When I was a kid, I was not very good at sports. I was a severe asthmatic, and running or getting excited sent me into episodes of wheezing and difficulty breathing. I liked sports, but when we would gather in an empty lot for baseball games, no one would pick me to be on their side - with the exception of my brother, who would reluctantly take me, and warn me to not be a klutz. When I was not picked, I would simply go home and do something by myself - the beginning of my introversion! At other times "the cool guys" would gather in one of the guys' houses to goof around. My brother was the natural leader of this group. As we would enter the house, the door would be slammed in my face. They did not want me hanging around with them. I would go home, and do something by myself. I learned how to be comfortable alone. By the time I reached junior high, I had developed the ability to form my own friendships, some of which endure to this day.
Obviously, this rejection as a child influenced and shaped my self-concept. It made me feel unwanted, unacceptable, odd, and disliked. I became a very shy kid, reluctant to take the initiative in relationships and in other realities. I engaged in a lot of self-doubt. Children being unkind to other children obviously did not just happen in the 1950s. We hear current stories in the news of children who are mocked, rejected, and bullied. Some become so devastated by this that they become quite depressed; and some have actually taken their own lives to escape the pain and rejection.
In my own case, I could identify with the recent article in the February 6, 2012 edition of Time Magazine. This cover story is entitled The Power of Shyness, by Bryan Walsh. The author distinguishes between shyness and introversion. Shy people have anxiety over social situations; introverts renew themselves by being alone. There is obviously overlap with shyness and introversion. But Walsh feels shy/introverted people develop an interiority that provides power for the challenges of life, which some extroverts may not develop.
I begin with a reflection on my childhood, because of the centrality of the disease of leprosy in both the first reading from Leviticus and the gospel of Mark. At the time of the writing of both Leviticus and Mark, people with the disease of leprosy were declared unclean, unacceptable, and excommunicated from the community. To be close to a leper, to touch a leper rendered a person unclean. Lepers were the rejects of the human community. They could not worship or have any meaningful connection with other people. The unclean nature of leprosy was twofold: there was the danger of physical contagion, catching the disease from the leprous person; lepers were also considered spiritually unclean. The latter was also transmitted to those in connection with lepers.
Knowing what Jewish people thought and felt about lepers makes what Jesus did in the gospel astounding. The leper knelt before Jesus and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." We are told that Jesus was moved with pity, and touched the man and said: "I do will it. Be made clean." We are told the leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. It is important to take note of the pity and compassion Jesus felt towards the man. His pity and compassion transcended any religious or legal restrictions that had been placed on the leper. In effect, Jesus allowed himself to be considered unclean, unfit for synagogue worship; because he actually touched the leper.
I felt like I was a leper in certain circumstances when I was a kid. Have you ever felt like a leper? Do any of us now? Who are today's lepers? Who are judged, looked down on, rejected, cut off from meaningful connection with other people? Who are today's lepers? Those with AIDS? Those with emotional problems? The addicted? The homeless? The poor? The hungry? The unemployed? Those who take prophetic stands regarding the Church or society? St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 calls us to be imitators of Christ. In part I think that means that we need to reach out and touch, in different ways, those who are considered and treated as today's lepers.
Dr. John Savage wrote an interesting book some years ago entitled The Alienated and Bored Church Member. In this book, he analyzed, across denominations, why some people become inactive and alienated from their church of origin. He said that some people have a cluster of pain in their lives; the pain can involve troubled relationships, emotional problems, financial or work related problems, marriage or family problems, and on and on. Such people hope that the religious congregation that they belong to would help with their cluster of pain. Savage found in his research that rather than helping with the cluster of pain, the parish or congregation often was part of a negative event that actually made the pain worse. In a process like this, the person in pain, hurt by the church, begins to stop going to church. In many congregations, the person's absence is not even noticed. They are forgotten. Savage says that they are screened out. No one seeks them out or tries to find out what the problem is. The hurting person becomes more deeply alienated, and ceases church attendance and often withdraws his/her/their children from religious education. Savage described such parishes as screening congregations. In other words, in many cases, the local church is at the heart of the "inactive problem." Savage's recommendation is that parishes need to engage in proactive visitation of their inactive population. We should try to reach out and touch people who have been made to feel like lepers by their own faith communities.
Father Bill Rowe, 72 years of age, a priest for 47 years, has pastored St. Mary's Church in Belleville, Illinois for a number of years. He has not taken a salary from the parish; rather he lives off of a military retirement salary. Father Rowe has had the practice of changing some of the prayers in the Roman Missal, to make them more understandable for the congregation. The Bishop called him to a meeting some months ago and told him that he had to say the words from the new missal exactly as they are printed. The priest wrote the Bishop a letter and said he could not do that; that was not prayer for him. He offered his resignation, if that is what the Bishop wanted. The Bishop did not respond for months. On February 2, 2012, the Bishop wrote Father Rowe and accepted his resignation. In his letter, he said: "... Make every provision in the rectory to make it comfortable for your successor. Please make sure that all appropriate books for the celebration of the Eucharist in accord with the new translation of the Missale Romanum are in place. Please also make sure that all appropriate sanctuary furnishings are in place." The principal of the school defended the priest, saying that everything he did was for the well-being of the parishioners and the students. Nonetheless an aging priest was rendered a leper because of his pastoral approach to liturgy.
We have been a church known for our excommunications.
When the leper said to Jesus, "If you wish, you can make me clean," Jesus replied, "I do will it." Let us keep in mind this approach that Jesus has toward all of us. He wants to reach out and touch us - if and when we feel like a leper. We would be better imitators of Christ, as individuals and as a church, if we reached out and touched people who seem to be today's lepers. There would be much healing in our world and in our church. Take it from an old leper.