In one short sentence St. Paul gives us a summary of the Christian life: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Each of us is called to imitate Christ and to set an example, like St. Paul, so that others may emulate us. St. Paul is one in a line of saints whose actions were a living commentary on the modern expression, “What would Jesus do?”
At the time of Jesus, leprosy was considered so contagious that those with it were quarantined for life apart from the rest of the community. They had no one with whom to associate or to care for them, except other lepers. They were cut off from their families, from their jobs, from the synagogue and the temple, from love and mercy. They were outcasts, ostracized from all things human. They had to wear ripped clothes and keep their hair messy so that others would be able to spot them more easily. Whenever they needed to travel to obtain something, they were mandated by Mosaic Law to shout out “Unclean!” “Unclean!” They were forbidden to come within a certain distance of others. Anyone who touched a leper became, in Jewish mentality, unclean. That a leper broke all convention to come close to Jesus was already a sign of his desperation.
What was Jesus’ reaction when just such a miserable, nauseating creature fell on his knees before Him? Most of those around Jesus likely ran away from him lest they catch the contagion. Jesus moved in the opposite direction. He stretched out His hand and touched the leper.
This is the Jesus we’re called to imitate. We’re not necessarily called to imitate Jesus in caring for those with Hansen’s disease, because, thanks be to God and to the gift of modern medicine, leprosy has been eradicated in our country and in most of the world. Most of us are not gifted with the Lord’s divine power to work stupendous miracles of healing, so we’re not called to imitate Christ that way. But what Christ is calling us to do is to love the outcasts with the same love that He does, the love which would make Him go to the Cross again for them if He needed to. The following are some of the outcasts we may be called to love with Christ's love:
• The bodily leper: those with AIDS, those whom the world considers ugly or unattractive, or those whose illnesses are so long-lasting that few want to care for them;
• The psychological lepers: those with mental illness or mental disabilities, about whom others make jokes, but for whom they make no time;
• The spiritual or moral lepers: pedophiles, drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, death-row inmates those who have committed very public and embarrassing sins, and those who think that their sins cannot be forgiven;
• The economic lepers: the homeless or the very poor, who are shut off from society and the things most of the rest of society take for granted;
• The racial lepers: the gypsies or, depending upon where one
lives, those of a particular skin color, be it black, or brown, or yellow;
• The emotional lepers: those who, because of their own psyche
or others’ actions, feel completely alone and abandoned.
These are among the ones Jesus wants us to reach out to and heal through our very human touch, to bring back from the margins into communion.
We see in the lives of the saints that very often their paths to deep sanctity occurred when they cared for an outcast. St. Francis of Assisi was a carefree young man riding around on his horse preparing to seek glory as a soldier in battle. He was leaving his hometown and going to the plain of Assisi. He saw a leper on the path near the outskirts. Francis’s horse jerked out of repugnance. Francis looked at the leper for what seemed like an eternity, but he dismounted, went to the man and took his emaciated, cold and inert hand and placed within it a coin. Then he lifted that hand up to his lips and kissed the lacerated flesh of the abject man. A wave of emotion rushed over Francis, as he was filled with the exhilaration that comes when we abandon all fears and conventions and really love others as Christ loves us. As the leper withdrew his hand, Francis raised his head to look him in the eyes, but the man was no longer there. Neither was the old Francis. Everything had changed.
In the life of St. Martin of Tours, a similar thing occurred. He was a Roman soldier who was approaching the gate of Amiens, France, on a frigid day. It was there that he met a homeless man, practically naked, shivering in the cold. Martin had no money to give him and so was just going to move on. But, moved by conscience, he got off his horse, took out his sword and cut his Roman cape in half, giving half of it to the poor man. When Martin went to sleep later that evening, Christ appeared to him in a dream wearing the other half of his cape and saying, “Martin has clothed Me in his garment.” It was what led him to become Saint Martin of Tours.
Likewise for us, the path to sanctity begins with our loving those whom the world finds unlovable. As we learn from the examples of Saints Martin and Francis, every time we care for an outcast, we are caring for Christ.
The path of great saints began with their caring for the outcasts. The Lord, who calls us to be saints, will help us to become saints if we imitate them as they imitated Christ.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, ordained in 1999. After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto, and for several years in Rome. He speaks widely on the thought of Pope John Paul II and on apologetics, and is currently parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and executive editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. An archive of his homilies and articles can be found at catholicpreaching.com.
This article is adapted from one of Father Landry’s recent homilies.