Decades ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen had a popular TV show watched by millions of people. One night on TV he told of his visit to a leper colony in Africa. He had brought with him a large supply of small silver crucifixes so he'd have a gift for each of the 500 lepers in the camp. The first leper he met had only the stump of his left arm, and his right arm and hand were covered with ugly, open sores. The bishop took one of the small silver crucifixes he had blessed, held it a few inches above the leper's hand and dropped it into the palm of his right hand. In a flash, the Bishop Sheen was struck by what he had just done. “All at once,” he said, “I realized that there were 501 lepers in this camp. And I was the most leprous of them all. I'd given a crucifix – the symbol of God's absolute love for us – but then I'd pulled back and closed my eyes to what that symbol really meant. So I looked again very hard at that silver crucifix and knew what I had to do. I pressed my hand to the leper's hand with the symbol of God's love between us, looked him in the eye, and I did the same for all in the camp.
Bishop Sheen's initial reaction of dropping a crucifix into the leper's hand raises a question: Would we have done any differently? How do we – you and I – become a caring community, not trying to avoid pain but instead acknowledging it as a fact of human experience? Do we really care for people? Do we recognize that we can't earn a PhD in caring, that caring cannot simply be delegated to specialists, that no one of us can be excused from being a caring person.
Yet we have a strong tendency to call in specialists. When someone isn't feeling well, we say “Go see a doctor.” When someone is confused, we say “Go talk to a counselor.” When someone is dying, we call a priest. When we pray, we look around for a recognized leader to speak the right words. At times it may be helpful to call a specialist. But at other times calling a specialist may be a sign of our own fear, insecurity and awkwardness, not a sign of our genuine care for someone.
Everyone of us has a marvelous capacity to care for others. It is part of our DNA: to be compassionate, to be present for each other, to listen, to learn. When that gift is used, miracles happen. If we sit in silence with another, not knowing what to say but knowing we must be there, we can bring hope and dignity to someone suffering mightily. If we hold a hand tenderly, shed tears, look troubled people in the eye, listen carefully to what they say and don't say, we can break through emotional barriers built up over the years. We can witness the birth of a deeper friendship, the friendship of people who are broken, as we are broken.
Why is it that we so often keep this gift of caring hidden? Why do we keep giving out dimes without looking into beggar's eyes? Why do we not sit next to the lonely diner at the far table instead of sit with those we know so well? Why are smiles so difficult and comforting words so hard to speak? Is it because we consider ourselves superior in some way? Is it because we are too full of our own opinions and convictions that we have no more to learn? To care means to empty our own cups and come together in mutual respect and vulnerability. When we really care, we quickly discover that nothing human is foreign to us. We learn that hatred & love, cruelty and compassion, greed and generosity are all found in each and every human heart. If we remain unable to feel the hurt of suffering people, our caring does not go the heart of the matter. It is in the human heart, and only in the human heart, that we can become a caring community. When we do, our hearts grow so wide and deep that no human experience can be a stranger to us. Bishop Fulton Sheen discovered this truth a long time ago. Have we – you and I – have we?!