Gregory XVI and the epidemic of his time


The cholera that flagellated Europe in the 1800s, started off on the shores of the Ganges, India, in 1817. The passage of the disease was slow but relentless. The pandemic made its way into China and Japan, then Russia and thus spread to the Scandinavian countries, England and Ireland. From there, during the 1830s, it reached America with the immigrant-ships, striking Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Peru and Chile. In 1832 it arrived in Paris, then Spain and finally in July 1835, it passed through the northern Italian borders at Nice, Genoa and Turin.

The historian, Gaetano Moroni (1802-1883), in his famous Dictionary of Erudition, when addressing the “destructive and desolating scourge of the Indian or Asian Cholera morbus ” calls it “pestilence” and presents it in these terms: “pestilence signifies every sort of scourge, a divine chastisement which incites salutary dread and fright in everyone, by jolting obstinate sinners into true repentance, effecting wonderful results, sins being the perennial cause of all kinds of adversity.” (Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica, Tipografia Emiliana, Venezia 1840-1861, vol. 52, p. 219).

Gregory XVI, elected to the Papal Throne in 1831, as early as 1835, sent a medical commission to Paris to have a scientific report on the disease, its nature being unknown. In Italy, with the first appearance of this plague, a lively debate ensued between two medical schools of thought: the “contagionists” and the “epidemists” to establish whether cholera was a contagious or epidemic disease. The “contagionists” retained that the spread of the disease was due to direct or indirect contact with the infected, and, consequently, the measures to contain it should consist in the institution of a “sanitary-cordon” and quarantine. The “epidemists” affirmed, on the other hand, that the cause of the disease should be sought in bad hygienic conditions and the miasma of the atmosphere, and were against the isolation and quarantine measures, given that it is impossible to stop air from circulating. (Eugenia Tognotti, Il mostro asiatico. Storia del colera in Italia, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2000).

Generally the monarchal governments leaned towards the “contagionist” hypothesis, whereas the liberals and the Carbonari, retained tyrannical, all initiatives detrimental to individual freedom and thus sustained the epidemist hypothesis; when the plague hit the Two Kingdoms of Sicily, they spread the news that the cholera had been caused by a poison propagated by the Bourbonic government itself.

In his encyclical Mirari vos (August 15, 1632) Gregory XVI had condemned liberalism and was inclined to the contagionist hypothesis. On August 12th ,the Congregation for Health instituted by the Pope, published the “Regulation and method for the activation of a sanitary-cordon” in order to impede the entry and exit passage of men and things, which in some way might transmit and propagate the infection at the borders of the Papal State, as well as in some areas inside it. The “sanitary cordons” were made up of two successive barriers, a mile wide (the “infected “cordon” and the “healthy” cordon), controlled by a series of sentinels, rigorously blocking access to anyone. Between the two cordons, at least three cases were envisaged, where people would have had to spend fourteen days in quarantine.

Attached to the edict were further dispositions, among them being the use of “health passports”, issued to those (already screened) who might then circulate freely and the immediate and complete segregation of municipalities “where for misfortune the disease might break out.” It was then ordered that despite all the precautions, if the disease made its way into a part of the city, there would be a “barricading of the streets”, along with providing food supplies for the population. It was indicated, at the end, that any violations of these dispositions would be punished with extreme severity: punishments envisaged life imprisonment in the case of illegal passage through the cordons and the death penalty for cases of culpable contagion (Marcello Teodonio, Francesco Negro, Colera, omeopatia ed altre storie, Roma 1837, Fratelli Palombi, Roma 1988, pp. 38-39).

The cholera still hadn’t hit Rome, but on September 20th 1836, Cardinal Anton Domenico Gamberini, the Interior Minister of the Papal State, published an edict on behalf of Gregory XVI, wherein he communicated that in order to do “everything that human prudence suggests ” and “to render the invasion of the disease less harmful”, if “ this, was due punishment for our sins,” an “Extraordinary Commission for Public Welfare” had been set up in Rome, presided over by Cardinal Giuseppe Sala, made up of six members, three religious and three laymen, alongside a permanent medical Board.

Rome was divided into 14 health-care sections, similar to districts, each equipped with a special commission, made up of doctors, surgeons and nurses. Each commission had as a duty the following: the cleaning of the streets, the selling of foodstuffs and drinks, helping the needy and relieving the victims of cholera. Pharmacies had to supply medicine gratis to the sick, while doctors had to keep a daily register of the cases. In his mission in the overseeing of all the hospitals, Cardinal Sala was assisted by Don Gioacchino Pecci, the future Leo XIII, who, that same year had attained his Doctorate in Theology and Canon Law.

On January 7th 1837, the military Commission set up by Gregory XVI reported that it had imposed life imprisonment on six people, guilty of having broken the sanitary-cordon and on January 14, amid the protests of many, an edict was issued in which the celebration of the historical Roman carnival was prohibited. On Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Odescalchi urged the Romans: “to fast, pray and do other pious acts as a means of holding off the chastisements threatening us, in order to placate the wrath of the Almighty provoked by grievous faults.”

In July 1837, the first cases of cholera in Rome were reported. Public opinion was divided among those who acknowledged and denied the existence of the epidemic. The cholera, however, flared up between July and September. While liberal circles continued to spread rumours that the Papal government had deliberately spread the disease, Gregory XVI ordered the reinforcement of the sanitary-cordons and suspended all the feasts and festivals and all kinds of gatherings. The military were deployed, the borders and docks closed, and the order given to the Calvary Corps to patrol the remotest places. On August 6 there was a solemn procession of the Madonna di San Luca, from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to the Chiesa di Gesù where the miraculous image remained displayed for eight days. Led by a guard of dragoons on horseback, the Pope along the way, paid homage to Our Lady, with the entire Sacred College and the Roman government.

Records describe the self-sacrifice of both secular and regular clergy and the “the evangelical dedication of the Pope who did not hesitate in going to the places where the disease was raging the most, providing personally for the spiritual and material needs of the victims” (Paolo Dalla Torre, L’opera riformatrice ed amministrativa di Gregorio XVI, in Gregorio XVI, Pontificia Università Gregoriana, Roma 1948, vol. II, p. 70. Among the priests known for their heroic assistance to the sick and in aiding the dying, were St. Vincenzo Pallotti and St. Gaspare del Bufalo.

According to the Diaro di Roma of that time, in the space of three months, from July 28th to October 9th 1837, those infected by the cholera in the Eternal City, were 8,090, the dead, 4,446. On December 28th also St. Gaspare del Bufalo died, assisted by St. Vincenzo Pallotti, who saw his soul ascending like a flame to heaven. Among those hit by the cholera, in a benign form, was the Benedictine Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger, who was in Rome to obtain official recognition of his foundation. Once recovered and the approval obtained from Gregory XVI, Dom Guéranger tried to return to France, but his biographer recounts that the communications of the Papal State with the rest of the world were suspended and sanitary-cordons blocked the port at Civitavecchia and all the other routes. On October 4th Dom Guéranger at last able to leave the Papal State and after an interminable journey, finally arrived in Paris (Dom Guy-Marie Oury, Dom Guéranger moine au coeur de l’Eglise, Editions de Solesmes, 2000, pp. 158-160).

The epidemic, in the meantime, gradually vanished and on October 15th in the three Patriarchal Basilicas of San Giovanni, San Pietro and Santa Maria Maggiore and in all the parish churches, the Te Deum was solemnly sung, with a plenary indulgence, in gratitude for the cessation of the cholera.

Twelve years later, in 1849, the hurricane of the Roman Republic, much graver than the cholera epidemic, engulfed the city of Rome, constituting a new phase in the revolutionary process which is still going on today.

It was only in 1884 that the vibrion responsible for cholera was discovered by Robert Koch and a year later the creation of the first vaccine was made possible by a Spanish doctor, Jaime Ferran.