Mary in a Time of Pandemic

The Lenten practice we did not ask for – stay at home!

What can we learn from history?

I think it is safe to say none of us have ever experienced anything like this before. Even the oldest among us were not alive some 100 years ago during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

This pandemic killed about 50 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the United States.

Mortality was high in three groups – people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older.

The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.

Paris at the time Catherine Labouré

But it is not the first time in the history of the Vincentian Family and the people of Paris. Almost 200 years ago, Mary told Catherine Labouré:

“God wishes to charge you with a mission.” …She continued… “Times are evil in France and in the world.”

The second of three pandemics in the 19th century hit Paris full force around this time (in 1832). In just 10 days the death toll reached 10,000. Altogether, there were more than 18,400 deaths officially recorded. In fact, it has. been said that there were probably over 20,000 in Paris alone, since official statistics and the press artificially depressed the figures to avoid undue panic.

Closer to home here in Philadelphia a historian with the Smithsonian Museum writes:

A public official insisted on holding a scheduled parade to raise bonds at the end of WW I. Krusen’s decision to let the parade go on was based on two fears. He believed that a quarantine might cause a general panic.And, like many local officials, Krusen was under extreme pressure to meet bond quotas, which were considered a gauge of patriotism.

Caught between the demands of federal officials and the public welfare, he picked wrong. A political appointee, Krusen publicly denied that influenza was a threat, saying with assurance that the few military deaths were “old-fashioned influenza or grip.” Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.

Back to Paris…

At the height of the pandemic, the doors of our Vincentian motherhouse were opened to the sick at great risk.

People were just beginning to hear about the Medal! A 21-year-old student by the name of Fredrick Ozanam was one of the first to spread the word about what the people had begun calling the Miraculous Medal.

Why the name change?

In Paris, at the school in the Place du Louvre, little Caroline Nenain (8 years old) from the parish grammar school was the only one in her class not to wear the Medal and the only one to catch cholera. The Sisters gave her a Medal and she recovered straight away. By the next day she was back in the classroom.

There were also startling conversions.

Mercifully this second pandemic peaked relatively quickly. However, the medal itself seemed to spread miraculously! There were less than 50,000 before the end of the pandemic. In the next ten years, more than 100,000,000. By the time Catherine died 30 years later the number rose to more than 1,000,000,000.

So was the cholera epidemic responsible for ‘launching’ the Medal?

One of the greatest scholars of that century thinks that while the theory seems obvious it does not stand up to scrutiny. The great increase in the Medal’s diffusion had not begun when the epidemic ceased in the autumn of 1832.

Mary’s Message to Us

She also had a message for each of us. “Come to the foot of the altar. There graces will be shed upon all who ask for them.”

So a question for us today as we face increasing restrictions is how can we come to the foot of the altar?

We do not live in Paris where we can see the chair in which Mary sat. Nor can everyone come to Philadelphia. In these coming days, many of the Marian Shrines around the world have been affected. For example, the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes has announced that the baths will be closed until further notice.

Many ways of heeding the call “Come to the Altar”

But think for a moment! How many people are coming to the foot of the altar at The Miraculous Media Shrine via live-streamed TV? Let me quickly point out that the Shrine has beautifully revised its website – They are also providing a powerful Lenten series, Amazing Grace, where ordinary people and young people offer their inspiring experience of everyday grace. Not only that, during this time of uncertainty and concern, Shrine Director Fr. Michael Carroll is presenting daily video messages of comfort and hope. Visit the Shrine’s website at or their Facebook page to follow.

How many people pray the novena in the altar of their own home.

As beautiful and blessed as this and other Marian shrine are today, we can heed Mary’s call to “Come to the foot of the altar” wherever we are. We can ask for those unasked from blessings and graces.

We can also ask ourselves what lessons can we learn from the new normal of our restricted social interaction and lack of face-to-face contacts.

So let’s look at our situation today to see what we can learn from it.

First, what can we learn much from Christ’s crucifixion?

  • At the most visible level, it was not good!
  • It was not good the humans kill an innocent man who they did not agree with.
  • It certainly did not feel that way to Jesus as he was scourged and spat on.
  • In the garden, he asked to be dispensed.
  • On the cross, he asked why have you forgotten me.

And yet we know that his suffering and death brought salvation for all.  Oh Happy Fault!

The lessons we can relearn

  • We can relearn the message of the cross that ultimately, good can come from evil.
  • We can relearn that we are our brother’s keeper. Remember the rich man and the food he did not share with Lazarus.
  • We can relearn that we are not Democrats or Republicans, Americans or Chinese, but brothers and sisters.
  • We can relearn how to relate to one another instead of retreating into our phone even as we eat together.
  • We can relearn the importance of being able to visit our loved ones, gather together for common forms of entertainment, so many things we have come to take for granted.
  • We can relearn our dependence on God!

With God’s help through the intercession of Mary, God will see us through this and we will all learn those important lessons.

Help us O most Compassionate Virgin Mary to come to the foot of the altar whether in the great shrines or in the shrines in our rooms and ask for grace. 


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