Pope Francis entrusted to Jesus' mother the suffering and anguish of millions of people affected…
Classic literature helps put the pandemic in perspective
Does literature have anything to say about the pandemic? Actually, more than you might think.
They may not be as numerous as science fiction and romance novels, detective stories and westerns, but works of the imagination that involve epidemics and plagues make up a distinct literary subset. Along with telling powerful stories, some raise serious theological questions.
In modern times, two works set against the background of bubonic plague deserve special mention — “The Plague,” by French author Albert Camus, and “The Betrothed” (I Promessi Sposi), by Italy’s Alessandro Manzoni. Appearing more than a century apart, the books are unalike in many ways, but the deeper meaning of sickness and death is a major theme of both. Both, in fact, contain remarkable sermons dealing with the subject.
Start with “The Plague.” Published in 1947 and set in Oran, a coastal city in Algeria, which at that time was a French colony, the story concerns an outbreak of bubonic plague supposed to have occurred a few years earlier. Its central character is a French doctor, Bernard Rieux, through whose eyes events are seen.
On one level, “The Plague” is about people facing a deadly disease. Others see it, no doubt correctly, as an allegory about the rise of fascism and Nazism. But on still another level, it addresses the question of what meaning — if any — human suffering has.
Although he was not a religious believer, Camus was a reflective man who took seriously what religion had to say about calamities that cause hideous agony even to the innocent. In the book, a religious answer to that question appears in a sermon by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. The narrator paraphrases it like this:
“Who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux, would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the cross, he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony.
“And he would boldly say to those who listened to his words today: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. … God has vouchsafed to his creatures an ordeal such that they must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.”
Published in 1827, Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” is no less serious but at the same time upbeat and widely regarded as a masterpiece of world literature. It contains a long section near the end describing an outbreak of plague in and around Milan in 1629-31 that carried off nearly half of the population. Its historically accurate picture of events, scrupulously researched and documented by the author, is one of its high points.
Tracing the trials and tribulations of a pair of young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, the story’s many plots and subplots are too complex to summarize here. Suffice to say that the dozens of characters and settings offer a vivid panorama of Italian society — and of the human condition in any time and place.
In the book, a Capuchin priest named Father Felice tries to explain why God lets some people survive the plague while others die. The passage, in the form of a sermon to survivors about to leave the improvised hospital where less fortunate victims wait for death, reads in part:
“‘Let us give thought to the many thousands which have left this place by that road,’ said the Capuchin, pointing over his own shoulder to the gate that leads to the cemetery. … ‘Let us give heed to the many thousands who must remain here today, and who do not know by which road they will leave when their time comes. Let us take heed for ourselves, so small a band, who leave it in safety. …
“Blessed be the Lord! … Blessed in death and blessed in health! Blessed in the choice that he has made in saving us. And why did he make that choice, my children? Was it not to make us feel more keenly that this life is a gift of his hands, to be cherished as a thing given by him, to be used in works which we can offer up to him? Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbors?”
In the end, suffering remains opaque, a mystery beyond the power of either a Manzoni or a Camus to explain. But if the mystery persists, there is at least a glimpse of an explanation in a remarkable papal document: Pope St. John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).
This is an extended reflection — part theology, part spirituality — on words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians: “I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”
What that means, according to St. John Paul, is that to suffer is to have a part in the redemptive suffering of Jesus. The pope writes:
“The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering.
“In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings — in any part of the world and at any time in history — to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the redemption of the world” (Salvifici Doloris, No. 24).
Worth pondering in the solitude of pandemic-imposed quarantine.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.