Getting in touch with our common vulnerability – an essential path to mercy

From La Croix, April 2020. 

St. Thomas Aquinas says that not everyone is capable of practicing the virtue of mercy. He says only those who are in some way conscious of their own vulnerability can be merciful.  The COVID-19 pandemic uncovers within us what we might have kept hidden for too long now: our common vulnerability. We are all made of the same stuff. We are all brothers and sisters.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways unprecedented in recent history, or so we have been told.  However, it shares some characteristics with other recent crises, like the tragic heat wave that hit Europe in 2003, resulting in the death of 70,000 persons, 15,000 of them in France alone.

What links both health crises is that, in each case, the large majority of victims were the elderly, or younger persons with pre-existing conditions.   One wonders whether, beyond what concerns global health, one should consider who might be more affected (elderly) and whether the exclusion of vulnerable persons from our worldview deserves our attention.

Other health crises highlight human vulnerability. Admittedly, those crises are far removed from us in both time and culture. However, they might help us shed light on how we can respond as Christians, or indeed as members of the human family.

The lepers and two friends who were bishops

I’m thinking of the leprosy epidemic that swept mercilessly across Cappadocia (present day central-Turkey) from the second to the fifth centuries and beyond.

Historical accounts stress how persons suffering from leprosy were rejected by their own family members and often abandoned in the surrounding forests and hills, with very limited food.  The lepers who remained in the towns and villages would often gather in groups, clad in nothing but tattered rags, and would beg for food on street corners, in village squares and under the porticos.  They would groan in pain or sing to draw the attention of passersby. They were overcome by hunger and thirst, and longed not only for a piece of stale bread or a cup of water, but perhaps even more for a glance of compassion.  Some villagers would stop and attend to their needs. Many, however, would shun them, because of fear of contagion (which would, of course, be justified) or vicious disregard.  With disgust, family members and villagers avoided them, often believing that the illness was the result of God’s wrath for their sins, or simply because they were thought to be in some way impure.

Enter Basil the Great (330-379), the famous bishop of Caesarea, a metropolitan city of Cappadocia. Shocked and dismayed at what he sees, he comes up with a project that changes history.  He decides to build a complex, a hospice for lepers. It is the first ever of its kind and turns out to be the prototype of the hospital, as we know it. The Basileias, as it would eventually be known, would welcome lepers, provide them with all they might need, aided by paid and unpaid workers.

This mammoth task faces, however, a major limitation: it requires large amounts of money. So Basil requests the help of his closest friend and bishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390).

Gregory, known for his oratory skills, composes a homily later known as De pauperibus amandis (On the Love of the Poor, or simply Oration 14). He delivers it at festivals, religious and non-religious alike, with the aim of encouraging the richer members of society to donate money for Basil’s noble cause.

Gregory exhorts his listeners using various techniques. He appeals to their emotions, vividly describing the all-too common scenes of the lepers strewn on the streets, in order to sensitize his listeners to their plight.

Setting apart, drawing closer

Lepers should not be shunned as if they did not belong to the human race. Their illness is not an external manifestation of their guilt. Rather, if anything, Gregory insists, their experience of suffering makes them resemble the crucified Christ even more closely.  For this reason, the bishop says, their needs must be attended to all the more. They should be offered food and water, clothed and treated as dear brothers and sisters, as they are indeed.

We are, hence, presented with a paradox. Basil wants to remove the lepers from the street corners and village squares, and house them, instead, in the leper asylum where they can be more easily given care.  But Gregory exhorts his listeners not to hesitate to approach the lepers and to practice acts of mercy with them, just as they would to members of their own family.

Basil and Gregory want the lepers to find a hospitable shelter where they can be safe and cared for, but this can only happen if they are first welcomed in the hearts of the townspeople, even though they will not be close to them in person.

In other words, the two bishops recognize that caring the lepers in the Basileias requires a concerted response of solidarity.

They call on the citizens of Cappadocia to treat lepers as part of their kin as they indeed are, if not by virtue of being born in the same family, at least by virtue of being brothers and sisters through sharing the common and vulnerable human nature.

This page of our past history brings me back to our current situation. Leprosy was probably a skin disease, not the Hansen’s disease we know. Thus, it was probably not infectious.

However, somewhat like the healthy Cappadocian citizens and the lepers housed in the Basileias, we are paradoxically asked to stay away from persons affected with COVID-19.

We are told to exercise social distancing among us, while practicing solidarity with the more vulnerable persons of our communities. Distancing ourselves physically does not mean we cannot find ways of embodying solidarity in very concrete and practical ways.

Practicing solidarity and showing mercy

Some heartening initiatives are already occurring, while others leave much to be desired. Countries have been closing their borders to contain the spreading of the infection, but better coordination of resources among states, rather than competition for them–e.g., medical or food supplies, personnel, or even medical data–is called for.

Many parishes around the world are live-streaming their Masses to ensure that their people find spiritual nourishment during this precarious time. Thanks to their many contacts, some parishes are also coordinating the distribution of goods, through volunteers, to those who cannot leave home.

These responses recall the dimension of solidarity that is part of the Eucharistic liturgy. When the Eucharist was celebrated in the early Church, gifts, which included the bread and wine, were brought to the presider and deacons then distributed them to the poor.

Church-run agencies such as Caritas Internationalis are pooling resources to check in on persons needing some kind of help. The Sant’Egidio Community has set up a telephone line that vulnerable persons can call to ask for any kind of help or advice.

In Massachusetts, and most likely in other parts of the United States, mutual-aid networks are extending their reach towards those who are most in need.

It is often young people with more time on their hands now often that run these networks. They create and match lists of needs and services in the neighborhoods, thus overcoming individualism and creating a stronger sense of community.

Generous persons are sharing the stash of goods they hoarded in an initial fit of panic with their needy neighbor. They range from foodstuffs to toiletries and other hygiene products.

Turing again to the past, when Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) speaks of the virtue of mercy, he describes it by echoing the words of Augustine (354-430) in the City of God:

Heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him or her if we can.”

But Aquinas adds that not everyone is capable of practicing the virtue of mercy. He says only those who are in some way conscious of their own vulnerability can be merciful.  The COVID-19 pandemic uncovers within us what we might have kept hidden for too long now: our common vulnerability. We are all made of the same stuff. We are all brothers and sisters.

Because of our shared vulnerable humanity, we are all kin, and this kinship impels us to care for others in the best way we can – with our imagination, creativity, dedication and generosity.

Care starts by acknowledging and embracing our own shared vulnerability. This is what are past history teaches us. And it is what we are experience in our present.

Carlo Calleja is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Malta. He recently completed a doctorate in Christian ethics at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

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