This Is How The Church Handled Easter During The Plague
Easter is one of those times when people who don't normally attend church services fill the pews, but in the time of a pandemic like COVID-19, this kind of gathering is simply not safe. However, you might be relieved to know this is isn't the first time that the Church has had to figure out how to navigate the choppy waters of mass illness and deal with Easter during a plague.
King Edward Postponed Parliament
In the 14th century, the Black Plague forced King Edward III to make some serious choices. Even with the limited medical knowledge of the time, he came to the conclusion that personal space was an important factor in staying healthy, so he postponed the January 1349 Parliament until Easter of that year. It remained empty for quite some time afterwards, as his order sent officials into a panic, but Edward remained calm. He asked that the streets be cleaned and a mass pit for the dead dug in East Smithfield, certain that keeping large groups of people away from one another was the best way to keep his followers healthy.
Street And Soul Cleaning
While King Edward III was busy cleaning the streets and asking his people to practice medieval social distancing, the Church asked their followers to do a different kind of cleansing. According to Daniel Hobbins, associate professor of history at Notre Dame, Church authorities had no way of comprehending exactly what they were dealing with:
In the 14th-century pandemic, Pope Clement VI ordered processions and issued a plenary indulgence for those who died but had properly confessed. He was dealing with a mortality that is almost beyond our comprehension. Most experts think the coronavirus has about a 1–2% mortality rate. Historians believe the 14th-century pandemic wiped out between one-third and one-half of the population.
Despite their best efforts, the Plague would keep popping up again and again in Europe over the next few centuries. The small village of Oberammergau in Germany had already lost 80 residents to it by the time Easter rolled around in 1633, so they decided to put on a play, hoping God would notice their efforts and lay off them. Such was the beginning of the village's tradition of performing the Passion of Jesus every 10 years on Easter, a tradition that has continued to this day—well, almost. In 2020, restrictions on gatherings during the time of COVID-19 forced them to put off the performance.
Sacraments For The Quarantined
Even though quarantine was in effect during the plague of the 1500s, some members of the Church refused to take such measures seriously. Archbishop Borromeo of Milan stuck around the city even though the population had been nearly halved by the illness, bringing sacraments to the homes of the quarantined and helping with preventative measures. Unfortunately, he also put together processions that went barefoot through the city. Gregory DiPippo, an expert on Catholic old rite liturgies, explained:
At the time, they didn't know how virus[es] spread. He had the priests go out to public places where people were able to follow Mass from their windows and balconies.
The Church And The Spanish Flu
In 1918, the worst pandemic of the 20th century—most commonly known as the Spanish Flu—hit the States. Experts advised that the most simple measure for ending the spread of the illness was to stay indoors and avoid social gatherings, specifically religious ceremonies, a warning that the community didn't take lightly. On September 29, 1918, the front page of the Boston Globe reported that worship services were canceled and "there was less for the citizens to do probably than on any Sunday since the old Puritan days."
One month later in Cincinnati, members of the St. Joseph German Catholic Church refused to obey the public health board and conducted a morning mass as scheduled. When police arrived, Father William Scholl declared that he "was not interested in order" or obeying the constrictive rules that were given to the people.
By Easter 1919, a half-million Americans were dead from the pandemic, with more than 11,000 people passing in Philadelphia in the same month that Boston shut down and Scholl refused to keep local order in Ohio.
The pandemic of 1918 was a trying time for religious people across the country. On October 11, after the Los Angeles City Council issued an ordinance that all churches were to be closed to keep the infection from spreading, Los Angeles–area Christian Scientists staged a protest, demanding that they be allowed to perform "services for the dissemination of a universal understanding of omnipotent divine power, reliance upon which effectually aids in destroying the dread of contagion." Five protestors were arrested, including Harry P. Hitchcock, who argued that the ordinance was an "unconstitutional [and] unwarranted exercise of the police power."
Worship From A Distance In Salt Lake City
During the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Mormon community did their best to continue attending worship services while maintaining a safe distance from one another. The Mormon Tabernacle was closed, along with about 50 other Latter-Day Saints churches, but they didn't let that stop them. On October 14, 1918, The Desert News reported:
In a few instances, pastors assembled groups of young people in front of their churches and either held service there or marched to some park or recreation grounds and enjoyed the autumn sunshine as well as imparting religious instructions to the assemblage.
By Easter 1919, the Flu began to fade in Salt Lake City. Although there were still thousands of deaths across the state, the community's commitment to keeping their distance kept the second surge of the illness to a minimum. Just a hint, friends.
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