1 John 5:5-13
A Leper‘s Healing and Vocation
When I was a seminarian I was asked to respond to a letter from a missionary. In the letter the priest spoke of his work with lepers. Although I answered the letter we did not correspond further, but I remember my hand breaking out in a rash the day after reading his letter. I was a bit concerned and wondered if leprosy was contagious. I suspect this was an unconscious, physical voice yelling at me, probably setting boundaries that would influence the direction of future ministry choices I would make.
Today is the feast of St. Damien of Molokai. Damien, priest and later leper, who ministered to poor lepers on that Hawaiian island. The gospel on this memorial fits nicely, as Jesus heals a leper.
In this part of Luke’s gospel there are two stories of Jesus power – healing the leaper, and healing and forgiving a paralyzed man. There are also two responses to Jesus’ power: people seek to listen to Jesus, and Pharisees, who sit as judges observing Jesus, reject his works. At the end of these two stories Jesus will call the twelve apostles, confirming them in their vocations.
I wonder about the vocation St. Damien de Veuster who died at the age of 59. What a jolt it must have been for him to be live in a lush, beautiful world where people arrived as if coming to a penal colony to live their days until death. I see his face in the familiar photo, black cassock large brimmed black hat, looking at us through wire framed glasses, his bulbous nose quite prominent.
I don’t know of Damien curing any of those whom he cared for. Life went on among the lepers as it does among us, need for daily food, social relationships, celebration of the sacraments and strengthening faith, their mutual care and support. As he lived his vocation did he feel the choice of responding like the people in the gospel? Did he listen to the voice of God in the events and people who surrounded him, in his prayer and Scriptures? Was he also tempted to sit in judgement like the Pharisees and see nothing good in God’s works except hopeless diminishment?
Where did Damien get such a vocation? Did he grow into it little by little? Was he not afraid of contagion? It is said that he stood before his community one day and announced that he was one of them, he was a leper. He must have always felt a gulf between those to whom he ministered and himself when he was a non-leper, and then one day that gulf was no longer part of his existence. Our gospel today may be more connected with vocation than at first seems apparent.
The people were catching on to Jesus, listening, taking him in. When our vocations call out to us they are invitations to a love that gives meaning to our life. Love is heard, and it invites us to an ongoing romance as strange, wild and indescribable as any can be. Damien responded to that love and we see where it led him. Remarkable. If we sit and judge we can find reasons to say, ‘no thanks’. But in the ‘yes’ the gulf disappears, we know we are one with God, and one with those to whom we bring God’s love.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.