When the Babylonian Captivity gripped the Holy See, and the throne of St. Peter’s was in Avignon rather than Rome, a French cardinal named Pierre Roger reigned as Pope Clement VI when the pestilence first struck Europe. During those years of Black Death, from 1347 to 1351, when perhaps as many as 75 million people would succumb to the Bubonic plague, Clement was forced to declare that the Rhone River was sacred “ground” so that the infected bodies caste into the waters by gravediggers could rightly be considered as having had a consecrated burial. Dean Philip Bell writes in Plague in the Early Modern World that people “came to terms with it, making meaning as best they could.” Today, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the globe, churches have had to make similar concessions to extremity as Clement once did. Now you can see the Eucharist celebrated on Facebook Live or YouTube. Such exceptions are an acknowledgement of ritual’s import. Not that the sacramental exists to affect the world in a measurable way, in the manner that medicine does, but rather that ritual helps to generate meaning in the world.
During that “Great Plague” of the sixteenth-century, when the pestilence and its familiar purple and engorged buboes appeared on the bodies of the faithful, the people of Rome made another attempt at divining meaning within this terrible mystery of human suffering. A procession marched through Rome’s streets with an arrestingly realistic wooden crucifix from the previous century, with legend saying that the plague abated along the route, and finally ceased once the object reached St. Peter’s Basilica. Today, that crucifix still exists, and stands aloft on the altar of the church of San Marcelo al Corso. This past Sunday, the third of Lent, Pope Francis visited the crucifix at San Marcello, as well as a Marian shrine at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, asking for divine intercession in the ongoing pandemic. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni explained that the pope prayed “to rid the world of the pandemic… [and] for the healing of the many sick people… and their families and friends. He prayed too for the health workers, the doctors, nurses, volunteers and those working to guarantee the smooth functioning of the society.”
Footage of Francis’ visit shows the 83-year-old pontiff – looking old, tired, and unwell – meekly walking down the nave of San Marcelo and humbly approaching the wooden crucifix. There is a disquieting resonance in the echoes of history. Something uncanny how in Italy, which due to its commercial, political, and geographic position was often the locus of past pandemics which still hold such attention in our cultural imagination, now finds itself at the center of our current global pandemic. Something simultaneously disquieting and familiar in scenes of coffin-laden military convoys and funerals being prohibited which calls to us deep in some historical unconsciousness. What’s so strange about the global pandemic is that it feels like we’ve experienced all of this before, even if nobody alive actually has.
If such supplication as Pope Francis’ seems vestige of a distant Medieval past, it should not be criticized for such; nor should it be misunderstood as an intended replacement for modern science. As concerns the first – it’s absolutely true that the Pope’s pilgrimage recalls the actions of holy women and men who lived through calamities like the Black Death. There is no problem in that fact, for that resonance is precisely where the power and beauty of his act comes from. Concerning the later potential objection, it would be at best a misapprehension and at worst a slur to think that Francis (who has an MS in Chemistry) perceives such his prayer some sort of magic. Ritual isn’t about enacting theurgical transformations in the world; it’s about enacting changes within the self. The power of such an action is precisely because of its historical parallels; Francis traveling to San Marcelo is not just as part of a prayer to God, but as an acknowledgement of our ancestors, people who once felt as we now feel.
Far from simple capitulation to the demands of pandemic, such an action is best seen as a necessary attempt to hold onto ritual and attendant meaning, even in the face of horrific destruction. Catastrophe is, among other things, a rupture in the order of things. The sacred, from its etymological roots from the Latin sacer which designates those things which are apart and not of this normal world is a similar instance of rupture. Both catastrophe and the sacred signal that the world is not, never has been, and never will be, entirely ours. An obscenity to imply that the sacred and the catastrophic are synonymous, for they are not, but they are related. Both display the contradictions of existence. Something like Clement’s decision to consecrate a river, to sacralize that which is normally profane, reconciles the aporia of when the sacred must bend to the demands of catastrophe.
In the fourteenth or the sixteenth-centuries, or any century in which pestilence has culled the living, there has been the panic, the fear, the uncertainty, the horror, the hope for relief. What both the miraculous and the terrible signify are these interruptions to our normal life, but it is the former which is perhaps antidote to the later. We must ignore the cynical impulse to see prayer as some sort of tiki idolatry; we must not commit the fallacy which understands it as some sort of diminished etiology. For that matter, we must be willing to also strip the act of theological import, for paradoxically such justifications can muddle the beauty of the act itself. We can’t circumscribe the emotions that compelled the Pope to pray for intercession against virus into mere syllogism; it can’t be reduced to apologetics. Such prayer is more elemental, more human. What exists in the space between Francis and the cross is a humility before the awful majesty and terrible mystery of what it means to live in this moment. Prayers for intercession aren’t superstition. They’re the conveyance of love from across the centuries, the understanding that as they once were, we are now. And as they survived, so too shall we. By appearing before the crucifix, Francis expressed a fundamental truth – this terror has happened before. And yet it still ended.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018. His latest book, as editor and contributor, is The Anthology of Babel, published 24 Jan 2020, by punctum books.