Society’s New Leprosies

Father Cantalamessa Comments on Sunday’s Readings

ROME, FEB. 10, 2006 ( Here is a translation of a commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Pontifical Household, on this Sunday’s liturgical readings.

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4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
(Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)

A Leper Came to Jesus

In the readings of the day the word leprosy resounds, which, just by hearing it being pronounced, caused anguish and fear for millennia! Two extraneous factors contributed to increase terror in the face of this sickness, to the point of making it the symbol of the greatest misfortune that could befall a human creature and isolate the poor unfortunate victims in the most inhuman ways.

The first was the conviction that this disease was so contagious that it infected anyone who might have been in contact with the sick person; the second, equally groundless, was that leprosy was a punishment for sin.

The one who contributed most to change the attitude and legislation in respect of lepers was Raoul Follereau (1903-1977). In 1954 he instituted the World Day of Leprosy, promoted scientific congresses and finally, in 1975, was successful in having legislation on the segregation of lepers revoked.

In regard to the phenomenon of leprosy, the readings of this Sunday enable us to know first the attitude of the Mosaic law and then of the Gospel of Christ. The First Reading from Leviticus states that the person suspected of suffering from leprosy must be taken to a priest who, verifying it, “declares him impure.” To make matters worse, the poor leper, excluded from human fellowship, must himself keep people away from him, warning them of the danger. Society’s sole concern is to protect itself.

Let us now see how Jesus conducts himself in the Gospel: A leper came to him beseeching him:

“‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

Jesus is not afraid of contagion; he allows the leper to come to him and kneel before him. More than that: at a time when it was thought that mere proximity to a leper contaminated, he “stretched out his hand and touched him.” We must not think that all this was spontaneous and cost Jesus nothing. As man, he shared in this, as in many other points, the convictions of his time and of the society in which he lived. But his compassion for the leper was stronger in him than the fear of leprosy.

In this circumstance, Jesus pronounces a simple and sublime phrase: “I will; be clean.” “If you will, you can,” the leper had said, thus manifesting his faith in the power of Christ Jesus, who shows he can do it by doing it.

This comparison between the Mosaic law and the Gospel in the case of leprosy makes us ask ourselves the question: By which of the two attitudes am I inspired? It is true that leprosy is no longer the disease that causes most fear (though there are still millions of lepers in the world), as it is possible, if caught in time, to be completely cured of it. And in the majority of countries it has been altogether eradicated. But other diseases have taken its place. For some time there has been talk of “new leprosies” and “new lepers.” With these terms is understood not so much the incurable illnesses of today, as the diseases (AIDS and drug dependency) against which society protects itself, as it did with leprosy, isolating the sick person and relegating him to the margins of society.

What Raoul Follereau suggested be done vis-à-vis traditional lepers, and which contributed so much to alleviate their isolation and suffering, should be done (and thank God many do) with the new lepers. Often such a gesture, especially if it is done having to overcome oneself, marks the beginning of a real conversion for the one doing it. The most famous case is that of Francis of Assisi, who dates the beginning of his new life from his meeting with a leper.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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