There’s a new way to become a saint, Pope Francis says.
In addition to the traditional three ways to sainthood—being martyred for the faith, living a life of heroic Christian virtues, and having a reputation for strong religious devotion—the Pope has added a fourth: Sacrificing your life for others.
According to the Vatican, to follow this path to sainthood people need to freely and voluntarily offer their life in the face of certain death, show Christian virtues, and have a reputation for holiness.
And you need to be Catholic, too, of course—none of the categories apply to non-Catholic Christians.
The news about the new path to sainthood came along about the same time I heard about a group of Christians who voluntarily gave up their lives to save the lives of others.
In this case, it happened over 350 years ago, inthe English village of Eyam.
In September, 1665, the local tailor in Eyam received a bolt of cloth from London. At that time, London was dealing with a terrible outbreak of bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death.
The cloth was infected with fleas carrying the plague—which nobody knew until people started getting sick. This included the tailor, who was dead in a week.
Understandably, the 350 or so residents of the village wanted to flee to avoid the plague.
But the new minister, William Mompesson, convinced them not to go. He preached a sermon pleading with them to stay to prevent the plague from being spread to other towns and villages.
He added that if they stayed he would stay, too, doing everything he could do alleviate their suffering.
According to the stories told about the event, the residents of Eyam agreed it was their Christian duty to stay quarantined until the disease had passed. They sealed themselves inside their village and awaited their fate.
A stone boundary was created around the town—nobody from inside was allowed out, and nobody from the outside could come in.
They made arrangements with other communities to leave food and other supplies on the stones; money washed in vinegar (believed to disinfect the coins) was left on a well outside the village for payment..
After a year, the plagued burned itself out, but not before killing over 250 people in Eyam. This included the wife of William Mompesson. The cemetery was so full that the dead had to be buried in nearby gardens and fields.
According to historical reports, the brave actions of the villagers prevented the plague from being spread to other places—but at a terrible cost.
In a BBC interview, Dr. Michael Sweet, a disease specialist at the University of Derby, said the decision by the villagers to quarantine their village “significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen. Without the restraint of the villagers many more people, especially from neighbouring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease.”
The current rector in Eyam, Mike Gilbert, said in an interview: "There was definitely that hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult to simply face it, It wasn't a nice way to die . . . it is almost overwhelming to think what it must have been like. I suspect fear stalked them every day of their lives."
Today Eyam is known as the “plague village.” There is a plague museum that tells the story, the well and a boundary stone can still be seen, and the graves of the plague victims inside the churchyard and surrounding area are testaments to the selflessness of the villagers.
History of full of many other examples where people faith put their lives on the line for others. And there are more recent ones, too, where Muslims, Christians, Jews and others put themselves in danger, or lost their lives, to protect people they didn’t even know.
At a time when so much of the news about religion seems unrelentingly negative or polarizing, it’s good to be reminded there are those who show another side of faith—and sometimes those people are called saints.
From the July 22 Winnipeg Free Press.