10/9/22 Homily: Leprosy and the Community
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE].
In our gospel today, Jesus tells the ten afflicted with leprosy, “Go show yourselves to the priests." That’s a curious instruction. Jesus sends them not to doctors, but to priests. Why?
Perhaps it's because of the religious significance of disease and illness. The Israelites viewed disease and illness as punishment for sin. That made sense. When God is the source of all goodness and life, then withdrawing from goodness—through sin—is also a withdrawing from life and health. Death was seen as the natural consequence for sin.
Leprosy was particularly devastating. In the Law of Moses, lepers were exiled from the community. The Law demanded that they cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” when they saw others, so that people could keep their distance. Exile was a fate worse than death. After all, one could die for their country and people; but the exile had no country or family.
This also resulted in separation from God, because worship happened through the community. Historically, this has always been the case. Every ancient culture embraced some sort of religion. Religion is the communal manifestation of worship. For the Jew, exile meant being banned from worship at the synagogue and Temple.
That’s the cultural context of leprosy in biblical times, which may give us a bit more insight into our gospel scene. Jesus sends the ten to priests, because he intends not only to cure their disease, but to also restore them to the community, and by extension— to God.
We happen to live in a place that’s pivotal the history of leprosy. That’s because of a certain place; and because of a certain person.
The place was Kalawao, and later, Kalaupapa, located at opposite ends of the isolated peninsula on the island of Moloka’i. In all the world, there is no more an isolated population of people than that which dwells in Hawaii, from a geographical perspective.
And in Hawaii, there is no more an isolated place than the peninsula of Moloka’i, surrounded by steep cliffs on one side, and the ocean on the others. It was to that lonely place, that lepers were exiled. Once again in history, those with leprosy were amputated from their former communities and families, sometimes extracted from their homes in the middle of the night. In essence, they were considered dead; their surviving family members encouraged to forget them and to move on.
But not for a certain priest, named Damien de Veuster, known more affectionately now to us as Saint Damien of Moloka’i. He was the one of the few bright lights in that dark night of human history. Out of all of the names associated with the colony there, Damien’s name rises above all others.
I’ve always found that curious. It’s a bit like Auschwitz and Birkenau. Think of the millions of Jews who died in the holocaust. Out of all of the millions of people who were murdered at Nazi death camps, the name that many of us may know is that of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest.
Something similar is true with regard to Molokai and the leper colony there. There were many patients there throughout the exist of the leper colony. Many doctors, religious ministers, and other social workers had come and gone to Moloka’i to serve. And yet, Damien’s name is the one most known. Why?
Perhaps it was because he went there and stayed there with total commitment. He went there to do more than merely treat a physical disease. As Jesus not only healed the sick, but restored them to the worshipping community, so also Damien not only treated the symptoms of leprosy, but he established a worshipping community of believers.
Saint Damien was a physically imposing former farm boy from Belgium, skilled in man practical crafts, like carpentry, farming, irrigation, and the like. He personally and physically built Saint Philomena Church in Kalawao. He gathered many lonely and isolated persons into a single community, sometimes by physically carrying them to Mass himself.
He established a choir among the patients and taught them how to sing and read music. He taught others how to serve at Mass. He organized how the sick were to be attended to during the service.
He protected his flock beyond the Church campus. He rescued people who were thrown overboard from boats. He saved orphans from being molested, and established orphanages for the care of children. He taught those children, and did so in the context of the faith.
He was like a sheriff and governor. As if entering a lion's den, he extracted people from the strongholds of local mob leaders. He defended the weak and frail from those who would abuse them. He lobbied politicians, monarchs, and other world leaders for their support of the community. He was even knighted. He was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua for his “efforts in alleviating the distresses and mitigating the sorrows of the unfortunate”.
Saint Damien was the light in the darkness. One person would later say to him: “You are the miracle God sent to this forsaken land.”
As we know, Saint Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself and he died just like all the rest. He died as a shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He died a heroic death as a true servant of the Lord. Yet, no servant is greater than his master. Saint Damien merely followed in the example of our Lord.
Long before Saint Damien entered into the exile and isolation of Moloka’i, our Lord Jesus Christ descended from heaven, and entered into the exile of this world and the isolation that is death, for our sake and for our salvation. He embraced the leprosy that afflicts all of humanity, which is sin, by himself being the sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And in his death and resurrection, he established his Church to be the definitive worshipping community of believers.
Others took up the mantle of Saint Damien, notably Saint Marianne Cope and venerable Brother Joseph Dutton. The cause for the beatification and canonization of Brother Joseph is happening now. It's extraordinarily rare for any place to have one canonized saint. But in our own lifetime, we may be blessed to have three canonized saints of Hawaii. Like stars that shine brightest in the night sky, God's saints are revealed in the darkest moments in the history of humanity.
Like Saint Damien, we are called to follow after the example of Christ. We’re called to care for the physical needs of the most isolated and marginalized. But greater still, to earn a name that is lasting, we’re called to build up, and bring others into the worshipping community of believers.
Christus und die Aussätzigen, by Gebhard Fugel. c. 1920. Von Ravensburg nach Jerusalem". Galerie Fähre, Altes Kloster, Bad Saulgau.