Today we encounter one of the major themes of the Gospel. Jesus comes from God and is returning to God. This time the theme is expressed in a puzzling way. There is the term "little while" and the verb, "see." On one level, it can mean the death and resurrection of Jesus. On another level it can mean the return of Jesus "on the last day." The verb "see" is often connected with faith in the gospel and indeed the faith of the disciples would be shaken and then strengthened by the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In tomorrow's segment Jesus will use the image of childbirth to describe what the disciples will experience in his death and resurrection. Again, all of this is part of his explanation to the disciples about what is about to happen.
Jesus' orientation for the time between his first coming and his return in glory at the end of the world is a reversal of the world's fortunes. The world says take your joy now in whatever pleasures you can get from this present life. Jesus points to a joy that transcends anything this world can offer. Jesus contrasts present sorrows with future joy. We cannot avoid pain and sorrow if we wish to follow Jesus to the cross. But in the cross of Christ we find victory over sin and death that brings us supernatural joy without end. Thomas Aquinas said: "No one can live without joy. That is why a man or woman deprived of spiritual joy will turn to carnal pleasures".
Jesus contrasts present sorrows with the future glory to be revealed to those who put their hope in God. Nothing is wasted or lost in our faith journey. Every loss can help us to become more sensitive to the sufferings of others and to reach out in empathy and action.
Today we have an example of God’s providence bringing unexpected good into our lives. The man who would become St. Damien of Molokai was born in rural Belgium in 1840, the youngest of seven children. Growing up on the farm, Jozef was prepared to take over for his family, but he did not want the responsibility. Instead, he wanted to follow his older brother and two sisters who took religious vows. He aided his family until he was old enough to enter the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He took the name Damien, after a sixth century martyr.
In 1866, Hawaii established a leper colony on Molokai, known as Devil’s Island. It was still mistakenly believed that leprosy was highly contagious. This belief resulted in the forced quarantine of leprosy patients. The local bishop believed that the people living on the island, numbering over 800 at the time, needed a priest. Yet, the bishop knew that ministering to a people of this contagious and deadly disease would be a death sentence for the priest who went. The bishop asked for priests to volunteer to serve in Molokai. Fr. Damien was the first to volunteer. In 1873, Fr. Damien made the trip to be with these people in their colony.
Upon arrival he found anarchy reigned among the people. Many patients required treatment but had nobody to care for them. Every kind of immorality and misbehavior was on display in the lawless colony. Fr. Damien realized the people needed leadership, so he provided it. He asked people to come together to build houses and schools and the parish church, St. Philomena. The sick were cared for and the dead buried. Order and routine made the colony livable. Fr. Damien grew attached to the people and his work. He asked permission to stay at the colony to serve. He wrote: “I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all for Jesus Christ.”
Leprosy is not as contagious as most people of the period assumed, however five percent of the human population is susceptible. The disease can also take several years to show symptoms. Fr. Daminen became one of those people. After several years of work, he contracted leprosy in 1885. After sixteen years in the colony, Fr. Damien succumbed to leprosy on April 15, 1889. His sainthood was confirmed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Let’s also remember Saint Francis who met a man afflicted with leprosy while riding his horse near Assisi. Though the sight of the leper filled him with horror and disgust, Francis got off his horse and kissed the leper. Then the leper put out his hand, hoping to receive something. Out of compassion, Francis gave money to the leper.
But when Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper anywhere. It dawned on him that it was Jesus whom he had just kissed. In his Testament, Francis wrote, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”
The reason these saints and their story is so moving to me is that I spent time at the site of the last leprosarium in the United States, the National Hansen's Disease Center situated on 350 acres in Carville Louisiana, near Baton Rouge.
The Louisiana Guard took operational control of this facility in the early 1980s when the U.S. Public Health Service transferred ownership to the State of Louisiana and it was renamed the Gillis Long Center. The Guard uses this site to provide operational and training support and resources in support of the units of the Louisiana National Guard. There are now seven residents who voluntary remain in a wing on the grounds.
Both St. Damien and St. Francis had to discern who Jesus was and what God was asking of them. The memories of their words and actions should inspire us to go beyond our comfort zone and to risk becoming something more. And with that faith and courage we can change the world.