The Spanish Flu (1918 – 1920) 

The medical community was overwhelmed when a deadly strain of the H1N1 virus unleashed its fury on the world. Nearly one-third of the world’s population suffered exposure to another novel virus between 1918 and 1920. Without a vaccine or antibiotics, society scrambled to slow the virus’s spread through quarantine, hygiene, sanitizing, and public restrictions. Medical journals reported high mortality rates in children under five years old, and adults older than 65 years. [1] In Canada, the influenza outbreak claimed 50,000 lives, only slightly less than Europe’s battlefields, which exacted 60,000 lives.[2]

The Spanish flu arrived in Canada with returning troops from World War 1, spreading quickly to even the country’s remote communities. Indigenous settlements suffered a disproportionate loss of life with already compromised immunity. Widows and orphans were plunged into economic chaos, forced to eke out new ways of procuring income. Military exercises hit pause with friend and foe unable to muster enough troops for battle. Businesses suffered massive profit losses from depressed markets and a sickly workforce. In response, the federal government created a new department of health, as a direct consequence of the Spanish flu pandemic.

Pope Benedict XV occupied the Chair of St. Peter between, 1914 and 1922, with World War I awkwardly stationing the Pope between warring Catholic nations. Various factions rejected Benedict’s efforts to bring peace, and Canadians raced off to defend England and France. The pope promulgated the 1917 Code of Canon Law, during this timeframe, which served the Roman Catholic Church until 1983. Still, international hostilities devastated the church’s mission work, and the Holy Father set out to repair the damage with his encyclical entitled Maximum illud.  Pope Benedict XV died of pneumonia in 1922, at age 66. The Spanish influenza and pneumonia are both respiratory diseases that attack the bronchial tubes and lungs. Modern forensics can reasonably speculate that the Spanish flu and Pope Benedict XV’s death may have been related.

In 1919, the Pontiff reached out to the German church referencing St Boniface. Benedict's next encyclical entitled, In Hac Tanta, called for peace and social order.  Delivering peace and throughout Europe’s crowded and diverse nations failed to harvest lasting results.


          We are amid many trials and difficulties, “and besides the other sufferings, there is my constant                  daily concern for all the churches” to use the words of the Apostle. We have closely followed                          those unexpected events, those manifestations of disorder and anarchy that have recently                          occurred among you and neighboring countries. They continue to hold us in suspense.

          In these dark times, the memory of St Boniface, who brought salvation to Germany, is a ray of                        light and a messenger of hope and joy[3]

On December 1, 1920, Pope Benedict XV directed the world’s attention to central Europe’s children. With Christmas approaching, the Pontiff's heart melted with pity upon reports concerning the suffering that children were enduring. The Spanish flu and World War I parallel twin-illnesses that current health professionals urgently warn this generation to avert. COVID-19 and the annual influenza virus pose an overwhelming threat to any nation’s health care system.  Responsible citizenry acknowledges these potential risks and acts to mitigate anticipated impact. Benedict encyclical, Annus Iam Plenus On Children of Central Europe, praised the “Save the Children Fund” and appealed for Christian charity. The Spanish flu delivered an especially devastating blow to children and the elderly.


          A whole year has now passed since we called upon all to turn their hearts in pity towards the                        children of Central Europe so severely afflicted by hunger and want to waste away with                                  disease coming face to face with death.[4]

The Holy Father remained concerned about the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well- being of children. Famine, disease, and war signaled the near-collapse of social order, and, as is so often the case, women and children suffered the greatest. In the Pope’s global appeal, he called on Christians to consider the Holy Family and the Infant Jesus, as the church entered more deeply into the Incarnation narratives.   

          We have said that this work of charity and kindness would be most pleasing to the Infant Jesus.                    And indeed, why does the name Bethlehem mean the same as “House of Bread” unless it be                          that there Christ was to be born into the light of day, Christ, Who, solicitous for our weakness,                          gave Himself as food to nourish our should and Who in the word “Give us this day our daily                              bread” taught us to beg ardently every day of the Father for the nourishment of soul and body.                    Oh, how Our heart would expand if We were confident that throughout the Christmas festivities                    there would be no home destitute of consolation and joy, that there would be no child whose                        sorrow should wring the dear heart of its mother and that there would be no mother who                                should look upon her little ones with weeping eyes.[5]

The God of Abraham chose paternity, as a means of communicating self-love. While the Infant Jesus was always the eternally begotten Son of the Father, Jesus is not subsistent. The child of Bethlehem, moreover, is Father's  complete expression in human form.[6] The Divine Infant invites humankind to participate in a Trinitarian love affair, albeit through an adoption process that begins its actualization with Incarnation.[7] The Father manifested entirely in the Son is only clumsily and intermittently shown in the remainder of humankind. Still, the Father initiated a “sending forth” solely and sovereignly to collect and reset fallen human relationship.[8] The Father, via the Infant Child, share a common substance, nature, and project, moving from the womb of the Virgin Mary, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, towards all humanity.[9]  The prime relationship that this Incarnation event exposes triggers an Christological inquiry into the nature of the fully Human/Divine Physician. Who is Jesus?

The Gospels tell of Jesus replicating his Father’s mannerisms on multiple occasions.[10] For example, at Pentecost, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!”[11] Represented by breath, gift, love, and dove, the Holy Spirit identifies the uncreated Trinitarian Person, who processes from the Father and the Son. From Incarnation to Pentecost, the Trinity reaches ever outward into the human condition. Mother Church imagines that her members are drawn towards their participatory role in God’s eternal kingdom through engaging this Trinitarian mystery.

Theology came under considerable pressure to formulate a response to the Virgin Mary and Joseph’s child. Almost immediately, scholars denied Jesus’ role in any messianic promise, a repudiation that later brought blasphemy charges against the man.[12] What will become of this infant born of Bethlehem?[13] Without and within the Christian movement, speculation and ambiguity later spins heretical thinking that fractures ecclesial cohesion. Jesus answers the heart that longs for intimacy with God. Humanity surely suffers estrangement from dismissive and aloof gods unwilling to join the human condition. The book of Hebrews describes this Christocentric entry point into Trinitarian hypostases.

          At many moments in the past and by multiple means, God spoke to our ancestors through the                    prophets; but in our time, the final days, he has spoken to us in the person of his Son, whom he                      appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the ages. He is the reflection of God’s                      glory and bears the impress of God’s own being, sustaining all things by his powerful                                        command and now that he has purged sins away, and he has taken his seat at the right hand                    of the divine Majesty on high.[14]

From St. Thomas Aquinas’ perspective, a person embodied an autonomous spiritual and physical being, endowed with the freedom to act in any way he or she chose. For Thomists, an individual’s free will inherently connects with a person’s dignity.[15] St. Bonaventure (1482-1568) described personhood in this way, “a person is a hypostasis distinct from other things by its property of dignity.”[16] The dignity feature, Bonaventure noticed, hopes to deposit its trace in all relationships. However, Aquinas posited that relationship with God and personhood are the same?[17] The theologian's critical insight unlocked a fundamental Christian tenet that understands three Persons, consubstantial with each other, emanating perfect love while permitting distinguishable personal charisms. Metaphoric language again became necessary to articulate Trinitarian mechanics, which stretch well beyond the mind’s grasp.[18]

In the opening verses of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church declared.

          In His goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden                   purpose of His will, by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, a man might in the Holy Spirit                   access the Father and come to share in the Divine nature.[19]

In dialogue with the Apostle Philip, Jesus, who abides as the natural expression of the Father, asked, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? What I say to you I do not speak of my own accord: it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his works.[20]  The verses lead to St. Peter’s confession which also addressed a fundamental identity question: who do people say that I Am?[21] Jesus responded with this prayer:


          I give you praise Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things                        from the wise and learned, you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been                      your gracious will. My Father has handed over all things to me. No one knows the Son except                          the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes                        to reveal him.[22]

The closing words in Jesus’ prayer open the invitation to fellowship and eternal participation in the Trinitarian love affair. No virus or bacteria circulates in the Holy Breath that inspires and animates Christians to act in charity. The Catholic Church’s ‘option for the poor’ emerged from its experience collaborating with the Holy Spirit’s mission. Gifts of knowledge, wisdom, fortitude, counsel, understanding, piety, and fear of the Lord, blossom into joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-discipline.[23] Whereas the infant Child received a mission predominately towards wisdom, teaching, and healing, the Holy Spirit configures ecclesia in alignment towards the Son. The latter affects the delivery of humankind from war, famine, and disease, into the fullness of the Trinity. The Spanish flu period showed the disproportion suffered pandemics always exact on the marginalize. The church pleaded with the world then, as it does today, for systemic social reform.  





[1] From the Center for Disease Control retrieved in 2020.

[2] From War Time Tragedies. Canada and the First World War. War Museum of Canada 2020.

[3] Pope Benedict XV, (1919) In Hac Tanta, Encyclical of Pope Benedict XV on St Boniface, par 1 & 2.

[4] From Pope Benedict XV 1920, Annus Iam Plenus, par 1.

[5] From Pope Benedict XV, 1920, Annus Iam Plenus, par 3.

[6] The Father’s parental disposition is satisfied in His son Jesus in whom He is, “well pleased”, as presented in Mark 1: 11.

[7]See more, Humankind has some capacity to know God, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ways of Coming to Know God, Article 31

[8]A gesture replicated by Jesus. see, New American Bible Mathew 26: 16-20

[9] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church Chapter Two, God comes to meet man, Article 51

[10] See Emery, The Trinity; An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God, “only the faith of the New Testament enables one to discern the Trinity of the Old Testament” p. 45

[11] See New American Bible, John 20: verse 22

[12] See more. INSTONE-BREWER, Jesus’ Trial in the Talmud. (p.289)

[13] The Scriptures record events from Incarnation, Ministry, Resurrection, and Pentecost that demonstrate, Jesus, transcends ordinary personhood. 

[14] See New Testament, Hebrew’s 1.1; The Cappadocian Father begin with these verses which they basically reiterate in the Second Council of Constantinople, (553)

[15] See Emery, G. The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. (p.105)

[16] See Emery, G. The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. (p.90-110)

[17] This insight permits Aquinas to speak of the Holy Spirit’s personhood as the relationship of Love between the Father and Son.

[18] The Sacred Mystery of Trinity apprehended through reasonable intelligence although not without faith.

[19]  From Dei Verbum, (1965) ch 1:2 Divine Revelation Itself. A Flannery translation. P. 97.

[20] See John, 14:10. Faith and reason are evidently necessary to apprehend this Trinitarian insight! Roman Catholic doctrinal synthesis derives from faith, tradition, and scripture.

[21] See Mathew, 16:13. A two stage confession that direct disciples outward towards the community and secondly inward and personally.

[22] See Mathew, 11:25-27. Jesus communicates that Trinitarian revelation is a gradual unfolding; that it is necessarily Christocentric, relational, and prayerful.

[23] See Paul in his letter to the Galatians 5:22–23, 25. Evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.