Imagine a world in the throes of a highly transmissible pandemic. The rule of thumb is that people don’t rush, stay home as much as possible, and avoid public events as much as possible. In a certain locality, however, a bishop insists: against evil, it is time to strengthen prayers. Not at home, but in churches. With novenas, processions and all kinds of devotions.
For some, this is nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence, but that year the mortality from the disease there was more than 14 times higher than in another city that followed health determinations, in the same country.
This story, reminiscent of discussions about contemporary Brazil, took place over 100 years ago.
It was the famous Spanish flu of 1918. Madrid, the capital of Spain, had 600,000 inhabitants – 2,500 of them died of the disease, or 0.4%. Zamora, capital of the province of the same name where the bishop maintained an intense religious program, lost 979 of its 17,183 inhabitants – or 5.7% of the population, slightly more than the 5% of the rest of the diocese, which had 12,371 dead in a universe of 247,341 inhabitants.
It was a real breakdown. As masses continued to be held daily, the province saw peaks with as many as 200 deaths per day, as reported on Oct. 12 in the press at the time. Bishop Antonio Álvaro Ballano (1876-1927) secured his place in earthly history as “the greatest denialist” of this epidemic.
“[Ele] organized masses and processions against the epidemic, highlighting the figure of São Roque, protector against the plague, “says historian Victor Missiato, professor at Mackenzie Brasília Presbyterian College, member of the Group for Psychosocial Studies and human development research at Mackenzie Presbyterian University (Brasília) and researcher at Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp).
Roque de Montpellier (c. 1295-1327), saint of the Catholic Church, is considered the protector against the plague and other contagious diseases. Little is known about his biography, but it is believed that he, born in the Montpellier region, left on a pilgrimage to Rome around the age of 20.
In the Lazio region, near the city of Viterbo, he found the small town of Acquapendente completely overwhelmed by the plague epidemic. He decided to volunteer to help the sick – and the reports turned into miraculous healings, in which he healed the patients only using a scalpel and the sign of the cross. From then on, he would have pursued a career as a popular and mystical healer, visiting the cities most affected by the plague.
But back to Zamora. Álvaro y Ballano has had a fantastic career in the Church hierarchy. Recognized as an intellectual, he quickly became a priest and began to teach Hebrew and philosophy at the seminary. He followed scientific advances at the turn of the 20th century with interest – but he did not see them as positive for humanity; on the contrary, he believed that science kept men away from God.
In 1913, at only 37 years old, he was appointed bishop of Zamora. In his first pastoral letter to the diocese, he cites the role of scientists Isaac Newton (1642-1726) and André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836). Not because of the grandeur of their discoveries, but rather by attributing to them humanity’s repulsion towards God.
When the flu began to invade Spain, Álvaro y Ballano decided to fight the virus with the weapons of faith.
“The element of sin as the cause of the epidemic was still used as a divine instrument against society,” Missiato contextualizes. “It is a long-standing tradition of Iberian Catholicism, dating back to medieval times.”
“Alvaro y Ballano bequeathed ‘our sins and our ingratitude’ epidemic punishment. The medical organs were strongly criticized by the bishop at the time.”
He determined that churches, not only in the capital Zamora, but also throughout the province, kept their doors open, their activities. And that they increase the devotions, with novenas and processions. As historian Missiato points out, “it’s not just a coincidence” the higher mortality that followed.
When Brazil experiences a moment of uncontrolled airing in Covid-19 and there is a legal dispute over whether or not to open religious temples, it is inevitable to compare the two historical episodes.
The Minister of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) Gilmar Mendes decided on Monday (5) to maintain a veto for the holding of religious services in the state of São Paulo, determined by Governor João Doria (PSDB) in order to contain the contagion of the coronavirus.
The ruling was against a preliminary injunction granted by Court Minister Kassio Nunes Marques, who on Saturday (3) launched religious celebrations across the country, provided measures to reduce contagion such as wearing masks and the limitation of the public to 25% of the population have been achieved capacity of the site.
Due to the conflict between the two decisions, the matter is expected to be taken to court during the STF plenary on Wednesday (7). The tendency is that the liberation of cults authorized by Marques is reversed.
“In both cases, the defense for the opening of services took place in the most expansive and deadly phases of the epidemic”, underlines Missiato.
“However, in Zamora, in addition to the cults, there were processions with high rates of settlements, the objective of which was to face the virus through prayer, through the cult of São Roque, considered the one of the patron saints against diseases of this type. In contemporary Brazil, in the face of developed information and technology, religious cults, for the most part, seek to adopt measures from a distance based on scientific methods, despite criticism leveled by several health agencies. “
Faith and health
Doctor in the history of health sciences and author of the book “The Spanish Flu in Bahia”, the historian Christiane Maria Cruz de Souza recalls that a similar episode occurred in Salvador when Brazil was undergoing the panic caused by the 1918 flu.
At the time, Catholic rites were not prohibited by the General Directorate of Public Health of Bahia, although this was contrary to the recommended prophylactic measures. The motivation was that these events enabled the faithful to plead for divine mercy.
According to the historian’s research, Friday’s pilgrimages to Senhor do Bonfim Church recorded a larger-than-normal audience during this period.
Devotion to Senhor do Bonfim was also linked to healing. The image was enthroned in the Bahian temple in 1745, brought by Portuguese captain Theodozio Rodrigues de Faria, a great devotee of Senhor do Bonfim. According to tradition, praying for him would guarantee the Bahian people protection against hunger, drought and, yes, the plague.
At the height of the Spanish flu, they decided that the image should not be on the high altar. They placed it on the body of the nave of the church so that it was closer to the faithful. And the faithful kissed the feet of the sacred image, without fear of being contaminated.
“During the flu season [espanhola], he was discouraged that people would stay inside, crowded, because of the [risco do] Contagion. But here in Bahia, they did not respect that, “Souza said.” They made processions, went to church to kiss the saint’s feet. Imagine: kissing the foot of a saint in the middle of [disseminação de] a contagious disease. People felt protected in the space of the sacred. “
Also according to an investigation by the historian, the Church of the Third Order of Carmo, also of Salvador, did the same with the image of São Roque.
“Faith serves as spiritual comfort, as hope for healing the physical body, as relief from fear and anguish,” comments Souza. “In these times the priests explore this a bit, too. [com o discurso de] that the epidemic is the result of the sin of men, that there must be a sacrifice to atone for guilt, to be freed from evil. These things happen during epidemic crises. “
“The fragile people resort to a higher force to face the fear of death, the anguish of the unknown, of what escapes the human control”, analyzes the historian. “Epidemics tend to get out of hand. So it’s kind of a defense mechanism to seek help from a higher force, a spiritual force.”
Missiato shares a similar point of view.
“In times of serious social, political and health crisis, it is common to see certain situations in which the name of faith is used as a form of social manifestation,” contextualizes. “We underline, however, the plurality of actions of religious institutions, in view of the different degrees of dialogue and respect for the measures put in place by health agencies.”
“In the case of Zamora, the radical and probably suicidal action of Álvaro y Ballano was not followed by all the religious, given that many religious spaces have given way to the treatment of the epidemic”, emphasizes he does. “In Brazil, faced with an extremely polarizing political situation, the different dissonances have influenced the current chaotic situation in the prevention and treatment against Covid. Such a polarization ends up directly influencing the different positions of the various Brazilian religious centers.