There are only two kinds of people who seem to relish a national emergency: busybodies and buzzkills. Both take it as their life’s work to prove they know better than the poor hayseed who lives next door.
In the middle of March, Catholic news outlets began to report an extraordinary coincidence: not only is there a saint named Corona, but she happens to be the patroness of epidemics. Suddenly, her cult exploded. The internet was flooded with new prayers and litanies beseeching this obscure Saint Corona to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
By the end of the month, however, the “fact”-checkers at Snopes (those renowned experts on the Roman martyrology) announced that Saint Corona was not, in fact, a patroness of epidemics. They cited Catherine M. Mooney, an associate professor at Boston College—clearly, someone much smarter than you—who pointed out that, “along with those [saints] who actually existed, there are many more that have simply appeared in legends over the centuries, often made up out of whole cloth. Online web sites on saints are notorious for repeating legendary information.”
So, too, is the Golden Legend (hence the name), which is our principal source for the lives of popular saints like St. Christopher and St. George. Happily, most theology departments at Jesuit-run schools like Boston College have evolved beyond the need for the Legend, the Bible, and other such texts of dubious historicity.
Professor Mooney goes on to explain that “Saint Corona has not been known as the patron saint of pandemics, at least not until someone (but who?) recently named her thus. That moniker must have been given her because her name ‘Corona,’ which means crown, could connect her to the coronavirus.”
The Snopes report unleashed a flood of know-it-alls who have been working furiously to destroy the burgeoning cult of Saint Corona ever since.
In truth, they’re right. There’s no history of Corona being invoked against plague and pandemic. Traditionally, she’s regarded as the patroness of gamblers and treasure-hunters. In fact, she probably went by the name Stephanie in her mortal existence.
But, then, who cares? Do these wet blankets really think Corona is going to refuse our prayers just because she’s not an officially designated plague saint?
Snopes & Co. must have a queer understanding of how intercessory prayers work. They seem to imagine that Christian saints are like the Greek pantheon, where all the deities have their appointed role in the vast celestial bureaucracy, and that they’re all very careful to “stay in their lane.” An Athenian would no more pray to Hestia for victory in battle than an American would go to the DMV for his unemployment check. A Spartan who offered sacrifices to Ares for a bountiful harvest is one who might turn up at the Social Security Office two thousand years later asking to renew his driver’s license.
I wonder what Saint Corona’s detractors think (to the extent that they do think) she does when she receives a request to end the COVID-19 outbreak. They must imagine her sitting at a desk in the third basement of paradise where all the minor saints have their little cubicles, her inbox flooded with requests to withdraw the pale hand of plague. She turns to St. Eligius, the patron of gas station workers, and whines: “They’ve got the wrong department! I spent last week forwarding emails to Sebastian and Roch in the Office of Infectious Diseases. I told them, ‘I’m not your secretary!’ The Boss needs to send out a memo or something. I can’t just keep redirecting calls. Disney’s having a hard time with the script for National Treasure 3 and one of the writers asked me for help. It could be my big break. I don’t have time to worry about these sick people.”
Pace our Protestant friends, this is one of the major differences between the cult of the saints from the pagan cults of yore. The pagan viewed his gods rather like mafiosi who demanded bribes in the form of burnt offerings as “protection.” To us, the saints are simply friends. We can always go to them—any of them—whenever we like, and whatever our need, and be sure they’ll try their best.
And, sure, we might think of them as having specialties. My buddy Tom helps me with my taxes because he’s an accountant; Roger gives me fresh produce because he’s a farmer. But if I needed help moving furniture or throwing a birthday party for my wife, I know I could count on both of them to pitch in. What are friends for?
It’s true that patronages are often assigned by the Holy See. St. Claire of Assisi is the official patroness of television, for instance, because she saw visions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass while she was bedridden. That’s extremely useful for those of us who are lately forced to livestream our Sunday Masses on YouTube. We can ask St. Claire for help in focusing our thoughts and prayers along with the priest at the altar, despite our physical distance. Here we have an instance of Rome (quite helpfully) recommending a particular saint for one particular task.
Historically, however, these specialties were usually assigned by the lay faithful. They were “patronages by proclamation,” so to speak. Thus, in the four hundred years between his death and canonization, St. Thomas More developed a great following among lawyers and statesmen. They didn’t wait for the Vatican’s permission to venerate this great martyr because permission wasn’t needed. Catholics see the saints not as bureaucrats but as friends. Whatever our station, and whatever our trials, they want to help us however they can.
No doubt, then, that the scene in heaven unfolded rather differently.
We might imagine the popular patrons all rushing here and there, furiously answering petitions. St. Christopher is dashing between fathers who are setting off on a long car trip; St. Anthony is tending to busy mothers who have lost their car keys. And there, amid all this bustle, sweet Saint Corona sits on her little throne. Now and then she hears the plea of an Italian grandmother asking for help with her son’s gambling debt but, otherwise, her days are rather uneventful.
Then, suddenly, a loud roar goes up from the earth. The heavens quake; St. Peter’s book nearly falls from its pedestal. Saint Corona almost takes no notice, expecting St. Michael to fly into battle with his flaming sword or St. Brendan to leap into the sea with his great life ring. Then she notices that Sts. Anthony and Christopher, and Michael and Brendan, have halted in their tracks. All at once, they turn and look at her.
Saint Corona blinks. Then, at last, she hears a hundred thousand voices calling her name. Baffled, she looks up at Our Lord. He smiles. “They’re asking for you, Corona.” So she rises from her throne, puts on her crown of glory, and gets to work.
If Saint Corona was not a plague saint before, she is now. And her cult is something that has, sadly, become something of a novelty in the modern Church: a spontaneous plea by the faithful for supernatural relief. Asking St. Thomas More to make you a better lawyer, or St. Anthony to help you find your car keys, are both wonderful things to do. But there’s something delightfully medieval about the Church Penitent suddenly crying out to heaven to intervene directly in the world—not just in our individual lives, but in the whole course of human history.
Too often, we only experience this sort of faith when we find ourselves in dire need. We’re like the Israelites, who worshiped their false idols in peace and prosperity but turned back to the one true God in famine and war. And, as we know, He never failed to answer their prayers—knowing full well that they would turn away from Him again once they got what they wanted.
So, too, with Saint Corona. There’s a beautiful simplicity of faith at work in the hearts of those who turn to her now in their need. They honor her, and she’ll answer their prayers. (We can only hope that, once the pandemic is over, we’ll show a little more gratitude than the Israelites did.)
In the meantime, those who would deny the power of God’s saints—who would police the prayers of the faithful in their time of need—should heed the psalmist’s warning:
Depart from me, all you workers of evil;
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping;
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and sorely troubled;
they shall turn back, and be put to shame in a moment.
Saint Corona, ora pro nobis.
St. Corona prayer cards are
available now from Sophia Institute