In 2005, I went to India with Catholic Relief Services to learn about the mission work they support. CRS provides the Missionaries of Charity with funding for their ministries to the destitute. We visited a leper community of men in Kolkata, India run by the Missionaries of Charity. Many of the men were disfigured. Some were missing fingers or parts of arms and legs.
Even though their leprosy had been healed through medical treatment, I was still nervous about touching them. Nevertheless, we walked among them and shook their hands. Like the lepers in Jesus’ time, they were isolated, so they responded with such gratitude to a simple handshake. Their eyes lit up as we greeted them.
Today is World Day of the Sick, so the story of Jesus healing a leper fits well. In 1992 St. John Paul II initiated World Day of the Sick. He chose February 11 because on that day we celebrate the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. Thus, the day calls to mind the sick people who travel to Lourdes for healing. Also, Lourdes is a place where others go to minister to the sick. They assist those who are otherwise unable to enter into the waters. They pray for them and with them. So today we remember the sick and our call to accompany them in their suffering.
How often do you visit the sick? What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?
- Do you see yourself as one called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
- Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person?
Recently, our attitude toward the sick has been influenced negatively in two ways. First, we look at the sick from a distance. The elderly are put in nursing homes, which is good because they need professional care. But they experience isolation and feel forgotten. Either we are too busy to visit the infirmed or elderly. Or we say, “They won’t even remember if I visit, so what good will it do?”
We look at the sick from a distance.
Second, our society says that suffering has no value. The infirmed are encouraged to “end their suffering.” Assisted suicide is growing. Children in the womb diagnosed with an illness have a higher risk of being ‘eliminated.’ We value the perfectly healthy person more than the sick person. We fail to see the suffering Christ in the sick.
Two temptations for us are:
- To look at the sick from a distance, rather than reaching out to them with Christ’s compassion.
- Failing to see the suffering Christ in the sick or not recognizing the dignity of the sick person.
Today’s gospel helps us see things differently. “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 . . . The leprosy left him immediately” (Mark 1:40-41).
How could the leper dare to approach Jesus? Lepers were supposed to walk around yelling, “Unclean, unclean!” so that people were warned from any possible contact with them. Today people are afraid of being touched by anyone with a cold. Imagine how much more people were afraid of contracting leprosy.
What is amazing is that the leper felt so confident in approaching Jesus. In this scene Jesus showed us is that God is so approachable. Even lepers felt comfortable coming close to Jesus. When the leper asks for healing, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”
Jesus could have healed the leper with his Word alone. He did that in other situations. But here he touches the leper. Lepers were totally isolated. They lived apart from others. So touching a leper is an expression of solidarity and fraternity….. to help the leper feel that he belongs to the community.
Several years ago, Fr. Jerry Scherer described to me how he ministers to the elderly or infirmed by saying, “Whenever I visit a nursing home, I also make a point to touch each person. Human contact is so important for them. Even if they cannot understand what I say, human touch is therapeutic for them.”
Pope Francis talks a lot about a spirituality of CLOSENESS. In a homily he said, “Closeness and compassion: this is how the Lord visits his people. And when we want to proclaim the Gospel, to bring forth the word of Jesus, this is the path.” In his letter for 2018 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis said that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick.”
Francis speaks often about the ‘tenderness and compassion’ of God. Those are not simply some of his favorite words. Rather, they translate the word for mercy in this gospel. When it says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” the Greek word is splanknizomai. It means his guts ached for him. It is like a mother who sees her child suffering with cancer and her stomach aches, or a father who feels sick to his stomach when his child is injured in a car accident.
Compassion means to “suffer with.” That is what splanknizomai means – to look at someone who is hurt or sick and ache for them. When Pope Francis says that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick,” he has splanknizomai in mind.
What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?
- Do you see yourself as one is called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
- Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person? ……. not only the suffering of Christ, but the suffering Christ?
He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me” (Mt. 25:40). When we visit the sick, we meet Christ there.
Lent begins this week. People often ask, “What are you giving up?” A better question is, “What are you giving?”
We are called to give alms. Almsgiving comes from the word for being merciful, especially like God’s mercy to the oppressed and afflicted. Almsgiving really means to imitate God’s mercy. As we celebrate Eucharist today, remember how the Lord has been merciful to you. Then ask for the grace to bring his tenderness and compassion to the sick and oppressed and afflicted.