Leprosy, Sin and Divine Mercy

Sixth Sunday of the Year. Lev 13:1-2,44-46; Ps 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45

Today's First Reading and Gospel are clearly meant to be contrasted. The First Reading outlines the procedure for dealing with someone who has contracted leprosy. The task appointed to the Old Testament priesthood in this passage was not to cure the leprosy, but to give an accurate diagnosis and, if necessary, to declare the person unclean. The leper then had to dwell outside the community and was considered untouchable. In the Gospel, by contrast, Jesus is moved with pity; he touches the unclean leper and cures him.

Now many lessons can be taken from these readings. In a spiritual sense, the condition of leprosy can symbolize sin in general. Sin brings about the degeneration of the soul and causes someone to be isolated from others. In the Old Testament, sin, like leprosy, could be diagnosed and mitigated, but not removed; it is only with the New Testament, with the work of Christ now perpetuated in the sacraments, that mercy can be shown to the sinner, sin can truly be taken away and sinners restored to communion with the Church.

Besides the spiritual interpretation, however, the straightforward literal sense of this Gospel, and others like it, are also important and have inspired twenty centuries of very tangible Christian charity. In the third century, the deacon and martyr Saint Lawrence is said to have gathered the poor and sick supported by the Church and presented them to the Roman Prefect, declaring that,  “This is the Church's treasure!” The oldest still-functioning hospital institution in the world, Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, was founded by a saint, Saint Landry in the seventh century. The first permanent hospital on the North American continent was founded by the Spanish in Mexico in 1524 - the Jesus of Nazareth Hospital which is still operating in Mexico City today. The first Catholic Hospital in the United States was founded in this city of Saint Louis in 1828 by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. I am told that about one in six hospital patients in the United States today are cared for in Catholic hospitals. 

I mention these historical points because in an age when many people disparage Christianity, it is important to be aware of the many extraordinary fruits of our faith, inspired by readings such as today's Gospel. It is also important to be aware that not all founders of religions or ideologies have the same ethos, especially since so many people now take our Christian heritage for granted. The only statement that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ever made with regard to the treatment of lepers is that, “One should run away from the leper as one runs away from a lion” (Al-Bukhari 7, Book 71, Number 608). The virulently anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that we should especially fear having pity for humanity and that the strong and healthy have to be shielded from polluting contact with the sick (On the Genealogy of Morals, III.14). An extreme version of this fear of illness and suffering seems to be much of the inspiration for the increase in suicides today and the drive to promote the practice of euthanasia, the killing of those deemed unfit to live. Many saints, by contrast, have made a special point of overcoming their natural repulsion or fear for some of the worst diseases, especially leprosy. They have looked beyond the disease to see the person suffering as a beloved child of God. For St Francis of Assisi, a major turning point in his path to extreme holiness was when he embraced a leper. Blessed Damien de Veuster, who died in 1889 after caring for lepers for many years; will soon be declared a saint, the first officially recognized saint of Hawaii.

What then inspires people like St Francis, Blessed Damien and many others who are largely unknown to care for the sick and outcasts in this way? The most straightforward answer is that by surrendering to the love of God they were given the gifts that they needed to accomplish great deeds. Their lives show the Fruit of the Holy Spirit called Benignity, which is like a holy fire by which a person 'melts' to relieve the needs of others. They also had a special form of courage. The source and keystone of this courage was not a confidence in their own physical survival - indeed, Blessed Damien himself died of leprosy. This Courage is a Gift of the Holy Spirit, a confidence in attaining heaven, the only goal that really matters, so long as one remains in personal union with God.  

How then can we grow in kind of mercy and courage that St Francis and Blessed Damian showed in following Christ? Well, there are many prayers to help us become more Christ-like, but I strongly recommend a great devotion for our own time, the devotion to the Divine Mercy. I would like to conclude with a prayer which is part of this devotion to the Divine Mercy,  “O blood and water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in you.”

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 15th February 2009

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