscati (or any of the other saints commemorated on April 12) this year. But in this year of COVID-19, perhaps we can think of him all the same on Easter.
Joseph (1880-1927) was born into a large Catholic family and grew up in Naples, Italy. He became a brilliant medical doctor, researcher, and hospital administrator, but above all, he was able to combine personal holiness and his vocation in caring for the sick in a remarkable way. He treated and cured many patients, but he also prayed with them. Sometimes he seemed to know how to diagnose and treat a patient without even having seen him; other times he cured patients by gently encouraging them to seek the sacraments, as well as medicine, for healing. While caring for his patients one day, he took a short break and died of a stroke. The miracle that was cited in his canonization was the complete cure of a young man fatally ill with leukemia; the man’s mother saw a doctor in a white lab coat in a dream and, after her son was healed, only recognized Joseph as the doctor who had healed her son when she saw a photograph of him.
As so many people suffer from sickness and so many medical professionals spend themselves to serve the sick, we can ask our Lord to bless us with a few more miracles this Easter, through the intercession of the gentle doctor-saint, Joseph Moscati.
Since the COVID-19 virus has begun to spread globally, many Catholics have remembered the two young visionaries of Fatima in Portugal: Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Both died during the Spanish flu pandemic in the early twentieth century, so they are great intercessors to help us pray for an end to our own pandemic. But there’s much more that the saints can do besides praying for us from Heaven: we can learn from them while here on earth. More specifically, the saints from the month of April can teach us many lessons to help us respond to the problems that we’re currently facing.
People like to focus on the fact that Saint Catherine of
Siena (1347-1380), whose feast day is April 29, influenced the decisions of
popes. But she was still only an unknown young woman living in her hometown when
she began serving the sick. Catherine had no illusions that she would be safe
from contracting the diseases of those she cared for, and she later told her
followers that, while daily attending a woman with leprosy, she saw the signs
of the disease on her own body. But she accepted this horrifying disease with
peace before (according to her) God miraculously and completely healed her. We
can thank God for that too, because sparing Catherine from an early death gave
her time to deepen in her spiritual life. This not only blessed the people of
her time through her personal example but has helped generations of future
Catholics through the writings she left behind.
There are many reasons to consider Pope Saint Pius V
(1504-1572) one of our greatest popes. But as we remember him on April 30,
perhaps we can focus on his strength and leadership in the face of a seemingly
impossible problem: the imminent invasion of Europe by Muslims. We may remember
the Battle of Lepanto as a great victory that saved Europe and Christianity
from invasion, but the battle was far from an easy one. Virtually everyone in
Europe thought they were outmanned and outgunned by Islamic forces, and when
the Christians later claimed the victory was a miracle, that’s because it
was. This victory was primarily the result of one man negotiating,
pleading, and working for years to unite the many different and disorganized
leaders of Christian nations to fight together and protect their people. That
one man’s secret was his rock-solid faith in God. On the day of battle, Pius V
united all of Christendom by asking them to pray for the intercession of the
Blessed Mother, and the impossible became possible.
Saint Lidwina of Schiedam in Holland (1380-1433), while not a commonly known saint, shouldn’t be overlooked on her feast day, April 14. After a fall on the ice at the age of fifteen (depicted below), she suffered from many incurable and painful medical problems throughout her life. At the same time, God blessed her with visions and miracles. Modern studies point out that her symptoms sound a lot like multiple sclerosis, an unknown disease at the time, but the inexplicable nature of her condition led to vicious rumors that she was not sick but possessed by the devil. Lidwina could have been bitter or angry over her pain, her illness, and her social isolation; instead, she patiently waited for God to sort out truth from fiction. And, of course, He did, since she’s now considered a saint of the Church.
Saint Francisco Marto’s feast day is April 4, the date of
his death at the age of ten. Francisco and his sister aren’t considered saints merely
because they saw apparitions; they were recognized as saints because of the
holy, penitential way they lived and died during their short lives. Most
particularly, Francisco took to heart the message he had heard and seen
directly from Our Lady of Fatima, and he willingly accepted little penances,
even while he was sick and dying, for his own salvation and for the sake of
Fear of contracting an illness, fear of a seemingly
impossible situation, fear of isolation, and fear of death are not modern
inventions. They’re as old as Adam and Eve. But our all-too-human fears of
today deserve Christian responses, as the saints have taught us in the past.
What all four of these saints possessed in abundance—and what the world will
always lack—is what will help us face COVID-19 and every other calamity. That
“something” is as simple and as profound as one little word: trust. When we
place our trust in God—while humbly accepting the help provided by medicine,
technology, and other people—we will not only know the secrets of the saints,
we will know the peace that God gives to those who love Him.
Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?
Sooner or later, every adult has this experience. What
appeared to be a routine doctor’s visit turns out to be something
life-changing. Or a meeting with the boss ends with a layoff notice. Or a
conversation with a friend or family member goes horribly wrong. You walk away
in a daze, with the world turned upside down. It’s as if the guard rails on
life itself are no longer there, or as if the next step you take might be out
in midair, with nothing to catch you.
COVID-19 has done something very similar to all of us. Our
ordinary lives have been turned upside down, seemingly overnight. Fortunately,
as Catholics, we can say with the author of Ecclesiastes (1:9) that “there is
nothing new under the sun.” Whatever might seem new to us has already been
encountered by faithful believers who lived before us, and we can learn from them.
The most obvious historical corollary to our current
pandemic is the “Black Death”, the bubonic plague which devastated Europe in
the fourteenth century and periodically recurred in other centuries up until
the twentieth. Thirty to sixty percent of Europe died during the largest
outbreaks, and it took a few centuries for the world’s population to recover.
Those statistics sound frightening, but how did the Catholics of that time
handle this terrible event?
The people of that time didn’t have our modern medical
knowledge to combat this deadly disease, but they used what they had. Other
people turned to superstition, pagan practices, and mob violence. Some chose
the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” (see Luke 12:19)
approach, which never solves anything, except as a general anesthetic. Some
But not the saints.
In all times and places, the saints of the Church can serve
us as guard rails when there seem to be none, guiding hands when we’re lost,
and intercessors for us with the God who has already counted every hair on our
heads and knows exactly how all this will play out in the end.
In our modern world, opponents of Catholicism commonly
characterize the Church as a male-dominated, insensitive hierarchy out of touch
with ordinary people. The Fourteen Holy Helpers are a perfect example of how
that characterization is perfectly wrong.
It wasn’t a bishop or a pope who came up with the idea of
the Fourteen Holy Helpers—fourteen particular saints to call upon for help from
the unknown and deadly disease—it was ordinary Catholics. That is, men and
women who were in fear for their lives turned to the lives of the saints to
seek help from God during a difficult time. The names and number of saints
wasn’t magic or the result of an apparition; it was the heartfelt prayers of
faithful Catholics who knew their saints as real people and who needed help
with specific problems.
Bubonic plague is not only a deadly disease; it’s a painful
one. Who would understand the aches and pains of the Black Death better than
these early Church martyrs who died in excruciating pain?
Saint Eustace was a second century convert to
the faith from paganism before dying a martyr by being burned alive in a bronze
Saint Denis was a third century bishop of Paris
whose success at converting pagans caused him to be arrested, tortured, and
Saint Blaise was a fourth century bishop and
martyr; his most famous miracle involved saving a boy from death who had a
fishbone stuck in his throat.
Saint Erasmus was fourth century bishop and
martyr who was tortured by having his intestines wound around a windlass.
Saint Vitus was a fourth century Christian with
a reputation for being a wonderworker who was executed by being boiled to death
Saint Margaret of Antioch was a virgin-martyr
who may also have been tortured by being thrown into boiling oil; the year of
her death is uncertain, but tradition says that when she survived the burning
oil, she was beheaded.
Saint Barbara was a third century woman who was
killed by her own father with a sword for daring to become a Christian.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth
century virgin-martyr who was tortured on a toothed wheel before being killed.
It’s obvious that most of these saints were chosen because
of the pain they endured during martyrdom. What about the others?
Who would know courage in the face of sudden, unexpected
death better than a soldier? Then ask for help from Saint Acacius, a Roman
soldier who was martyred in the early fourth century. Or Saint George, a fourth
century martyr, probably from modern Palestine. Although we don’t have writings
from ancient times indicating that George was also a knight, medieval stories
of his life say that he was, so medieval Catholics would have considered him a
If you’re sick, why not ask Saint Pantaleon, a third century
physician who died a martyr for the faith, for his professional help? If you’re
afraid of a disease that can harm anyone, powerful or poor, why not ask Saint
Christopher? According to tradition, he was a third century martyr who wanted
to serve the greatest king in the world, even serving the devil himself until
he found out that Jesus was even stronger. If you’re afraid of the devil’s
power to cause sickness, why not ask Saint Cyriacus, a fourth century nobleman-turned-deacon
who performed exorcisms before he was martyred?
The only saint among the Fourteen Holy Helpers who was not
an early Church martyr is Saint Giles. He was an eighth century hermit who was
crippled by an injury, yet he became known as a wonderworker during his own
lifetime through his prayers. After his death, the monastery built in his name
became a famous shrine for the handicapped and poor.
Medieval Catholics knew that they were in a great battle
with a silent killer, a disease that not only robbed them of their loved ones
and their lives, but which created great fear, suffering, and hopelessness. They
responded by begging God for help, particularly through faithful saints who
could relate to their own current problems. They took courage from the example
of saints of great courage and recognized that the rich and the poor, the young
and the old, the healthy and the sick—all men and women—were in a bigger battle
than the one with a physical illness.
In the end, they recognized that their lives were in God’s
hands and that, whether life seemed certain or uncertain, the goal of very
Christian is to end up with Him and in the company of the saints.