What do the Martyrs of Charity teach us?

A testimony of the past: history, the ‘teacher’ of life 

“Renzo, meanwhile, trotted towards the neighborhood of the good friar. With a bit of study, and not without having to redo some of the roads, he finally managed to get there. He found the hut; he didn’t find him there; but, buzzing and searching the surroundings, he saw him in a hut, who, bent down, and almost choking, was comforting a dying man. He stopped there, waiting in silence. A little later, he saw him close his eyes the poor man, then he got down on his knees, pray for a moment, and got up.” (Alessandro Manzoni - I promessi sposi (1840), Cap. XXXVI). It’s 1630 in Milan. The scourge of the plague rages. Only in the regions of northern Italy, is assumed to have decimated about one million people. Was the “good friar,” Friar Cristoforo, perhaps a Camillian? He could be the religious who, in the Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), was the first to discover the plague of 1630. He could have been inspired not so much by a Capuchin, the Capuchin with the dark habit of the followers of Francis of Assisi, but by the figure of a Camillian Brother Giulio Cesare Terzago, with the flashy red cross that dominates the cassock of the sons of Saint Camillus de’ Lellis, who served the plague victims in a leprosarium in Milan, until he died of the same contagion. The hypothesis has already been documented with an absolute The Camillian Charism in the Face of the Challenges of Covid-19 Pandemic amplitude in 1930 in a book by Fr. Mario Vanti on I Camilliani, il Manzoni e la peste del 1630 (The Camillians, Manzoni and the plague of 1630). It was precisely Brother Terzago, a Milanese nobleman who was no longer very young (born in 1584 and became a Camillian at the age of twenty accepted by the founder) and chief nurse at the Ca’ Granda, the main hospital of the Lombardy capital. At that time, the “ministers of the sick,” followers of St. Camillus, made a special vow to devote themselves to the “perennial service of the sick, even those struck by the plague.” Terzago had been in Palermo during the epidemic that broke out in the Sicilian capital between 1624 and 1626, distinguishing himself for his dedication as responsible of the leprosarium: “To attend to all his needs with solicitude - says a chronicle of the time - he rode a mule, staying at a time continually day and night, without saving anything. He did infinite works of charity... and he was often seen taking the creatures in his arms who were languishing and waiting for death, he made soup for them and fed them”. After four months, however, the religious also fell ill and was sent first to quarantine, heal, and finally to his homeland in Milan, where his confreres worked at the Ospedale Maggiore. The epidemic then reached its peak from the spring of 1630 onwards, until December; at the end of the disease, of the 130, 000 inhabitants of Milan, about 60, 000 survived. The religious were in the frontline assisting. The Camillians, in particular, counted their first victim already on April 15, and at the end, out of 50 religious workings in the city, half of them died. Other leprosaria were opened, apparently one in each Milanese gateway. In July, Brother Terzago - who had contracted the disease at Ca’ Granda and cured - was assigned with two brothers to the leprosarium of Saint Barnabas near Porta Ticinese, capable of treating about 4,000 patients. Fr. Vanti testifies: “For two months, as long as he survived, he was the angel of life and good death there” until he died, on an uncertain date between August 19 and September 2, 1630.

What do the martyrs of charity teach us?

At the time, there was an authentic competition in ‘charity’ between religious families, even those belonging to different charisms. There was a concerted tension throughout the church (men and women) to compete for the ‘big dish’ of charity, under the single banner of Christian proximity, inspired by the common Gospel of mercy. By way of example, we can recall the stature of the holiness of Luiz Gonzaga, a young Jesuit, of Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, of Catherine of Genoa, of Francesco Maria of Camporosso, all saints of the plague, cholera, typhus, etc. I think that our and other “consecrated” persons, whom we remember and venerate today as “martyrs of charity,” in those highly dramatic moments of their personal and community life, had no intention of “teaching” anyone anything. Teaching presupposes a chair, an altar, and codified contents. These men, on the other hand, were too busy ‘living’; simply living their consecration - in some cases the simple and fundamental baptismal consecration - to the fullest in a context of proximity to illness and death that left nothing to the imagination about their fate in the future (i.e., high probability of contagion and death to happen) and did not leave too much space and time for reasoning or the formulation of strategic plans of intervention. They were indeed not men or women who were naïve in their spiritual feelings, rational thinking, or approximate pragmatic behavior. However, it was the contingent situation of need, pain, and grief that determined their action’s immediacy and dictated the very human and empathetic style of their choices. The vivid descriptions we have of their work in the pandemic context of the time do not lend themselves to any form of interpretation: ‘stabat’! They stayed with the afflicted, the needy, the sick. There was an intense presence, a compassionate touch, a consoling word, a reassuring hand, a caring gaze, a long and dedicated time. Someone who, with a corporate personality, almost representing an entire religious and ecclesial community, stayed with the sick person. The “good friar” puts in sequence a series of exquisitely human actions that retrace the same immediate and concrete choices of the Good Samaritan of the Gospel. “In a hut, bent over and almost collapsing, he was comforting a dying man. He saw him close his eyes to the poor man, then kneel, pray for a moment, and get up.” What is most striking is their living out in such a natural way, without categorical mediation or interpretive reductionism, the very reversal that Jesus asks to the expert of the law from “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29) to “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Lk 10:36). The focus that catalyzes every intervention is no longer ‘mine’ but ‘who fell into the hands of the robbers.’ The center of gravity of the intervention work is no longer ‘my’ feelings, intentions, fears, aspirations, but ‘his’ needs, fears, necessities, torments, sufferings! Personally, the almost incredulous admiration and amazement at the audacity and courage of the works of these men are mixed with the disquiet of some simple questions that have haunted me for some time. It is emotionally lovely to leaf through these beautiful pages of our “family album” (church, ecclesial communities, religious institutes, etc.) to discover that we are proud heirs and members of such an impressive human and Christian history. I believe it is even more important to read between these individual biographies’ lines to grasp some coordinates that can, today, realistically instruct and convert me. Gratia supponit naturam et perficit eam. What kind of nature could the ‘good friar’ have, whom grace then performed to the point of making him capable of such a natural gesture as ‘pitifully closing the eyes of a newly dead plague victim’? Every man, between the heights of holiness and the abjection of sin, is never the fruit of chance, of determinism, but always of an interweaving of relationships that qualify or disqualify him, that is, that give or take away consistency from his natural qualities. To what families were these people born and raised? To what Christian communities were they “initiated” into faith and charity? What cultural and spiritual coordinates nourished and oriented their image of God and man? What kind of formation or which formators discerned their vocation and then cultivated it and made it grow? With whom did they accompany and support and confront each other in these life choices? Who helped them to become fully human persons?

The depth of thought and spiritual life
We live in a particular period where shadows seem to occupy almost all the illuminated spaces; resources are running out, fragilities and fears guide the rudder of our existence and history. Many of us rebel, others suffer or react, others still build, even paying in person, so that the other may live. We often believe that we can resolve every precarious situation by flaunting and defending our thought at all times, even if it is not always founded on the Gospel or compared with others, to find a synthesis at every juncture. In reality, observing our personal and social history, we realize that there is “much movement on the surface of the mind, but the depth of thought is neither moved nor unmoved” (Gaudete et Exsultate 38). At times, we absolutize individual thought without, however, translating it into action. Caught in the grip of our individualism, we do not see or even listen to those who want to walk with us to revisit the paths together and seek an objective reading of each cross-section of life. The standard method adopted today: any offer that comes from the other is to be contested, without checking whether the contribution can open up new processes that “build people, rather than obtaining immediate results that produce an easy, rapid and ephemeral image, but which do not build human fullness” (Evangelii Gaudium, 224). In defense of our little garden, we seem to lack the ability to broaden our global vision of the world, see the positive in others and recognize the piece to latch on to build the common good. It isn’t easy today to put together the various puzzle pieces that give back a global vision of reality through the continuous exercise of a depth of thought! We need to return to being human persons. We need to rediscover care for the common good. We need a faith approach to reality. Perhaps the commitment to be holy as God is holy has gone out of fashion? What does it mean for us today to follow the path of holiness, to be authentic witnesses of Jesus Christ? Today it is urgent to find the Lord, the meaning of our lives. By cultivating a relationship with Him, we can listen to His Word and live it in our daily lives, not on extraordinary occasions, but in the present moment, bringing our evangelical contribution that takes shape in not only personal but also social choices. We cannot continue to remain spectators of history. The holiness of life is revealed in the person’s ability always to be there evangelically where he lives, to build a society of love, where he testifies that the other is precious, worthy, welcome, and beautiful, beyond physical or moral appearances and that love for him drives one to seek the best for his life (cf. Fratelli tutti 94). The depth of the Christian life and, therefore, of the believer’s path to holiness can be recognized immediately by the love he or she has toward God and his or her brothers and sisters, without exclusion. In this time of pandemic in which, out of fear, we risk closing ourselves in a selfish circle, rejecting people, we are called to verify the relational capacity that makes us a gift to others, even in critical times, like Jesus who gave his life until death on the cross. Today, since people do not readily talk about their life of faith because it is often relegated to an intimate area, there is an urgent need to share the search for the face of God; to communicate and welcome the way to remain always in relationship with others; to seek together the resources drawn from the Gospel to forgive, to be merciful, to express tenderness as a preventive love, deep love for others, to be men and women of peace, justice, joy, hope. Therefore, not aleatory holiness but holiness made of flesh, which is seen in itinerant, looking at the example of Jesus, who became incarnate and died for us, to live the beauty of human life to the full as children of God.

Maturation in humanity
In this time of the pandemic, we are all called to confront and, in a certain way, to reconcile ourselves deeply with our humanity. For the most part, at least in our Western sensibility and culture, when we resort to this word “humanity,” we usually do so in a very solemn and sometimes presumptuous way. We evoke this precious word, in which we recognize ourselves, distinguish ourselves from other living creatures, in the sense of excellence that we take for granted and acquired. In reality, this word refers radically to that humus, to that clay soil from which we were taken and to which we are called to return with serenity, after having traveled the path of our humanity. The most proper characteristic of our human dignity is the awareness of our reality, which should always generate humilitas. Humility is proper for human persons worthy of this name. In our Western culture, we are more inclined to think of our humanity from Prometheus’s myth than from the mystery of Christ the Lord. The challenging experience of coping with a pandemic such as a Coronavirus is proving to be an almost deafening shock. We had not thought that we, too, were vulnerable and so tremendously fragile. We had convinced ourselves that we were a portion of humanity that, at the cost of admirable sacrifice and resourcefulness, had earned the privilege of substantial and lasting immunity from fear and the human sense of insecurity. We were so proud and full of ourselves that we even thought that the others - the poorest and most disadvantaged peoples - were reaping the fruits of their pusillanimity, so much so that we felt obliged to deny them the right to sit at the banquet of our happiness. The pandemic changed everything in an instant. Slowing down our usual pace can be an opportunity to gain depth and amplify our way of experiencing the vast and varied realities of our lives. The challenge of moving from the gallop of emotions and sensations to the quiet tasting of each fragment of life, even when the constraints of the situation limit it, becomes a task to grow in humanity. The clear sense of fragility can become an opportunity to grasp the essentials and hold ourselves ready for anything, even what upsets us. Fear should lead us to reflect on the precariousness of health and life, on the temporariness of certainties and acquired goods, the reality or possibility of our mortality or that of our loved ones or others. Doing introspection is a healthy opportunity: the virus provides a bath of existential realism. We must choose to gain depth. This is the only way to reach the peripheries of our personality that are sometimes rarely frequented so that everything is brighter and more serene. We have the opportunity to rediscover that harmony for which we carry in our hearts not only an irrepressible nostalgia but also the alphabet necessary to narrate and transmit it, especially in the most painful and challenging moments. The community of Christ’s disciples does not give up living the Gospel’s message better and witnessing it to the world. The pandemic puts into a crisis that mode of arrogance translates into forgetfulness of our frailty to the point of hiding death. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we believe in the resurrection. By this faith, we await eternal life without ever confusing it with the claim and illusion of being immortal. As creatures, we are mortal and death, together with the many deaths we have to go through in life, is an integral part of our human adventure. In a situation that makes us aware that we are all potentially sick, the proclamation of Christian hope becomes even more urgent and perhaps even more audible to our brothers and sisters in humanity. The sudden burst of death on the scene has reopened the great question of meaning. The present condition confronts us with one of the great taboos of contemporary culture, death. Death has been “exculturated” by contemporary society. Today it is coming back, suddenly and in an unknown mode. And there is no doubt that it is an occasion to awaken our consciences numbed by egocentric, narcissistic well-being. Death from lung disease, in years past, was very present but never scandalized us. Deaths from traffic accidents are countless, but they don’t shock us and so forth. This time, a tiny, unknown virus has brought out the fear of death in everyone. And what’s more, the fact of dying without anyone beside you, without the comfort of the sacraments for those who believe, without a funeral or even a place in a cemetery, has upset people. How can we not reflect on this? Never before has the relationship of care presented itself as the fundamental paradigm of our human coexistence. The change from de facto interdependence to desired solidarity is not an automatic transformation. This condition is another side of the fragility revealed by the pandemic.
It is a dimension that poses to us, in a much sharper and more precise way, the theme of the beyond. It is a universal theme that has always been present in all cultures. Death brings us to the “threshold of mystery.” The space of this threshold unites believers and non-believers. The only ones who pull out are the unthinking. This pandemic is a pressing invitation to look up from a demeaning narcissism. The opportunity to grow is there because the question about death has been buried by narcissism has not been erased. What we are experiencing at this time is an opportunity to take stock of our maturation of humanity. To be human, without being content to be part of the category of human beings who inhabit this strip of the cosmos with and among other creatures. What we are experiencing today reminds us of the duty to accept our limits to the point of honoring them and bringing them together. Once again, we can make our own the invitation that Etty Hillesum addressed to herself: “But let us bear it with grace,” with humility, patience, and compassion. Suffering never leaves us equal to ourselves: either it makes us better or it makes us worse. The death of some, the suffering of many, and the fear of all are a sign that calls us to a jolt of dignity: we are all sick of humanity! And here, prayer - in the broadest and most varied sense - is a sure anchor. By turning to the Most High, as creatures among creatures, we find our rightful dimension. In this way, we will be able to mature in our ability to take on even death without ceasing to love life and fight passionately so that all may have it in abundance. One question remains unanswered: as believers, will we know how to distinguish the illusion of immortality from the desire for eternal life towards which we turn serenely, taking into account our death and that of those we love?

‘Heroes’? No, just ‘brothers’!
German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once said, “Blessed are the people who do not need heroes.” In these times of pandemic, often the typical rhetoric has emphatically defined as ‘heroes,’ the health workers or providers of essential services to the community, only to forget, very quickly, all their efforts, or not supporting them with shared attitudes of prudence, commitment, and civic sense. The hero seems to be that man who self-sacrificingly assumes a value and consistently tries to live it. In this sense, the heroic person appears to reveal the “full” face of history and, at the same time, shows all the “voids” of virtue and the critical aspects of projects. If people need to identify heroes, the weak and fragile elements of contemporary history desperately outweigh values and meaning. And as such, these people live a profound and desperate ‘historical unhappiness.’ People who do not need “heroes” do not need extraordinary actions to feel alive; it does not need heroic myths to which it can delegate its identity; it does not need protagonists to grasp the nuances of good and truth. If goodness, proximity, virtue, commitment, coherence, sacrifice, dedication, the desire for transcendence, the relationship of care were values and attitudes belonging only to an elite and heroic part of society, then these values would be the utopias of a few and most people would be destined to boredom and the repetition of empty clichés! The Manzonian plague of 1630 caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis is not even comparable to Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is known as Covid-19. The social situation, epidemiological evolution, and health care resources available in the first half of the 1600s are not remotely comparable to our technical and scientific capacity and availability in the 2020s. However, one thing has not changed since 1630: the measure of humanity is measured in the relationship with human suffering and especially with the face of the suffering. As such, the human paradigm that we must cultivate as individuals and as a community is not that of heroism but fraternity! Fraternity is the tremendous unfulfilled promise of modernity. Nevertheless, even from the human sciences’ point of view, in all their articulation, this unfulfilled promise is what makes freedom and equality possible. To say “fraternity” is not, however, to say something taken for granted. “Fraternity” is not an empty word. “Fraternity” requires a great battle, first of all against one’s individualism, against the idolatry of oneself. This is the most challenging battle to fight and to win. Individualism is the companion virus of the Coronavirus. Individualism is the great heresy of modernity. The martyrs of charity, in this sense, continue even today to germinate dreams, to arouse prophecies and visions, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to interweave relationships, and to create a positive image that enlightens minds, warms hearts, restores strength to hands, and inspires everyone, not just a few ‘heroes,’ the vision of a future worthy of man, in which ‘the rights of the weak are not weak rights,’ are not rights protected from above, but recognized and shared by a renewed shared consciousness. Today we are faced with the excellent opportunity to express our being brothers, to be good Samaritans who take upon themselves the pain of failures. History teaches us that there are no systems or crises that can completely nullify the capacity, ingenuity, and creativity that God never ceases to arouse in hearts. The martyrs of charity, then as now, have not been afraid to involve themselves and to touch the body and soul of their contemporaries with the gaze of Jesus. They have not been afraid to courageously inhabit the conflicts and crossroads of history to anoint them with the aroma of the ‘beatitudes.’ They have not been afraid to unite with other men, to create a real community, to weave a new way of making history and of being in the world!

Fr. Gianfranco Lunardon