by Cardinal Schuster OSB
Commentary on the Prayers of the Votive Mass in Times of Epidemic
Great calamities or public misfortunes are generally inflicted by God as punishments for the sins of the nation. The individual will expiate his faults in the next world, but nations and states cannot do so, and therefore the Lord punishes their social sins here. He desires, by these public scourges, to bring them to repentance, and the surest means to avert the divine justice is the conversion of the people and their return to God.
St. Gregory had this object in view when he instituted the famous Litania Septiformis with the procession to the Vatican Basilica, in order to stop the plague desolating Rome in 590. This thought inspires the following Collect:
God, who desirest not the death but the repentance of sinners, mercifully look upon thy people who return to thee; and grant that they, being devoted to thee, may by thy mercy be delivered from the scourges of thine anger. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son…
[…] The plague was raging throughout the kingdom of David, and slew seventy thousand victims in three days. The angelic minister of the sanctity of God was sent to punish the sin of vainglory committed by the king, when he ordered the census of the nation to be taken. The people suffered for his sin on the principle of solidarity so strongly felt by the ancients, who regarded the sins or the virtues of parents and rulers as drawing down punishment or blessings upon their children and subjects.
By permitting this, God commits no injustice, for it is merely a question of temporal goods which he is in no way bound to bestow, and if he deprives certain individuals of these advantages, it is for their eternal welfare. For instance, the plague was in reality ordered to the greater good of the Israelites, for God, who does not punish the same sin twice, allowed them to expiate their sins by that death, and the poor victims were carried away by the pestilence at the moment when it was to the greater advantage of their souls. Even those who by the inscrutable judgement of God were not saved, were spared from adding to their guilt, and their eternal punishment was less terrible in consequence.
David propitiated the Lord by erecting a votive altar on the spot where he had beheld the angel with the drawn sword; that altar is a symbol of our Redeemer who reconciles all humanity to God through the merits of His Precious Blood.
[…] When confronted with some great catastrophe such as an earthquake or a pestilence, the pride of man is brought low; all his discoveries and his exalted wisdom are powerless before God, whose touch can wither and dissolve the earth.
— Man raises his towers of Babel, his palaces and monuments, as though they were to endure for ever, but an earthquake of the duration of a few seconds is sufficient to make of a populous city a heap of ruins.
— Science performs miracles; man thinks that he has penetrated all the secrets of nature, he boasts that he has mastered creation and has now no need of God. An epidemic breaks out: a mysterious bacillus slays thousands and thousands of victims, and upsets all the calculations of the learned. It is a microbe, an almost invisible organism, which annihilates human pride. Such is our life, the span of which can be shortened by such microscopic enemies.
God alone is strong, wise, and good. In him only can we trust, for he alone will never fail us. All other things, science, art, glory, health, and strength, are but vanity.
[…] When the Word took flesh he conferred upon that flesh the power to bestow health, grace, and holiness. The saints, especially in early Christian times, regarded the Holy Eucharist as a remedy not only of the soul but for the body. The Fathers of the Church relate many cases of bodily cures effected by Holy Communion.
St. John Chrysostom tells us that many sick people were restored to health after having been anointed with the oil from the lamps which burnt before the altar. […] since the second century the bishop always blessed the oils for the sick at the Sunday Mass. When, subsequently, the performance of this rite was limited to the Missa Chrismalis of Maundy Thursday, the faithful of Rome in the Middle Ages used to bring their own phials of oil to be blessed by the Pope or the clergy celebrating with him. This Oleum Infirmorum was reverently preserved in every house as holy water is now.
A great change has taken place since those days in the mind of Christians, some of whom now appear to have a great fear of Extreme Unction.
[…] the Book of Numbers (xvi, 48) […] tells how the people of Israel rebelled against Moses, and how fourteen thousand were destroyed by fire from heaven. The great legislator commanded Aaron his brother to place himself as mediator between the bodies of the dead and the living, and the justice of God. The prayers of Aaron ascended like incense and God was placated.
This is the place and the vocation assigned to the clergy. The priest is called away from the multitude to be a mediator between God and man. Among all the ministries and offices he is chosen to fulfil, there is no office more worthy, none more essential, than the offering up of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and liturgical meditation, the psalmody in loco sancto, in quo orat sacerdos pro delictis et peccatis populi. The priest makes prayer and intercession for the sins of others, for it is understood that he must be holy and pure from every sin, or else si non placet, non placat, as St. Bernard wisely says. St. Jerome, too, when speaking of the legal purifications of the Jews, remarks: “Does any man among the people fall into sin? The priest prays for the culprit and his sin is forgiven. But should the priest sin, who shall make intercession for him?”
In time of plague when the chief need is to find the cause and the remedy for the disease, the Church is indeed wise to point out the true source of all evil, sin. When this is removed by a sincere return to God, the epidemic will disappear, God will be placated, and will restore his grace, which will purify the body, too, from every contagion.
Cardinal Schuster O.S.B., Liber Sacramentorum, volume 9
Vromant et Cie, Bruxelles, 1933
For a more complete look at this topic, read the following article on Fatima found on our website: