Along the Way –
By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Early in the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I remember watching a young African physician from Doctors Without Borders speaking to a reporter about the suffering of those stricken with the disease and the urgent need for international help in containing the epidemic. At the end of the interview she was asked if she was afraid of catching the disease when she returned to West Africa. She smiled bravely and replied, “Yes, of course. But it is my duty as a physician to care for the sick.”
In the months following, thousands of patients in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have died of Ebola as the disease has spread from the rural districts to the crowded and impoverished neighborhoods of Monrovia, Conakry and Freetown. A number of physicians, nurses and other health care workers treating the sick have themselves become infected with the disease, some of whom have died.
As I watched that young doctor being interviewed, I thought of another incident, also in Africa, but from the first centuries of the Christian era. In the year 252 the Emperor Valerian began a persecution of Christians throughout the Roman empire. It was during this persecution in Rome that Pope St. Sixtus and his deacons (including St. Lawrence) were put to death by the Roman authorities.
In the great urban center of Alexandria, Egypt, there was mob violence against Christians who refused to renounce their faith and do homage to the emperor (who claimed divinity). However, after the first days of the persecution, most of the Christian community, along with their bishop, St. Dionysius the Great, and the priests and deacons were able to go underground to avoid being arrested and killed.
It was in the middle of the persecution that the plague broke out in the crowded city and soon spread throughout every neighborhood. The vast majority of those who were infected with the disease died. Medical care of the sick and even the burial of the dead broke down as the pagan inhabitants fled the city, terrified of being infected by the plague.
It was at this point the Christians, led by their bishop, St. Dionysius and their priests and deacons, emerged from hiding and began to care for their sick neighbors and to bury those who had died. St. Dionysius survived the epidemic but many of his priests, deacons and faithful died caring for the sick or burying the dead, many of whom had been their persecutors just a few days or weeks earlier.
It was St. Dionysius, who, after the plague had burned itself out, began commemorating as martyrs those Alexandrian Christians who had died caring for the living and the dead with such heroic charity. In the Roman martyrology, their feast day is observed on August 10th.
I’m struck by how, like that young physician from Doctors Without Borders, so many of the faithful of Alexandria and their priests and deacons were simply doing their duty by being compassionate to their neighbors, enemies as well as friends. On the Solemnity of Christ the King later this month, we will hear again the parable of the Last Judgment from the gospel of St. Matthew. Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, a stranger and you welcomed me, sick or imprisoned and you visited me.”
We take the works of mercy, which include burying the dead, for granted, I think, but each time we do our Christian duty by serving our neighbor with compassion, we witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
In West Africa Catholic Relief Services is engaging in this profound witness to Christ primarily through education about how to prevent infection with the Ebola virus as well as building much needed isolation wards for the treatment of those sick with the disease.
CRS, mindful that burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy, is helping to support the young men who have volunteered to collect the bodies of those who have died of Ebola and bury them. They work to help local people find new methods to prepare the bodies of family members and neighbors who have died of the Ebola for burial, that both protect against the spread of the deadly virus while respecting the grief of the survivors and the dignity of the dead.
A time honored ritual in West Africa is washing the bodies of the deceased and then clothing their bodies for burial. Unfortunately, those in unprotected contact with the skin and body fluids of those infected with Ebola are almost certain to become infected themselves and spread the disease. The present practice of burial teams, which is to arrive at a home or a hospital in full protective gear, spray the deceased with a chlorine solution, bag their bodies and take them away for burial, while necessary to protect against the virus, is profoundly traumatic for surviving family members.
As in most human cultures, West Africans of all religious beliefs show their love and care for those who have died by washing their bodies and clothing them for burial. Tragically, in the case of Ebola, this loving and reverent care for the dead is one of the most common ways in which the virus is contracted and spread. CRS reports that it is working with religious and community leaders, public health officials and the local communities served by CRS to find new ways to show respect to the bodies of those who have died while still effectively safeguarding the public health and preventing the spread of Ebola.
As always, thank you for your continuing prayer for those suffering from the Ebola virus in West Africa and for all those doing their duty as doctors, nurses, health care workers, gravediggers and on burial teams. Thank you too for your generous support for Catholic Relief Services and other charitable groups in these stricken countries.
Let us ask God to show us our neighbor in need of our love and service and may we, with joy, compassion and concern, do our duty towards him or her.
For more information about the work of CRS to find safe and dignified ways to bury Ebola victims see: http://crs.org/sierra-leone/ebola-outbreak-creating-safe-and-dignified-burials/.
For more information on the heroic work of physicians and other health professionals in West Africa and the work of virologists to understand the genetic sequencing of Ebola to help contain the virus, see http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/27/ebola-wars.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.