St. Alphonsus in times of famine and epidemic


Between the last quarter of 1763 and the autumn of 1764, R. Tellería, biographer of our saint, painted St. Alphonsus who lived in those years, a situation similar (except for the differences) to the one we live today with the Covid 19 virus.

“Father of the poor” he was called, and he was so not only because he distributed all his goods to them but also because he put in the distribution the warmth of the soul, the paternal entrails of the one who loved them in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ.

After a long year of taking possession of St. Agatha of the Goths; her diocese and the kingdom of Naples suffered months of famine (people died in the streets and on the roads) and mortality (plague of typhus).

How St. Alphonsus, Bishop of St. Agatha the Goths, lived, suffered and acted:

– Months before the Autumn of 1763, Alphonsus, while travelling through the parishes of his Diocese, had “seen with a superior light” the frost (famine) that threatened his whole Diocese and the Kingdom of Naples.  For this purpose he bought 10 tons of beans and sent his secretary to provide himself with dry vegetables, to then distribute them to the poor.

– To make further purchases since the 10 tons of beans and the provisions of vegetables were gone in a flash, says R. Telleria: he had to sell or pawn: two valuable Episcopal rings, a golden breastplate, valuable tableware (spoons, forks…silver), the carriage and the mules…and other things; since the moneylenders did not want to give him credit because he was an old Bishop, a beggar and in debt.

– With some valuable objects from the episcopal see, refers his secretary Versella, we took a radical measure: to dent them so that they would not have buyers.

– He used all his ingenuity and eloquence to get help from the noble and rich of the Kingdom. His requests reached the Pope himself.

– As Bishop of St. Agatha, he had to be an intermediary, a peacemaker, between the people desperate for food and the wheat hoarders (municipal, dukes…etc.). Thanks to St. Alphonsus, the blood did not reach the river.

– Alfonso cried when he saw his people suffering from hunger and not being able to help them.

– He prayed to God and consoled his people by giving them material and spiritual bread (meditations, triduums…homilies…etc.)

After the summer of 1964, his Diocese and the Kingdom of Naples began to recover and the new crops from the countryside were feeding the people.

The typhus epidemic, which came immediately after the famine, did not reach his Diocese, but it did hit the capital of the Kingdom, Naples, hard. A. Telleria tells us that the ordinary and improvised hospitals were not able to cope with the demand: “they were piled up at the rate of 3 per bed and the beds were placed even on the staircase steps”. The infected reached about 500 per day and the deaths between 110 and 140 per day, tragic figures for that Kingdom. The Redemptorist Fr. Francis Margotta, procurator general of the Institute and rector of St. Angel of Cupolo, died of typhus.

After the situation of famine and epidemic in the Kingdom, during the months of spring and summer 1964, Alfonso began an intense pastoral activity “urging the disinfection of the consciences of the virus of injustice and immorality that the abnormal circumstances had inoculated them with”.

Alfonso lived and suffered with his people as a good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. While it is true that we should not repeat what he did because they are different realities. Today, the consequences of the Covid 19 virus have confined us to social isolation, hospitals have collapsed, the economy, thousands of people infected and dead…in addition to everything that is happening and that will come. The world will never be the same again.

In these difficult times, like our founder, the Redemptorist family, from its living reality, we are called to:

– To be witnesses to the Redeemer, “Apostles of strong faith”, passionate for God.

– To be compassionate to our people, to be close to them, physically and spiritually. To be with the wounded world. Today the digital media (WhatsApp, Facebook, internet…etc.) are a great platform to bring “joyful hope”, to transmit small catechesis, eucharist…etc. to announce with simplicity the gospel and to bring to all the copious redemption of Christ.

– To be in solidarity, to destine part of our economic resources to help the most needy: the elderly, children, the poor abandoned by the government. To help in small businesses that generate income for poor families…etc.

– To take care of our Common House (Laudato Si, Querido Amazonia) documents of Pope Francis that enlighten us in this reality.

– Today, when we are in quarantine, we should take advantage of this situation to strengthen our bonds of friendship in the Redemptorist community. For us in a time of grace to be together 24 hours a day. To practice “constant prayer”, to renew our religious commitment to “joyfully follow Christ the Saviour by sharing in His mystery”.

And many more initiatives that we can take under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In communion with Pope Francis and the whole Church we pray for all humanity in these difficult times it is going through. We ask for the protection and intercession of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, St. Alphonsus, St. Clement and all the saints, blessed and martyrs of the Congregation.

Fr. Grimaldo Garay Zapata C.Ss.R.

Cfr. R. Telleria, “San Alfonso Ma. De Ligorio, Fundador, Obispo y Doctor”. Tomo II. Ed. Perpetuo Socorro, Madrid 1951. Pág. 119-135.

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