“In 250 to 262, at the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome.”
What kind of disease was the Plague of Cyprian?
According to Wikipedia, The Plague of Cyprian, was either a hemorrhagic virus like Ebola, or an influenza virus like COVID-19.
“Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius of Carthage, wrote of the plague at Carthage: ‘Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.’”
Then, in 250 AD, to make matters worse, Emperor Decius issued an edict persecuting all who refused to bow to the pagan gods of his Empire, excepting only the Jews from this penalty of death.
“By 251 the plague swept into Carthage in North Africa. Piles of the dead rotted in the streets, where they had been abandoned by their families. The pagans, casting about for causes, fingered the Christians, and a severe empire-wide persecution erupted. Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christians to sacrifice to the gods on pain of death [execution]. Carthage’s bishop, Cyprian, enjoined the city’s Christians to give aid to their persecutors and to care for the sick. He urged the rich to donate funds and the poor to volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans. Under Cyprian’s direction, Christians buried the dead left in the streets and cared for the sick and the dying. For five years he stood in the breach, organizing relief efforts until he was forced into exile [by imperial forces].”
(Ferngren, “A New Era in Roman Healthcare”).
“Cyprian implored his flock to minister to the physical needs of their oppressors, regardless of the danger posed to themselves by both persecution and contagion:
‘But nevertheless it disturbs some that the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the heathen, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy.’
’‘[F]urther, beloved brethren, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that a pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend to the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence; whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardor of their raging avarice even by the fear of death [sound familiar?]; whether the haughty bend their neck; whether the wicked soften their boldness; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then bestow anything, and give when they are to die without heirs. Even though this mortality conferred nothing else, it has granted this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.’”(St. Cyprian, On Mortality in Ferngren, “A New Era in Roman Healthcare”).
As St. Cyprian preached on the horrors of another plague in another time, but under the sovereign of the same Church and our same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also should preach:
“‘What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment.’”
COVID-19, St. Cyprian, and Our Response
What was most important was that the Church continued to be the Church in this time of crisis, not only gathering together in encouragement and daily Mass, but also in extending their hands to the suffering sick. Christians responded neither with scorn, nor hate, and least of all with apathy for the the perishing. All the more filled with Christ-ian compassion, all the more animated with resurrectionate agape, triumphing over imperial trumpery and stoic dispassion, the holy Church submitted themselves to be life bringers and givers of the Holy Spirit of Our Lord.
The Holy Spirit breathed life through the early Church into the walking dead. This is not mere metaphor. This is not allegory. This is historical truth. The Church brought new life to the suffering sick. The Church acted as the Body of the Good Samaritan, the Healer, Christus Medicus. The Church healed, beginning the tradition of what became hospitals and modern medicine.
But let us remember that the root of the tree is not the leaf. The root of medicine is not the modern antiseptic hospital, but rather Christian hosting hospitality. Hospitality is caring for the sick and tending to the suffering flocks of Christians and pagans alike.
Let us proceed forth from the Father as Christs of the Holy Spirit united in one Body, an affront to the World Empire as much as a front for the healing of the nations. Let us bring the gift of not only healing, but also shalom, not only salve, but also salvation, not merely medicine, but, the more greatly, sanctification, the glory of being in the ark and at home once again. Through the storms, in all the world, let us learn, dear Father, to not fear death and be like the saints.
1. St. Cyprian, On Mortality, Translated by Ernest Wallis. http://www.ewt/ANF5-15.txt
2. Ferngren, Gary B., “A New Era in Roman Healthcare: How the Early Church Transformed the Roman Empire’s Treatment of the Sick”, Christian History, Issue 101: Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church. Ferngren is a Professor of History at Oregon State University.
3. Pontius of Carthage, Life of Cyprian. Transl. Ernest Wallis, c. 1885. Online at Christian Classics Etherial Library.4. Wikipedia “The Plague of St. Cyprian.” Accessed March 13, 2020.
Jacob is a junior pursuing degrees in Bioscience and Philosophy as a Junior at Harding University, seeking to learn how the love for God’s creation and God’s people converge through mutual care.