Four hundred and fifty years ago, the great reformer, Charles Borromeo, had to face a horrible plague that spread to Milan, where he served as archbishop. Sometimes known as the Plague of Pestilence, it crippled the economy, devastated the food supply, brought sickness to half the citizens, and killed nearly twenty percent of the population, causing most civic leaders to flee. Borromeo remained. He put his faith into action by marshaling clergy to care for citizens, clean homes and streets, feed the hungry, and care for the sick and dying. He led the charitable and medical relief by spending his own inheritance and trading his family’s treasures to fight the pandemic. He believed strongly that God was trying to tell the people something very important through the outbreak; he was convinced that the church and its members had drifted away from The Lord’s message and needed to get back on track.
In spiritual direction, we often ask ourselves what God might be trying to tell us through particular circumstances in our lives. Many of us who value spiritual guidance gravitate to the third person of the Trinity to seek insight. Jesus’ references to the Holy Spirit remind us that the wind blows as it will; we cannot control it yet ought to heed it. We give attention to movements of the Spirit knowing that, in daily living, it periodically blows as a strong and mighty wind but more often it is like a soft whispering through trees or morning breeze. Also resembling tongues of fire, we sense the burning love of God inside us. Perhaps even like a descending dove, we might perceive an otherworldly presence when a cardinal lands nearby or an owl hoots in the darkness or a butterfly alights upon our shoulder. In those quiet and unexpected moments, we can gain insight into what God might be trying to tell us.
The sixteenth century, when Borromeo lived, was a time of Christian reformation like no other. Born during the Protestant Reformation, he witnessed people leaving the church in droves and dedicated himself to forming and reforming disciples of Jesus. Formed in the image and likeness of God, we know that forming involves informing people about The Lord and reforming ourselves, our faith community, and our society according to that formation. The most important thing we can do, therefore, is listen to God and respond to the graced activity of the Holy Spirit within us. When The Great Plague of Milan erupted fifty years after Saint Charles died, and an estimated one million citizens were killed because of it, the leaders exhumed the body of Archbishop Borromeo to call upon his intercession to combat the outbreak and help the people understand what God was trying to tell them.
A different age, no doubt, but there are parallels between that time and ours. Every age calls for reform: to be informed of Christ’s message and reminded that we are formed in God’s image. Some of my friends are emerging from sheltering-in-place twenty or thirty pounds lighter than they entered. As if competing to be the biggest losers, they are getting toned physically. Others are getting into shape spiritually by becoming “yes men,” i.e., they are developing stronger prayer habits via acquiescence to the will of God, as did Blessed Mother Mary. They are tuning in to the divine voice and offering their ascent to the workings of the Holy Spirit within them. From plague to plague, from shutting in to coming out, we hope to better grasp what it is that God is trying to tell us.
In our modern times, we have dealt with outbreaks (SARS, Ebola, MERS, HIV, Polio, Smallpox…) but not since the Spanish Influenza, 100 years ago, have we encountered a challenge as devastating as COVID-19. We may not each become big losers who get toned up physically or “yes men” who get tuned in spiritually but I hope that we do become better people who listen to the voice of our Creator, seek greater understanding of the message of Jesus, and are open to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Like Borromeo, I believe that God is trying to tell us something very important. I think it is connected with our formation and reformation. Perhaps Saint Charles can help us understand. We won’t have to dig up his body but we can conjure up his courage and trust and imitate him in reminding God’s people of our formation and purpose.