Homily 6th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle B February 11, 2018

Whenever I hear proclaimed any of the Gospels where a leper – or 10 – are cured, there are two recent Saints in the Church who come to mind. Both Saints have been canonized in the past 10 years by Pope Benedict XVI.
The first one is St. Damien of Molokai, who was raised to Sainthood in 2009. Molokai is an island in Hawaii that was set aside for those with leprosy. St. Damien was not from Molokai, or any other Hawaiian Island. He was born in Belgium in 1840, and grew to become a priest in the missionary religious order of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. Eventually in his life, he realized that God was calling him to minister in person to the lepers on Molokai.
I remember reading a book a few years back on St. Damien’s life, and the part that stood out for me more than the rest was his determination to find the most difficult set of circumstances where he could go and do the work of Christ. When he found Molokai and the lepers, it was like he discovered a gold mine. His missionary spirit, coupled with his love for the sick, was second to none in the history of the Church. He eventually died from leprosy at the age of 49, after many years of serving the needs of the lepers.
(As a short aside to his life, Fr. Damien, in order to go to Confession himself, he would yell his sins from the shore of Molokai to a priest who was standing on a ship because there was no priest to be found willing to come ashore and hear Confessions face to face, because it being an island of lepers. So, Fr. Damien would yell his sins to the priest in the exact same way the lepers in today’s reading from Leviticus had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” How would you like to go to Confession in that way? Not very appealing, is it?)
And, the second Saint is St. Marianne Cope, who was canonized in 2012. She too served the lepers for 35 years on the same island of Molokai, dying in 1918. I have no doubt she and St. Damien worked in concert for some of those years. Unfortunately for Fr. Damien, she couldn’t hear Confessions. St. Marianne was a Religious Sister of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, N.Y., being an American connection to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai well before Hawaii became a state.
In reference to this Gospel and Jesus cleansing the leper, what these two Saints reveal to us, among other things, is that very few men and women felt the personal call of God to go and serve the needs of the lepers, or even the sickest of the sick. Leprosy was so demeaning and torturous that they gave them their own island and didn’t charge them any real estate taxes. Wouldn’t you love to have your own island in Hawaii and never have to pay taxes on it? But none of us would ever exchange that for having leprosy. If leprosy was the only means of securing our own beautiful, peaceful, scenic island with no taxes, we would say, “I’d rather have my tiny apartment with high rent in the middle of New York City.”
So few ordained, religious, or laypersons, have felt compelled to serve those who are separated with a gravely contagious disease. We tend to look more like the priest hearing Fr. Damien’s Confession from the ship; help out from a distance, but not get so close where we have to touch. To touch someone’s hand. To give them a hug. To offer comfort inside the same room. I can hear the priest from the ship yelling, “I couldn’t hear you, Fr. Damien. Did you say you love the lepers, or you made an illegal bet on the Patriots? The wind was blowing too hard to hear you!” See what we miss if not we’re up close and personal.
But Jesus got up close and personal. Our Lord never took a back alley to avoid encountering the physically and spiritually sickest men and women he would meet in his entire public ministry. His direction was straight ahead toward them, the same approach of Sts. Damien and Marianne.
Whereas the lepers may or may not be in a class of their own when it comes to diseases, having a separate island, the Christian message I offer all of us today is that we don’t take any back alleys or distant ships when addressing the ill we come in contact with. Be smart, yes. But not distant. There’s a world of difference between being wise and avoiding. Between having courage, and being fearful.
This is one of the holy life movements of St. Damien and St. Marianne. We may not get as close as they did for so many years of service. But there should never be any backing off or sidestepping the sick that God sends before us. And I must say that in my priesthood I’ve witnessed some of the greatest Christian love in families taking care of their ill loved ones, both in this Parish and my previous one. Which is very good, because the alternatives are the horrors of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, which are no alternatives for a Christian, or for any human being with a good conscience.
Christ goes directly at them, or, he knows they are coming directly to his front door, healing the entire village without sneaking out the back door. No avoidance on his part. And if we ask it, he will provide the strength and grace to perform acts of love or presence in order to ease the burden of the sick.
In the Church, we are blessed with Saints for every good cause. From carrying Crosses to assisting the sick. Even the cause of serving the lepers, we have two great ones. We don’t have to do what they do, because most of us are not called by God to do what they’ve done. But we are called to take on a portion of their spirit, and their fortitude, to succeed on our own level when being a servant to the ill.
As they’re yelling “Unclean, unclean,” we can have the compassion to say, “Allow me to clean you up a little bit. I may not be able to heal you like Jesus did, but I can love you like he did.” And like St Damien and St. Marianne did also.