Faith, doubt and love during plagues

A central character in the novel The Plague by Albert Camus is Father Paneloux, a learned and militant Jesuit, an expert on the thought of Saint Augustine, and representing what Christian doctrine can offer in times of pestilence.  From his story, as Camus tells it, there are lessons that today’s pastors and churches should heed.

In the novel, when the bubonic plague was just beginning to manifest itself in the Algerian city of Oran, Father Paneloux preaches a sermon on a Sunday High Mass celebrated under the auspices of St. Roch, the patron saint of plagues.

It was a big event, with a huge congregation filled the nave, overflowing on to the steps and precincts. Father Paneloux had a powerful, rather emotional delivery, and at the outset lunged at his congregation in a fiery tone. He said: “Calamity has come on you, my brethren, and, my brethren, you deserved it.” After this initial salvo, he continues: “The first time this scourge appears in history, it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoh set himself up against the divine will, and the plague beat him to his knees. Thus from the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees.”

Father Paneloux, with fiery eloquence, preached that the congregation deserve punishment because of their iniquities: “If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff. There will be more chaff than wheat, few chosen of the many called.”

Today, we see this thinking again reflected by religious leaders who are framing the coronavirus crisis as a chastisement by God for human sinfulness. This is all our fault; repent and the virus will go away!

Thankfully, others reject this idea. That includes the Catholic Church where the Pope and bishops all over the world, including the Philippines, have risen up to the occasion – heeding science while still providing for the material and spiritual sustenance of the faithful.

In this first week of what could be a long lockdown, my family have been consoled by our ability to attend online the daily masses of Pope Francis broadcast from Santa Marta in Vatican City, in celebrating last Sunday’s Eucharist and Lenten recollection with Cardinal Chito Tagle from Coleggio Filippino in Rome, and in joining also online the daily vespers conducted with Neocatechumenal communities in the Redemptoris Mater International Mission Seminary based in Parañaque.

Eventually Father Paneloux in The Plague changed his mind when he witnessed the agonizing death of a young plague victim, a child actually.  This experience  radically changed his views about suffering, especially of the innocent. He found himself listening to the protests of his friend Dr Riuex, the main protagonist in The Plague:  “No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

In a second sermon recalled in the novel, the good priest is preaches Christian hope and faith rather than retribution. He asks: how could a good God do this to children. In a time when many are falling ill or even dying and where the poor has abandoned because of the pandemic, we may be asking ourselves the same question.

Father Paneloux proposes that whoever willed the plague, that is not an excuse to not do anything about it. Remembering an incident in Marseille when many monks fled because of a plague and only one stayed, he shouts “My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!”

The Gospel of John tomorrow, which is the fourth Sunday of Lent, recalls how Jesus’ disciples asked him about a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” – which means Sent -So he went and washed, and came back able to see. The neighbors of the blind man were astonished seeing him able to see.

God did not will it but through this man’s disability, God’s power will be made manifest.

God did not will the coronavirus to punish us. But this death and suffering will make manifest His love for us.

The person of faith will surely have doubts during a pestilence, but one must keep on loving – our families of course, the poor most especially. By doing that, we become witnesses to a loving and almighty God.

Through the coronavirus, by how much we love each other in these times, we make the works of God visible to the world.


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