In this regard, we would like to recall three well-known episodes in the life of our Father Founder: one at the beginning of his priestly ministry in Viladrau; the other, during his episcopal ministry in Santiago de Cuba; and the last, during his exile in Paris.
When he returned from Rome in May 1840, he was assigned as regent to the small town of Viladrau. They were still suffering the harsh effects of the First Carlist War (1833-1840). In the words of Fr Claret: “That town [Viladrau] had been so worked over by the civil war, since it had been sacked at least thirteen times, there had been surprise attacks from both factions, fires and deaths…. (Aut. 179). Before that, he had said: “Since Viladrau was not a fortified town, so every now and then they came from one party or another; and, since doctors are usually public figures, this is why they were persecuted by all parties, and thus the population was left without a doctor” (Aut. 170). Faced with this pressing reality in the field of health, the young priest’s response was: “And so I had to become a corporal and spiritual doctor, either because of the knowledge I had, or because of the studies I made in the medical books I obtained; and, when some doubtful case arose, I looked at the books, and the Lord so blessed the remedies, that of all those I visited none died (Aut. 171).
The year 1852 was very hard for Archbishop Claret. From August until December, the Island of Cuba suffered several earthquakes that caused serious damages in many population centres. In addition, in October, the city of Santiago, in a special way, began to suffer a devastating epidemic of the morbid cholera, that arrived to take the life of 2,734 inhabitants. The panorama of the city was macabre: people asking for help, abandoned, bodies piled up because no one dared touch them. On December 20, Claret wrote to the Apostolic Nuncio saying: ” The Lord God tries us in every way, especially with earthquakes, pestilence and, as if that were not enough, a fire has been added to this City of Santiago, which is the city that has suffered the most, so that twice I have suspended the Mission and Visit, to come to console and assist the people of this City (EC., I, 733). Claret interpreted these events as “trials” or “punishments”, which God permitted in order to awaken his children, as the popular theology of that time used to understand it; but he did not stop at denouncing sins, but his pastoral response was not long in coming. He immediately interrupted his visit in Bayamo and travelled to the epicentre of the maladies to console the victims. Twice a day he visited the crowded hospitals, consoling, confessing and giving financial assistance to the poorest. His response was not isolated, but he gave it together with all the clergy, who came together to act prudently as good shepherds; this is how he explains it in his Autobiography: “During the plague or cholera, all the clergy behaved very well day and night. I and all the priests were always among the sick, helping them spiritually and corporally; only one died and he was a victim of charity…”. (Aut. 537). This hero was Fr. Francisco de la Vega y Mustelier. It is surprising that in the midst of so many infected people and the closeness that the bishop and the priests had with them, only one priest died; proof of the prudence and the security measures that they knew how to apply when they expressed their apostolic zeal.
In Paris, while the elderly archbishop was accompanying Queen Isabel II into exile, he could not remain indifferent to a reality that shocked him; he explained this in a letter: “In this [Paris], foreigners need protection, or else they despair and commit suicide (I was horrified the other day when I read that those who commit suicide in Paris number 1,200 per year)” (EC., II, 1375). The missionary was horrified and could not remain with his arms folded. He could have justified himself by saying that he was a weary old man or an exile; however, as he was accustomed to the challenges he faced, he tried to give an effective response. He explained this in a letter: “Our Lord wanted to make use of me to found some conferences of the Holy Family, Jesus, Joseph and Mary, in order to help the Spanish, men, women and children, who come to this [Paris] from the Peninsula or from America… For now, there will remain two conferences of the Holy Family: one for men and one for women, whose purpose is to protect, to give food to as many Spaniards as possible… (EC., II, 1375).
These episodes in the missionary life of our Father and Founder can surely shed light on the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves.
CESC, Vic, April 2020