We are experiencing a season of pain and suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters in various parts of the world. It is a pandemic that is forcing us to change our habitual behaviors and provokes in us a deep sense of sadness and fear. This rapid global infection confronts us with our helplessness, but it also fuels the great hope of defeating it together.
I am aware that many of us are fighting this ‘battle’ on the front line, engaging in supporting, consoling, and healing infected people and trying to improve and strengthen health care services. I want to express to each one of you, through this message, my special closeness together with the Consultors, assuring you of prayer, esteem, and fraternal affection.
This pandemic situation brings back our memory to the early days of the founding of our Order, a time when plagues were frequent. By way of example, I recall the plague that broke out in Piedmont (Savoy) in 1599 during the second General Chapter of our Order: at this juncture, our Camillian confreres showed themselves to be available for service and heroic in caring for the sick. Father Sanzio Cicatelli wrote,
“Many priests and brothers were competing with one another in sending letters and appeals to the Chapter praying and pleading with him to serve and remember them in the present expedition. On the contrary (what will always be worthy of eternal memory) many fathers of the same Chapter kneeling in front of Camillus’ feet, begged him with their arms on the cross so that he would not miss such a holy opportunity to earn the crown that keeps such a close relation with martyrdom since Camillo was the first of all to offer himself”. (P. Sanzio Cicatelli M.I., Life of St. Camillus de Lellis – edited by Piero Sannazzaro, Curia Generalizia. Rome 1980. p. 180).
A few days ago, on March 10, 2020, Pope Francis, at the introduction of the Eucharistic celebration at the Casa Santa Marta (Vatican), exhorted:
“How many people are suffering from this epidemic. Let us pray to the Lord also for our priests so that they may have the courage to go out and go to the sick, bringing the strength of the Word of God, the Eucharist, and accompany the health workers, the volunteers in this work they are doing”.
More than four centuries have passed since the events as recounted by Father Sanzio Cicatelli; many things have changed; human frailty in the face of illness remains; even the spirit of our fourth vow remains unchanged. The words of Pope Francis and the memory of the heroism of Saint Camillus and many of our predecessors encourage us to come to the aid and support of the sick of COVID-19 and in the fight against the coronavirus that causes it.
I encourage each one of you, in the fight against the coronavirus, together with all health workers, to follow with a sense of responsibility the indications of the health authorities in the different regions of the countries of the world where you operate. Continue to bear witness to “Christ’s ever-present merciful love for the sick” (Const. 1). Serve in the best way that “the Holy Spirit will teach you” (St. Camillus).
We recognize that the time of the coronavirus invites us to cultivate a dual attitude: human and Christian. The most natural is to remain united because compassion for those affected by evil is a deep, immediate, and natural human feeling. But there is a second level of reaction that is more important: to question ourselves about the meaning of our life and the reasons why we are suddenly faced with situations of trial and danger of this kind. At this particular juncture, both on a personal level and on a community level, it becomes decisive to ask ourselves “for whom I live” and how I move along the path of my earthly pilgrimage. One cannot merely look for ways to avoid the virus, which is undoubtedly an important thing, but one must go further. These are occasions that question us about the meaning of our life and our specific vocation.
Dear friends, encouraging you in your service to the suffering and especially to the persons infected by COVID-19, I invite you not to stop praying to God, the Lord of our life, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary Health of the Sick, Saint Camillus, Saint Josephine Vannini, Blessed Maria Domenica Brun Barbantini, Blessed Enrico Rebuschini, and Luigi Tezza, and to all the Camillian Martyrs of Charity, to free us from this pandemic that afflicts us.
I embrace you in the Lord wishing you a fruitful time of Lent with the certainty that after the Passion, Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ comes the Easter of Resurrection.
Rome, March 13, 2020
Fr. Laurent Zoungrana