The following four texts served as the main sources for my reflection. They are: Francesco Todisco, San Vincenzo Pallotti: Profeta della Spiritualità di Comunione; Francesco Amoroso, San Vincenzo Pallotti: Romano; the ancient but the excellent Dizionario di Erudizione Storico-Ecclesiastica by Gaetano Moroni; and the letters of Pallotti.
The 1830’s, especially the years between 1835 and 1837, were years of great suffering for Europe because of the cholera epidemic, which was then known as the ‘Asian epidemic’ because it had originally come from India (part of today’s Iraq).
In previous centuries, epidemics spread from city to city starting from port cities such as Civitavecchia, Genoa and Naples. The cholera epidemic began differently when it reached some Baltic countries, such as Poland, as early as 1831. Then in 1832 the epidemic reached England; in 1833 it was brought to Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands. It then spread to France in 1835. As the epidemic was spreading, it left behind a long trail of death (Moroni, 233-243).
The spread of the disease was quick. In Italy, the first epidemic deaths occurred on September 13th, 1835. As a preventive measure to preserve the Eternal City from the disease, Pope Gregory XVI ordered, without any delay, the exposition of the most distinguished Christian relics for the common veneration in the churches where they were present. Here I want to specify the relics considered to be important for common veneration both in times of solemn and difficult occasions in 19th century Rome. These details are taken from Moroni’s book (Dizionario di Erudizione Storico-Ecclesiastica). They were:
· The skulls of the apostles Peter and Paul in the Lateran Basilica;
· The holy face of Veronica and the finger of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica;
· The body of St. Pius V in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major;
· The Wood of the Cross and the Thorn of the Crown in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem;
· The scourging pillar in the minor Basilica of St. Praxedes (Basilica di San Prassede);
· Two celebrated crucifixes – one in St. Lawrence in Damaso (a minor basilica) and the other in the church of St. Marcello al Corso;
· The imprisonment chains of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains;
· The arm of St. Roch, the protector against the plague in the church of St. Roch in Lungotevere, Ripetta;
· The arm of St. Francis Xavier in the church of Gesù (the mother church of the Society of Jesus);
· The bones of St. Sebastian in the minor basilica of St. Andrew of the Valley (San Andrea della Valle).
Pope Gregory XVI also ordered the celebration of an extraordinary novena to be held from August 6th-15th, 1835 in all the fifteen churches dedicated to Mary [in Rome] in preparation for the feast of the Assumption of Mary,
By July 31st, 1835 the Cardinal Vicar Odescalchi had published a decree L’invito Sacro (The Holy Call), which was fixed on the doors of all the churches. However, this document does not have much in common with the decrees issued by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis (also posted on church doors) on March 8th, 12th, and 13th, 2020. The decree signed by Cardinal Odescalchi reveals the 19th century mentality regarding the epidemic. I will cite a few lines:
A fatal disease, which for the obscurity of its origin, for the extravagance of its progress, for the uncertainty of its attacks, appears for the believers, to have the features and signs of a scourge. Will Rome be immune from it (dispensed from it)? Oh! Romans, do not delude yourselves! Yes, Rome has failed its duty. The Holy Name of God is trampled on; feasts and solemnities are desecrated, and with what an insolence the vice roams the streets of the Holy City! So if Rome has failed its duty, it must again be scourged. Oh! Unhappy Rome, only with MARY covering the city with her mantle, the arm of the Angel of End Times that is waiting to empty the poisonous cup on the poor guilty children, can be held back. So, let us all turn to MARY.
Cardinal Vicar Odescalchi had some concrete proposals. On the positive side, there was the announcement of an extraordinary novena for the occasion of the feast of the Assumption of Mary in all the fifteen churches dedicated to her. On the negative side, many public gatherings were also forbidden. Specifically, during the period of the novena, taverns, places selling alcohol and most other places of entertainment were all closed. The one exemption was coffee shops. The great Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachhino Belli composed numerous sonnets expecting to exorcise the city of the impending arrival of the virus. Some of the letters of Pallotti from this period of time reveal that he was committed to promoting the initiatives announced by Cardinal Odescalchi.
Another preventive and interesting initiative started by Pope Gregory XVI was the procession with the icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani - that is "Salvation of the Roman People" (some translate as "Protector of the Roman People"). In fact, the pope had ordered that on September 8th, 1835 the icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani should be carried in procession from the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) to the Vatican Basilica (San Pietro). This is the famous icon, the icon par excellence of Rome (The icon of the Eternal City), that Pope Francis kneels in front of as he starts and ends each of his apostolic journeys. The icon Salus Populi Romani has a very close connection to the history of the Eternal City and the Supreme Pontiffs. It is believed to have been painted by the St. Luke the Evangelist and it was seen as the reason for victory against epidemics and plagues as well as the reason for many other miracles.
Il Diario di Roma, a periodical of the time, explained that the pope had ordered the procession to “assure the souls of the powerful protection of the great Mother of God who regards with delightful eyes this Seat of Christianity [Rome].” Unfortunately, the procession in which the pope walked barefoot was accompanied by such bad weather that this icon of the Virgin Mary was forced to stay for eight days in the New Church (Chiesa Nuova also known as Santa Maria in Vallicella). The return journey of the icon from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Basilica of St. Mary Major was also disrupted by bad weather. In its return journey, the icon Salus Populi Romani had to stay for a long period of time in the Church of Gesù. It finally reached the Basilica of St. Mary Major on September 30th, 1835.
The Spread of the Epidemic: The Report of the Physicians, Newspapers and the Church:
In Rome, the medical practitioners exhorted people not to be afraid and not to worry. They also forbade the public from talking about deaths and burials, believing as if optimism and joy fortified people against the attacks of cholera. In addition, the medical practitioners urged people to keep their homes very clean. The General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Jan Roothaan (whom Pallotti knew very well), had personally vowed to celebrate the feast of The Immaculate Heart of Mary every year if the Jesuits in Rome who had given themselves generously for the care of the sick and were in the frontline fighting the contagion, were spared from the disease.
Despite all these attempts, by July 1837 the fear of the epidemic had penetrated all social levels. On July 5th Fr. Vincent Pallotti began a Triduum of prayers with a particular intention seeking favors for the people of Naples, the port city where the epidemic had already penetrated. In the Triduum, Pallotti also blessed the food eaten by infected people so that they may be protected by God.
On July 29th, Il Diario di Roma launched an attack on its front page on people who were spreading news about the cholera epidemic. It declared itself the right authority on the news pertaining to the spread of the epidemic and said: “[We] deny completely the ill-founded rumor already spread in Rome, that some individuals in the Capital had contracted the Asian cholera.”
But the people knew better. They gave little credit to the journals. They knew very well that the newspapers and journals only intended to avoid panic in the city. On August 6th, 1837, the icon of the Virgin (Salus Populi Romani) was again brought in procession to the Church of Gesù. This event was recorded by Il Diario di Roma. According to the report, a squad of soldiers on horseback went before the procession and the procession itself was led by the pupils of the Apostolic Homes and Orphanages. Following them were members of the clergy with candles or torches. The clergy also took turns reciting the rosary. Next in the procession was the icon surrounded by some Jesuits. Everyone else was shut off by the Swiss Guards. The procession went around Via Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale. Pope Gregory XVI, the College of Cardinals and the senator of Rome (Prince Orsini – Duke Domenico) joined in the procession as it reached Via del Quirinale. Together, the procession moved slowly towards the Church of Gesù where the Madonna was received by the General and members of the General Curia of the Society of Jesus. The litanies were then sung, and the pope concluded the procession with the final blessing.
On August 15th, a grand procession was organized from the Church of Gesù to bring the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani back to the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). Acting on the exhortation of the Cardinal Vicar, Fr. Vincent Pallotti workedt to organize a sizable group of clergymen who would walk barefoot with him in the procession. The group started its journey from the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans located in Via Giulia.
To organize this group of religious and diocesan clergy, Pallotti made the best use of all his acquaintances. Pallotti wrote to Fr. Efisio Marghinotti, one of his friends and collaborators: “I ask you humbly, if possible, to inform many clergy of tomorrow’s barefoot procession. Also inform the Abbot Bianchini that even if he could not walk barefoot he could at least direct [the procession]. Tell everyone to get at least twelve others or more [for the procession]. We meet in the Church of the Holy Spirit.” (OCL II, p. 199)
In spite of the efforts, the situation in Rome was not good. It is said that fear is the mother of all excesses. This was proved right. On the evening of August 14th, an English Language teacher was killed by a crowd of people near Piazza del Campid’oglio because the victim was believed to be an "anointer" who spread the disease by anointing people and things.
The optimism advised by the medical experts was not of much use. Neither could the prayers contain the natural course of the epidemic! Finally, on August 19th, 1837 Il Diario di Roma admitted what was already evident. It said that according to the opinions of the medical doctors, the Asian Cholera had entered Rome.
By the beginning of September, the Count Antonio Maria Plebani, who was residing in the region of Marche but whose son was studying in Rome, had already sent a letter filled with grievances to Pallotti. In the letter, he affirmed that there were reasons to worry this time: “cholera, earthquakes, wars, hunger …” Fr. Vincent Pallotti replied saying: “Let us seek God. Let us seek Him always and in all things. And we will find Him and in Him we will all be saved.” (OCL II, p. 206)
Meanwhile, in the same period of time, Giovanni Marchetti, a married lay person and a collaborator of Pallotti from Gubbio, wrote to Pallotti asking how he could escape the epidemic. Pallotti replied advising him not to escape from God, but to look for a way to not merit punishment of God. Pallotti wrote: “Hold firm to the maxim that there is no escaping from the Divine scourge. In order to not deserve it, it is better to attend to one’s proper duties.” (OCL II, p. 208)
Pallotti’s Response to Cholera:
Let us now look at the response of Pallotti to the cholera epidemic. Inside the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitansthere is a plaque with an inscription bearing the works undertaken by Pallotti as the rector of the church. The inscription reads: “From 1835 to 1846, St. Vincent Pallotti, the Roman priest, was the rector of this Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans:
· He founded the Union of the Catholic Apostolate.
· He founded a College for the Foreign Missions.
· He celebrated the First Epiphany Octave.
· He celebrated the Marian Month of May for the clergy and the faithful.
· He animated the spiritual conference of the clergy.
· During the cholera epidemic of 1837, the people of Rome recognized in him a holy priest and in his work ‘an apostolate of charity’.
In fact, during the cholera epidemic, the action of the clergy in general was exemplary. Pope Gregory XVI, who himself was old, made visits to hospitals, thus setting an example for the clergy. We should not be surprised, therefore, that during the epidemic, the charity of Fr. Vincent Pallotti and the members of the Union emerged in a special way to assist the needy in every part of the city. Already by August 19th, Pallotti requested the ministerial faculties for the forgiveness of reserved sins for his collaborators Melia and Michettoni. He asked for them in order: “to satisfy the multitude of penitents, who in the current circumstances approach the Holy Tribunal of penance in the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans.” (OCL II, pp.200/201)
Fr. Vincent Pallotti was fully committed – among many things - to assisting the sick and helping their families and also spending many hours in the confessional. Sr. Maria Colomba (a future Pallottine Sister) testified in this regard: "Several times I have seen him [Pallotti] in surplice and stole following the hearse that carried the dead." Here is another example: shortly after the end of the epidemic, Pallotti wrote to Mr. Cassini Tommaso apologizing that he was not able to visit a certain prisoner. Mr. Cassini Tommaso had asked Pallotti to visit the prisoner in Castel Sant’Angelo (The Mausoleum of Hadrian). Pallotti could not visit the prisoner because of the other works necessitated by the epidemic. “When at last I went – writes Pallotti – the person was no longer there.” (OCL II, p.234)
In order to respond to the numerous appeals that Pallotti received, he divided the city into sectors, and entrusted the sectors to the members of the Union of the Catholic Apostolate. He wrote shortly after: "In the time of cholera, The Pious Society placed a small box at the entrance of the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans. And it was accessible to all the poor. It was enough that the poor person wrote in a small piece of paper the name, the surname, the place of residence, the name of the parish, and the person’s need and placed it in the box. Then, two by two, the priests went to the place of the poor and cared for their needs.” (OOCC V, 139/140)
The members of the Union sought to help according to the need of the place or person; some helped with clothing and others with coupons for bread and meat; some helped bring lemons to cholera patients since lemons were then considered to be the most suitable medicine for cholera. Pallotti had noted this: “The priests of the Pious Society, night and day, went to the assistance of the cholera patients. The distribution of coupons for bread and meat had been a practice since the beginning of the Union in 1835, and continues even to this day.” (OOCC V, 139-140)
At last, on October 12th, the epidemic had been contained and it was declared that the epidemic had been defeated. Rome alone reported 5,419 deaths out of the population of 156,000. Among the deaths were some people who were very close to Fr. Vincent Pallotti. One such person, Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, died of cholera on June 9th, 1837. In spite of her popularity, many medical doctors did not participate in her burial. They did so in order not to infect other people with the disease. In a letter written on June 9th, 1837, Fr. Vincent Pallotti communicated the following to Fr. Felice Randanini in Vienna: “In Rome, yesterday died in secret a great Servant of God, who had been showered with many extraordinary gifts.” (OCL II, p.183)
The father of Pallotti, Peter Paul Pallotti, passed away on September 15th. He had gone to the New Church (Chiesa Nuova) to pray. There, he collapsed on the ground in front of the altar of St. Philip Neri. He was immediately rushed to his home. Even before Fr. Vincent Pallotti could arrive, he died. That same day, Fr. Pallotti dispatched three letters asking for suffrages in favor of his father "to whom I owe so much" (OCL II, 206/207)
As the year 1837 ended, two other deaths marked the life of Fr. Vincent Pallotti. First was the death of Fr. Bernardino Fazzini, Pallotti’s confessor for thirty years, on December 25th (Christmas Day). Second was the death of Fr. Gaspar del Bufalo, Pallotti’s friend and collaborator, and the founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
A few days later, in a letter to Randanini, the Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna, Pallotti wrote: “Today, it has been nine days since the death of the great missionary and the canon Fr. del Bufalo, and twelve days since the death of the Chaplain of the Apostolic Hospice of St. Michael a Ripa [Fr. Fazzini]. Two great saints! Pray for me that I may gain from the examples, advices, and exhortations that they gave me with their lives.” (OCL II, 232/233)
The Conclusion: The Monthly Retreat – Preparation for the Good Death:
And finally, I would like to highlight a theme: the preparation for death. How many of you, today, ask yourselves about the purposes of a monthly retreat? When you do that, you will find that a monthly retreat is:
· A nutritious aliment for prayer
· A renewed self-dedication to God
· A perfect and generous push into the apostolate
· A growth in fraternal love
They are all true and right, but traditionally, the monthly retreat had also been thought to be, among many other things, an exercise in preparation for death. Pallotti also speaks of it in the Rule of our Congregation. In other words, we can say that the objective of a monthly retreat is to prepare our mind and heart to face death, the undeniable reality! Firstly, we need to acknowledge it! Not just acknowledge, but we also need to overcome the fear of death. Thus, when death approaches, we will be better equipped to face it. Besides, acknowledging death would help us to appreciate our daily living by providing it with more meaning and richness. We give two examples.
The First Example:
It is taken from a letter written by Pallotti to a lay person, Luigi Nicoletti. Nicoletti was two years younger than Pallotti and like Pallotti, a Roman. But Pallotti had high respect for Nicoletti. Nicoletti died in 1851, just a year after St. Vincent Pallotti’s death. On September 20th, 1822 during his stay in Monte Compatri with the Carmelites, Pallotti had addressed a letter to Nicoletti. I now cite a large passage from the same letter:
Yesterday, as the sun was about to set, the Spirit by the infinite Mercy of God led me on a high solitary mountain [probably the 773 meter high Monte Salomone [a mountain] that is located along the road that leads from the town of Monte Compatri to the town of Rocca Priora]. Isolated from human association, looking towards heaven, I lost myself in prayer. And as I prayed, I remembered you distinctly. In fact, God had shown me that you had not gained much from the letter that you received last year from the well-known, caring and considerate Jesuit. From the letter, it was quite frightening to know that your death was close. But it was not God’s intention that you always had the thought of death on your mind so that you lived every day as the day of your death. I humbly ask you, with my face on the ground, to promise me not to spend any day without having at least for a few moments meditated on the great Principle of Death. Do not believe that this means that your passage to Eternity is near, but I say this, so that by responding to the grace of God, you will increasingly enrich yourself with the merits for Eternity. (OCL I, pp.155/156)
The Second Example:
As the cholera epidemic was spreading, the anxious and apprehensive Fr. Felice Randanini, the Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna, wrote to Pallotti several times. He felt that he had contracted the disease (cholera). But Fr. Vincent Pallotti reassured him writing: “Look for cholera as much as you want, but you will not be able to find it because it is not for you.” (OCL II, p.139) The other times when the young secretary was caught up in fear, Pallotti eased his fear by foretelling that he would see the secretary again in Rome. Pallotti wrote: “About the fear of your death, I tell you: I wait for you in Rome.” (OCL II, p.138). Pallotti wrote another time: “Be calm: cholera will not find you.” (OCL II, p.140) The secretary, accustomed more to the diplomatic language and less to the prophetic language, wondered at the certainty with which Pallotti had spoken. Once the immediate danger was over, Pallotti asked him to humble himself and to seek forgiveness for his fears and his weaknesses in the time of distress. Pallotti wrote: “Always and in every situation, you must live and should be able to say with that spirit and with that firm belief with which the Apostle Paul said: Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. Pray that the Lord grants me the same grace even though I am not worthy of it.” (OCL II, p.143)
You, [dear friends] certainly remember these famous sayings of Pallotti: “Time is precious, short, and it never comes back. I would like that time is given a high regard. I would like to insert in the faithful the highest regard for the time.” (OOCC X, 594); “Time is precious, short and irretrievable. I would like that with the grace of God I made good use of the time like a person who had come back to life from death used it to redeem the past.” (OOCC X, 553)
Dear confreres, the reactions in the face of death are varied and diverse. Some confuse awe with fear as Cardinal Ravasi said very recently, “and this is the most serious mistake one is likely to commit in this time of Coronavirus”. We need to distinguish between the fear and the awe in the presence of the Lord (‘Fear of God’). What is the difference between fear and ‘Fear of the Lord’? We can very well say that fear and ‘Fear of the Lord’ are not synonyms. “The thing I fear most is fear,” said the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. He also defined fear as the ‘bad advisor.’ ‘Fear of the Lord’ on the other hand is ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 1:7). “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Ps 34:11) To describe the success of the early Church, St. Luke writes in The Acts of the Apostles: “The church had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31). In fact, ‘Fear of the Lord’ actually brings about peace. And the paradox goes even further – ‘Fear of the Lord’ exists along with love. We read similarly in the Book of Deuteronomy: “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart with all your soul.” (Deut 10:12) Fear, on the other hand, cannot be interwoven with love. Thus writes the Apostle John in his first epistle: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment…” (1 John 4:18) On the contrary, ‘fearful respect’ for God is the source of great trust and thus wins over the fear.
It is now up to you (up to all of us) to allow this teaching to transform each one of us personally and to transform the life of the community.
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