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 simply despaired.
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 bull.
- Saint Denis was a third century bishop of Paris whose success at converting pagans caused him to be arrested, tortured, and executed.
- 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 in oil.
- 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 perfect intercessor.
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.