Friday, February 10, 2012

Three men who loved lepers: Jesus, Francis, and Damien

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”
Though not the first miracle of his public ministry, Jesus’ healing of the leper is certainly the first miracle he worked after relating the Sermon on the Mount (as is clear from St. Matthew [8:1]). Thus, it is striking to note that, immediately after preaching the great sermon which collects all of his message into one, he shows us the meaning of this preaching by touching a leper with love.
This act – taking pity upon, touching, and healing the leper – teaches us by example those same truths which our Savior had taught by words in the Sermon on the Mount.
Thus, it will be no surprise that the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi began with a leper. Further, we do well to recall the memory of St. Damien of Molokai, who so loved lepers as to become a leper himself – much as Christ loved us and became one like us in all things but sin.

Christ did not break the Law in touching the leper
Generally, Leviticus 5:3 is cited as witness to the fact that the Law forbade the touching of a leper, though leprosy is not directly named in this verse. In any case, it is clear that the common interpretation of the Law forbade any from having contact with lepers, lest they should be made ritually impure – further, there was the fear of contagion.
Christ, however, shows that he is above the Law – for he is both Lawgiver and Judge – reaching out and touching the leper. However, our Savior did not truly break the Law, rather he fulfilled it.
The Law forbade the touching of lepers on account of ritual impurity and the danger of the spread of the disease. However, our Savior who is most pure would not be made impure by touching the leper – rather, his most pure touch made the leper to become clean.
Likewise, the Lord had no danger of contracting the disease of leprosy, since he willed that by his touch he should cure the man from the contagion. And therefore, our Savior supersedes and fulfills the prescript of the Law, doing that which the Law could not accomplish. For it is a greater thing to cure, rather than to quarantine, leprosy and all impurity.
The beginning of the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis saw his own vocation to have begun through an encounter with a leper. On his deathbed, when dictating his final “Testament”, the Saint of Assisi opens with the story of kissing a leper:
“This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.”
Thomas of Celano elaborates further in his “First Life of St. Francis”:
“So greatly loathsome was the sight of lepers to him at one time, he used to say, that, in the days of his vanity, he would look at their houses only from a distance of two miles and he would hold his nostrils with his hands. But now, when by the grace and the power of the Most High he was beginning to think of holy and useful things, while he was still clad in secular garments, he met a leper one day and, made stronger than himself, he kissed him. From then on he began to despise himself more and more, until, by the mercy of the Redeemer, he came to perfect victory over himself.”
Brother Damien
before traveling to Hawaii
The life and death of the Leper Priest, Father Damien
Born in Tremelo, Belgium in 1840 and a member of the Picpus Fathers (i.e. The Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary), Jozef De Veuster, already known as Brother Damien, arrived at the mission in Hawaii in the year 1843. It was through unique series of events that he was given the opportunity to work in the mission, taking the place of his older brother Father Pamphile. Not until arriving in Honolulu was Damien ordained a priest, so hasty had been the voyage.
After serving in the missions in Hawaii for nine years, in 1873, Father Damien’s wish to serve the lepers, who had been placed on the island of Molokai in medical quarantine, was granted.
Father Damien, as can be seen from testimony of his superiors and his own letters and writings, was not always the most gentle or sweet of priests. He certainly had a way about him that could be off-putting to others. Still, none could doubt his charity, especially the love he had for the lepers. This was the key to his holiness, and the fire of his charity burned and purified his character, much as gold is refined in the furnace.
Father Damien, on his deathbed
While serving on Molokai, but before suffering of leprosy himself, a newspaper errantly reported that he had contracted the disease – his mother saw the headline, and died of a heart-attack. Must this not have caused great grief for Father Damien?
Eventually, the Apostle to the Lepers did indeed contract Hanson’s disease – after all, he purposely took no precautions to avoid it. After sixteen years of caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the lepers, Father Damien did indeed die of the leprosy he had contracted, finally accomplishing the task which the Lord had entrusted to him: To be one with the lepers, to be one with Christ.
Read more of the story of Saint Damien from the Catholic Encyclopedia [here].


Dan said...

I wonder if we even recognize, much less welcome, those who are lepers today.

When one recalls that lepers were "impure" and unfit to be part of the religious community, it makes one wonder.......

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

But also remember that the leper was not necessarily guilty of any sin.

Thus, when people try to say that the homosexuals, or drug addicts, or the like are the "lepers", I think that they are way off base.

The "leper" today is anyone whom we do not like to be around ... it is the co-worker who annoys us ... the in-law we can't stand ... they are the "lepers" that we must learn to love.

Regie SVD said...

Dear Fr, Thank you very much for this beautiful article. May we be touched by Holy Spirit: The finger of God open our hearts to those around us who need our care and love.

Regie, SVD

Dan said...

Good point Father.

Agnieszka said...

"Christ did not break the Law in touching the leper" -- exactly, that's why He had sent the (healed) leper back to the scribes, etc, to "fulfill the law, not to abolish it" (both in the literal sense of the New and Old Testament -- to be super brief and super blunt about it).

Unknown said...


There are still lepers today. Before the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a man (laity) came into our Parish Church & spoke about poverty in Haiti. The Priest took a second collection.

There are places in Haiti with NO roads. A Roman Catholic Priest gets on a horse once a month and travels to the remote places looking for someone with Leprosy. The Priests makes arranges for the movement of lepers down to a hospital for treatment.

Thank you for being a Priest, Father Ryan.

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