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Passionists UK The Passionists of the past were no strangers to pandemics

The Passionists of the past were no strangers to pandemics

Passionists UK The Passionists of the past were no strangers to pandemics

Aug 28 2020, 01:43 PM

The new normal is the “in” phrase, but the reality is we live in not so strange times. 

It is, and has been difficult for many to cope with the pandemic: physically, emotionally, spiritually. But I would like to suggest that in fact the situation we are facing is not so new or strange.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus encounters lepers on several occasions. Leprosy was contagious, dangerous, frightening (cf. Covid-19) – and led to expulsion from the village or town. Self-isolation/quarantine. People lived in fear of this terrible disease for which there was no cure.

Round about the year 1350, 100 million people plus died of the Black Death in Europe. Again there was no known cure, but there are records of entire villages self-isolating. People lived in genuine fear.

The game-changer has been the development and availability of antibiotics since the Second World War; before that, the reality for many was the reality that we begin to face in part now.

The Death of Dominic Barberi

Several times Dominic Barberi (founder of the Passionists in England) and Ignatius Spencer travelled from England to Rome, often travelling overland to Marseille or Genoa, and then sailing to Civitavecchia where they would spend several days in quarantine before going on to Rome. The two diseases Europe lived in fear of were cholera and typhus.

During his novitiate in Stone in 1847, Ignatius (already an ordained priest), was sent to minister to the occupants of the workhouse – many of whom were suffering from cholera and malnutrition. Eventually he succumbed to the disease and was given less than two hours to live. In fact, he survived; but Ignatius was one of only a few of the early Passionists in England who survived disease. Nevertheless, at no point is there any record of any them fleeing from the people for their own safety, despite the threat of disease: in Dominic Barberi’s case, this ultimately caught up with them.

The annals of the Province for 27 August 1849 record that Dominic died suddenly at the Railway Hotel in Reading while on his way to Woodchester. Fortunately, he had Fr. Louis with him who had just returned from Australia. Dominic had made up his mind to travel alone, but Fr. Louis wanted to visit the Superior of the house in Woodchester. At first Dominic would not consent, fearing that it was offending against poverty, but having gone into the chapel to pray, changed his mind and ordered Fr. Louis to prepare for the journey.

At no point is there any record of any of the early Passionists fleeing from the people for their own safety, despite the threat of cholera – which ultimately caught up with them.

As they journeyed by train Dominic experienced excruciating pain around his heart, with the result that he was obliged to be lifted off the train at Pangbourne station. As the cholera was then sweeping England, and Dominic was vomiting, it was presumed his attack was cholera. He was refused accommodation at the Inns, and was obliged to lie for an hour on a little straw in a cottage owned by a Protestant.

The annalist comments: How this must have reminded him of the suffering of the Divine Babe of Bethlehem. There lay the worn-out missioner who had prayed and toiled for so long for the conversion of England, in that bleak desolate-looking little cottage abandoned by all, for whose salvation he thirsted, with only a companion kneeling by his side to prepare him for eternity. But the coldness and want of hospitality of the people gave him no concern. Fr. Louis had just time to administer the last Sacraments, and to receive some instructions about the governance of the Province.

At the arrival of the next train he was lifted in and conveyed to Reading, where at the Railway Hotel he experienced every attention. But his complaint was beyond all human succour and at about 3pm he died abandoned and almost alone; he died in the poverty he had practised and the solitude he loved. The body that evening was removed to London and thence to the little chapel in Stone, Staffordshire.

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