At the beginning of June, Carolyn and I were supposed to be leading a travel course for Regent College in Italy, “Martyrs, Monks, and Mystics,” but we sent a note to all the participants in mid-March to cancel because of the coronavirus. This seemed a judgment call at the time, but within days it became clear that it was the right decision: Europe went into lockdown and the grim statistics of the growing number of dead were reported each evening.
As a historian, it has given me pause. I remember that we have been here before.
It is as though the clock has been turned back several centuries. I was struck by the comment in the Financial Times of the famous virologist Peter Piot (who discovered Ebola): “All we have is medieval ways of containment: isolation, quarantine, contact tracing.” We have gone back in time.
As we were canceling our Italy trip, I was reminded of the early medieval bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great. He was called to lead in the hardest of times. We were hoping to park the tour bus by his family estate at the present church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio before we left Rome for Assisi. We would have told everyone that from his home on the Caelian hill, he could literally have looked straight across the little valley (as we can today) to the Palatine hill to see the crumbling palaces of past Roman emperors. To Gregory’s right was the already decaying Colosseum and ruins of the Forum. Repeated sieges of Rome had left famine and disease in their wake. Large areas of the city were destroyed by fire, and civil society stopped functioning altogether.
And that is not all: plague was pandemic during Gregory’s whole adult life. Something like a third of the population was wiped out during these years by their version of the coronavirus.
In this situation, what did Gregory do? He served his generation. He fed the poor, clothed the naked, and ministered to the sick. He devoted himself to prayer, supported the new Benedictine communities, sent out missionaries, promoted high standards for pastoral care, and took over the running of the city.
The pressures of his life meant that he could write eloquently of what it was to balance a life of active service with a life of prayer. He found inspiration from the example of the ministry of Christ himself.
(Regent College) [Church Historian] Bruce Hindmarsh–#Coronavirus+The Communion Of The Saints https://t.co/C9uUScvhgB #churchhistory ‘plague was pandemic dring Gregorys..adult life. Somethng like a 1/3 of the popltn was wiped out during these yrs by their versn of the coronavirus’ pic.twitter.com/ku7B3zkOyD
— Kendall Harmon (@KendallHarmon6) April 3, 2020