Justinian’s Flea, Redux

Sometime in the early 6th Century in Africa, a bacterium that caused mild illness found a promising new host: a flea.  Through that flea and countless others, it morphed into something quite different.  Migrating up the Nile River on the bodies of rats, it came to the granaries of Alexandria. Then it crossed by ship in A.D. 542 to the markets of Constantinople.

Within five months, it killed up to half of the Byzantine capital’s populace.  The plague derailed the Emperor Justinian’s efforts to restore the Roman Empire in the West.  It crippled both the Byzantine and Persian Empires for generations.  It left both empires ripe for Islamic expansion in the next century.  And it effectively ended the age of Late Antiquity.

Or so argues William Rosen in his compelling 2007 story of Europe’s first great pandemic, Justinian’s Flea.  The same theme – the power of disease to drive civilizational change – was picked up this past weekend (March 28-29) by Yale historian Frank Snowden in a Wall Street Journal profile.  Snowden focused largely on Europe’s Medieval and Renaissance bouts of the Black Plague.  Each of these pandemics happened in Christian cultures.  On those who survived the ordeal, “it impressed the idea that ‘you could be struck down at any moment without warning,’ so you should focus on your immortal soul.”

This led to widespread “repentance, self-chastisement, and prayer.”  Demands on the churches were heavy.  In ministering to the ill, clergy and religious sustained stunningly high losses.  These losses, in turn, colored the character and course of the churches for many decades.

Our current virus situation is both different from – and similar to – pandemics in the past.  It’s different in its lethality.  Coronavirus is a serious matter, with high risk for certain age and health groups, and very contagious.  But the great majority of people who contract it will recover.  Today’s pandemic is also different, and far more survivable, due to the ability of medical authorities to understand and respond to the crisis.

At the same time, today’s crisis is similar to the past in the shadow of mortality it casts over cultures that had grown fat for decades in self-confidence, distractions, and wealth.  Everyone knows that he or she will one day die.  But we’ve become very skilled at evading the thought it will actually happen to us.  For rich nations and their elites, the party’s over.  At least for a while.

One other notable fact makes this crisis different: people’s religious response.  In Iran and other Muslim countries, crowds have stormed closed mosques in order to worship.  By contrast, in the West, many Christians have voiced their frustration with the closure of churches, but most seem to accept the prudence of the decision.

Sunday Mass is widely available to follow online.  So are retreats, reflections, and Catholic courses that fill the worship void.  Many priests are hearing confessions in carefully sanitized and regulated environments.  Adoration of the Eucharist, with proper social distancing, happens in some parishes for several hours every day.

But the sense of a widely shared Christian culture with a language that gave meaning to suffering has been lost – and with it, a common turn to “repentance, self-chastisement, and prayer.”  As a nation, we’ve looked away for decades as others scrubbed God out of our vocabulary, our thinking, and the institutions that support our public life.  Now that we need him, many people don’t have the words or memories to seek him out.

The most poignant lesson for the faithful as this crisis continues may be the sense of loss and depression felt by many of our priests.  The pastor of my parish turned a dying community around in the space of three years.  He brought it back to life.  He restored a sense of purpose.  He made it a joy again to take part in the celebration of Mass.

He’s a lucky one.  He comes from a large family with plenty of loving relatives.  He’s not totally alone; some of his brother priests have nothing but an empty rectory.  But much of his life as the pastor of a living community has been shuttered now for weeks.

The parish school is closed.  The contributions that sustain parish life, which had greatly improved, have now dropped off because no one’s in church.  And some of the tepid will simply not come back when the church reopens.  They were on the fence.  Now they’re off.

The “civilizational change” wrought by the coronavirus may be less drastic than pandemics in the past.  But for American Christians, it may clarify loyalties in a sobering and uniquely painful way.

Shortly before he died, the great French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos wrote that as long as Christian faith and love “hadn’t grown cold in the world, as long as the world had its share of saints, certain truths could be forgotten.  Now [those truths] are reappearing again, like a rock at low tide.  It is sanctity and the saints who maintain the interior life without which humanity must debase itself to the point of extinction.”

The illness in the world around us this year, as we ready ourselves for Holy Week, holds a mirror up to our real desires and concerns.  It’s an opportunity to pray for those suffering with the virus; to remember and pray for our priests; to support each other in whatever ways we can; and to treasure the precious time we have with those we hold dear.  It’s also an invitation to examine the infection of worldliness in our own hearts.

Life, we’re now forced to remember, is fragile and brief.  No one can make us give ourselves fully and sincerely to God. But if there were ever a time to do it, this is it.


*Image: Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken by Josse Lieferinxe (aka, the Master of St. Sebastian), c. 1498 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD]

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church .