HOMILY – FEBRUARY 11
Until just the last couple centuries, people didn’t understand how leprosy was contracted. They just dreaded the thought of catching it, because it left its victims in a hideous, pitiful state until their miserable death. Worst of all, lepers were quarantined and exiled to leper colonies, never to see family members and friends again. This continued until relatively recent times. Think, for example, of the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, where St. Damien worked as a missionary until his death in 1889. He contracted the disease, and died of leprosy. On the other hand, St. Marianne Cope and the Franciscan Sisters who served on Moloka’i with her did NOT contract the disease. Why? They had concluded that they had to keep the living conditions of the lepers CLEAN and sterile. And so, in spite of repeated physical contact with those suffering from the illness, the Sisters dodged the bullet, as it were. I learned from a priest in Hawaii (who was the first priest ever ordained on Moloka’i) that his personal sanctity of life did not protect St. Damien from the disease because he made no attempt at precautions or cleanliness.
I have thought often of what that young priest told me as I visited him in his rectory on Lana’i, a nearby island. I think of it especially when I read of the leper crying out to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me CLEAN”! And Jesus reaches out and TOUCHES him (the crowd must have GASPED!) and says, “I DO will it. Be made CLEAN.”
I think of the spiritual leprosy of my sins, and of the frequent clumsiness of my physical and emotional and spiritual and mental responses to situations. How do I TOUCH people? Are they made clean, or at least a little clean-ER, by contact with me? Or is the last state of that person worse than the first? Does some of my human baggage swing around and knock them off their feet, even though I didn’t really intend it? “It was an accident,” I so often assure myself after breaking a dish, a bottle, a promise, a heart. But accident or not, the damage is done, and I have to try to figure out how to repair it. Sometimes it’s beyond my power, because like a frightened animal, the victim of my unintended bull-in-a-china-shop manner will not come close again.
Doctors are told in their medical ethics classes, “First, do no harm.” St. Paul treats us all to a similar instruction in the second reading today, when he tells the Corinthians and us: “Do everything for the glory of God. . . Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God.” What a lesson for each of us to ponder, thoroughly and often. Don’t even offend your enemies!
I thought of it last week when I heard of some of the Eagles fans in the City of Brotherly Love celebrating their team’s victory by causing over $5 million in damage by their distinctly un-brotherly behavior. It’s just the latest example of boorish, destructive actions that have sadly become an anticipated part of any major event, no matter how tragic or joyful. It’s like a leprosy.
I think of it whenever I see the leprosy of graffiti disfiguring the urban landscape. I think of it when I drive down the highway out in the country and see in the median a load of household trash and filthy mattresses and broken furniture and appliances that someone didn’t want to pay to have hauled away. I think of it when I accompany officers on a police call and find people physically and emotionally destroying ONE ANOTHER in domestic violence. It’s like a leprosy. I think of it when a landlord tells me about how his tax-supported tenants have trashed his property beyond repair, leaving him with outrageous utility bills and disappearing without a trace. It’s like a leprosy.
But I never have to think too far from home. I’ve done harm and given offense and sought my own glory rather than God’s all too often to blame the world’s problems only on others. It leads me to pray more and more often, “Lord, at the very least, let me do no harm. At the very least, let me not make a mess that someone else will have to clean up. At the very least, let me not do or say anything that will make trouble for anyone else. At the very least, let me observe the common standards of decency and fairness and virtue and politeness, and be a beacon of your love in a world where the very thought of you often seems to be shrouded in obscurity or indifference. At the very least, let the world be a better place by my allowing you to TOUCH it through me. I know you will it, Lord. Make my will like yours. Make me clean. Touch the world THROUGH me and heal its leprosies. Make it clean. Make it clean.”