St. Francis had a fear and abhorrence of lepers. One day, however, he met a man afflicted with leprosy while riding his horse near Assisi. Though the sight of the leper filled him with horror and disgust, Francis got off his horse and kissed the leper. Then the leper put out his hand, hoping to receive something. Out of compassion, Francis gave money to the leper. When Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper anywhere. It dawned on him that it was Jesus whom he had just kissed. Francis later reflected the sight of lepers nauseated him beyond measure; but that encounter was a turning point in his life.
Jesus was a friend of lepers but there is more going on today than just physically healing then. If you remember, his neighbors tried to kill him when he told them in the synagogue that Naaman, the non-Jewish Syrian, was better than they were. Then he praises the Samaritan leper who comes back to thank him. Samaritans were seen as half-breeds by the Jews after the Northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 732 B.C.E. and they were roundly despised. Jesus refuses to accept any human divisions that separate or alienate people.
Who are the lepers or undesirables of today? For some people, the homeless and the mentally ill are modern lepers. For others, illegal immigrants or Moslems are the undesirables. Racism is still a reality. In East Africa, I knew a Ugandan bishop who almost had a nervous breakdown because he had priests from two different tribes always fighting with each other. But it’s also simply people I disagree with or people who hold positions contrary to mine. People speak of ‘my truth’ but if you don’t agree with their truth there is a problem.
There is the story of a democrat who asked a republican why he was a republican. He said, “Well, my grandfather was a republican and my father was a republican, so I’m a republican.” The democrat said it reply, “That’s stupid. What if your grandfather was a horse thief and your father was a horse thief? What would that make you?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy. It would make me a democrat.”
The human mind or human ego is the problem. It sees itself as separate from and against everyone else. It breeds division by its judgments. Or it sees ‘us’ against ‘them,’ and ‘in group’ vs. an ‘out group.’ Human love is conditional, selective, and limited. If you love me, I’ll love you. If you don’t love me, I won’t love you. That’s a good bargain but it isn’t love. It has been said that the measure of how you love, is how you love the person you least like.
It is time for us to encounter the risen Lord the way St. Paul did. Paul hated Jews and Christians before his conversion. He speaks of that experience as the death of his old self and a direct experience of Christ who was faithful, loving, and loyal to him. He experienced divine love, which excludes no one and loves everyone exactly as they are.
St. Paul even condemned St. Peter for being open to eating with Gentiles but pulling back when some people condemned him for eating with them. Even the apostles could forget that love excludes no one.
Scratch the surface of culture, skin color, tribe or political party, and we are all the same. We are all human beings just under the surface. Yet we are much more than mere human beings.
Discover that you are another Christ. When you were baptized, you died to the world and your old self and were conformed to him. Now it is your turn to reach out to all the lepers that society excludes. Remember St. Francis when it dawned on him that the leper that he had just kissed was Jesus. There is no St. Francis, there is only you, a modern saint in the making. Realize that you have the power to love the 7.2 billion people on this planet, and until your love includes every one, it isn’t complete. Love alone can heal all human ills.
Fr. Pat Neary, C.S.C.