Plagues, Interdicts, Omissions and Possibilities

IN THE MID-14th century the Black Death swept through Europe. Between 30 and 60% of Europe’s population perished, and perhaps even as many as 200 million people died if the Near East is included in the calculations. It would be scores of years before Europe’s population recovered. The Church in many respects did not meet the challenges of the time.

In part this is because in many places as many clergy as peasants succumbed to the plague. But in many places the clergy did not wait to die; they fled. Robert Gottfried, in his work on the Black Death, reports that in the dioceses of York and Lincoln (NB Lincoln reached as far as Oxford and the Thames) 20% of the parochial clergy. Many of those who remained in their posts succumbed. The result was that the numbers of clergy could not meet the needs of a society united in the faith and practice of one religion. Despite the losses of the faithful clergy, clerical reputation suffered immensely. Says Gottfried:

Many parish priests fled, leaving no one to offer services, deliver last rites, and comfort
the sick. Flight might have been intellectually explicable, but it was morally
inexcusable…[I]n a world in which performance of an appointed role was very important, many clerics no longer seemed to be doing their jobs.

The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (1983), pp.84; 94.

Gottfried is not alone in his assessment of the records that can be found of the period; Philip Ziegler affirms that,

[the clergy] lost in popularity as a result of the plague. They were deemed not to have risen to the level of their responsibilities, to have run away in fear or in search of gain, to have put their own skins first and the souls of their parishioners a bad second.

The Black Death (1969), p.211

Even before the plague had abated surviving clergy began to gather up the now-unclaimed clerical spoils. The ranks of the clergy were filled with young men, of poor education and little if any experience; some could not even manage to say Mass properly. Pluralism was rife. As society recovered from the scourge, the Church was ill-equipped to take the lead. Divinely-inspired charity, which had so well-endowed many a parish church and monastery, began to be directed elsewhere after the plague, not least to hospitals which provided the care and nurture that the clergy had so singularly failed to provide.

One would not want to draw too literal a parallel between the 14th century and the Covid-19 pandemic. Clergy are not dying in such numbers. Many are able to employ modern technology to livestream liturgy or even just to offer counsel on the phone or by email. In equal measure it must be allowed that the imposition of the lockdown has strong scientific merit as the way to contain the spread of a virus which spreads so stealthily, and so widely. The situation of the clergy in the face of this plague is not as it was at the time of the Black Death, Deo gratias!

However, there is nevertheless a real absence of the Church, despite the best efforts of many clergy. Many understandably wonder of ever the Church has been so unavailable in such a time of crisis, when in fact it has so much to do and, in spiritual terms, to gain. There will be fruits of course, we hope; the rediscovery of spiritual communion and a greater appreciation of the liturgy of the hours and intercessory prayer. Clergy may, in their enforced “private” Masses, rediscover the sacrificial dimension of the Mass, so greatly distorted in many places by an imbalanced and poorly executed emphasis on the communal-meal aspect, and so might refine and realign their ars celebrandi and appreciate more fully that the liturgy, while for the people, is directed fundamentally and necessarily to God.

In a way, we are under a self-imposed interdict. The only English pope, Hadrian IV (1154-1159), quondam Nicholas Breakspear, knew the power of an imposed interdict, imposed on no less a place than Rome itself. Faced with an already delicate political situation on the macro level, on the micro level of Rome he had to deal with the republicanism of the commune of Rome and its spiritual leader, the Augustinian Arnold of Brescia. Ironically, Arnold was motivated in large part by his distaste for the secular trappings and wealth of the Church, its hierarchy and especially the papacy. Whereas the mendicants adopted a non-confrontational approach in leading by personal example (which caused a confrontation or two nevertheless) Arnold sought a more worldly solution.

Matters came to a head shortly before Palm Sunday in 1155 when Gerardo, Cardinal Priest of Santa Pudenziana, was assassinated on the Via Sacra, on his way to see Hadrian IV, by republican zealots. In an unparalleled act, Hadrian IV put the whole of the rebellious city of Rome under interdict. In a city whose wealth and prosperity depended on its religious activity, this was crippling both economically and spiritually. All the churches were locked. No pilgrims would bother coming for Easter, and thus neither would their money. No sacraments could be administered:

Exceptions were made for the baptism of infants and the absolution of the dying: otherwise all sacraments and services were forbidden. No masses could be said, no marriages solemnised: even dead bodies might not be buried in consecrated grounds. In the days where religion still constituted an integral part of every man’s life, the effect of such a moral blockade was immeasurable.

The Popes (2012), chapter 11

The Romans caved in before Easter; Arnold was expelled and Hadrian IV celebrated Easter in his basilica, unmolested.

The removal of the sacramental life of the Church, the closing of churches, was imposed by popes to bring a population to repentance or amendment. It was always intended as extreme but short-lived, spiritual shock-therapy. Our de facto interdict, self-imposed though it is and for the sake of public health, if it is to have any value, must have the same effect on us: to bring us to repentance and amendment of life, both as individuals and as a society. Essential to that is a renewed spiritual honesty.

We are not allowed to say that God punishes individuals or societies, for such is seen as backward fundamentalism. Yet anyone who has ever read the Bible with attention, attention even to the different genres of the various biblical texts, cannot escape the fact that integral to divine revelation is God’s frequent punishing of peoples and individuals for their sins. The Bible makes it clear that God chastises especially those whom he loves in order to bring them back to the keeping of his Law and the observing of their covenant with him, not least his Chosen People, Israel. Why not, then, the New Israel of the Church? Why not, also, the world? The destruction to be visited on pagan Nineveh was averted by the citizenry’s penitence in response to Jonah’s prophecy of their imminent destruction, a destruction thereby averted. Yes, the book of Jonah is a parable on a grand scale; like all biblical parables, it conveys an essential truth.

Lent is the season of repentance. We all know that; ’nuff said. Perhaps we could add to our Lenten repentance a more general repentance, one that encompasses our socio-politico-economic lives more concretely and exhaustively. Perhaps we might begin to shed the nonsense of our “private” faith not affecting our “public” lives.

Moreover, with the parochial Church now hors de combat, the opportunity is presented for the domestic Church to fill something of the gap, through the liturgy of the hours, spiritual communion, and localised and personalised acts of charity to offset the gap in the Church’s wider, social charity. Check on the vulnerable; buy them groceries if they need them; send them a letter or card, or give them a call. Pray for those who are struggling, not least our clergy and religious, many of whom are struggling in the face of the lockdown.

A glaring omission in the post-conciliar Missal is any Mass for plague or pestilence. We have Masses for drought, flood, harvest, famine, war, earthquake, for the sick and dying, for a good death. All very fine subjects too. But those laity who had hand-missals before the conciliar reforms would have found other votive Masses finely tuned to perennial specific needs; Masses for defence against the heathen, for the healing of schism…and in time of pestilence.

Indeed the votive Mass “In Time of Pestilence,” sometimes known by the opening words of its introit, Recordare, Domine (Remember, O Lord), was composed at the height of the Black Death of the 14th century by Pope Clement VI, a Benedictine with a mixed record as pope; worldly but generous, even brave, he seemed to respond with particular concern to the Black Death, even to granting an indulgence to all who died of the plague.

While you may not be able to get to the offering of this votive Mass, it is still possible to make its prayers your own personal prayers at this time. They reflect the traditional understanding of God as one who punishes, justly and medicinally, those whom he loves, and floods with mercy those who turn back to him. The translations are:

The Collect O God, Who desire not the death of sinners but their repentance; look down now with mercy on Your people as they turn back to You again, and take from us, who devote ourselves to You, the scourge of Your displeasure. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.

The Secret Grant, O Lord, that the sacrifice we offer You will bring us help, by freeing us from all error and saving us from total destruction. Through Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Hear us, O God our salvation, and deliver Your people from the terrors of Your anger, and keep them safe by the abundance of Your mercy. Through Christ our Lord.

The reading is 2 Kings 24: 15-19, 25, and the gospel is Luke 4:38-44.

HOWEVER, if you only have a post-conciliar missal, the three options under #48 “In Any Need” among the Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions, offer some fine fare for prayer. The collects of options A and C are particularly rich, timely and traditional:

A O God, our refuge in trials, our strength in sickness, our comfort in sorrow; spare Your people we pray, that, though rightly chastised now by affliction, they may find relief at last through Your loving mercy. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc

C O God, who know that because of human frailty we cannot stand firm amid such great dangers, grant us health of mind and body, that what we suffer for our sins we may overcome with Your help. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.


Grant, we pray, O Lord, that your people may avoid the contagion of the devil and follow You, the only God, in purity of heart. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.

Also, the Prayer after Communion in option C is particularly apposite as we enter Passiontide:

Look with pity on our tribulation, O Lord, we pray, and, though our sins deserve Your anger, mercifully turn it away from us through the Passion of Your Son. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Otherwise, stay at home unless necessary, look out for the vulnerable, comfort the troubled, pray, fast and give alms wherever and however you can, offer up your trials for the good of all but not least for your needy clergy, read an improving book, listen to some elevating music, and even wear a little penitential purple each day as a sign you stand with God’s penitent people. It leaves little time for boredom.

St Edmund, King & Martyr, defender against epidemics, pray for us.

Join the Conversation

    1. I’m not a pope; I’m decreeing nothing. The genre of the book of Jonah is, in Catholic biblical scholarship, generally considered satire or parable. Just as I am not a pope, please do not be an inquisitor, detecting heresy where none is either intended or stated.

      1. That seems a rather sharp reaction to an innocent question. A real event is often a sign in Scripture; but I was wondering whether if you described the account of Jonah as a parable, you meant it never happened. I’m still unclear, but talk of heresy is a surprising line to take, Hugh. Pax!

        1. Well, John, your personal nuance in using the assertive word “decreeing” eluded me. It suggested to me that I was somehow speaking beyond my place. Moreover, I was somewhat startled that, among all the points I was trying to make, you strained at the gnat of one I was not intending to make. For the record, I can happily believe there was a Jonah, and that something of significance happened to him and by him. That it happened exactly as laid out in the biblical text I doubt, and the Church allows me to doubt. The historicity of the book of Jonah is itself a gnat that some fruitlessly strain at. The message of the book, like our Lord’s parables, lies not in the facticity of the narrative but in the point it seeks to make; in this case, Israel as an unwilling tool in the Lord’s hand, yet nevertheless fruitful insofar as it professes what God bigs it profess. From our New Testament perspective the meaning becomes sharper and takes on an added dimension for those Christians with an insular view of the Church and the economy of salvation. In the Father’s house are many mansions, etc. I am prepared to accept that I, for one, may find myself surprised by the manifold mansions I may discover in the Kingdom, should I make it there. Pax.

  1. I have been following live stream masses for over a week now and I have to confess that they are depressing beyond belief. To watch a solitary man celebrate what is to be a gathering of the faithful is a contradiction in terms. What also amazes me is the fact that so many chaplains are continuing to celebrate Mass for convents and monasteries of nuns or within their own male monastic houses. How can they and those who continue to celebrate daily Mass with them possibly relate to the wider Church who may be deprived of the Eucharist for up to six months? Because they and those who celebrate a “private” Mass will have no idea of what it has meant to live a Eucharistic Fast anything they try to say in the future will be irrelevant. Since so much of what has been exposed as sinful and wrong in the Church these past decades is directly the fault of the clergy and bishops it would seem only right and fitting that they cease the celebration of the Mass and join in this penance so that they will be open to the grace that God so obviously wants to give. If nothing else this continuation of “private” Masses and Masses in convents and monasteries has exposed the incredible depth od clericalism in the Church. Maybe that is what has to be broken by all this.


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