Homily, October 27, 2004
I I will be brief in today’s homily because you will hear me again at the public meeting on the issue of leprosy and the work the Assisi Sisters of Mary Immaculate are about to undertake along that line in Nagpur. For now I want to offer just a few reflections on this work in the context of Eucharist.
In the film, “Something Beautiful for God”, produced by Malcolm Muggeridge years ago, about the work of Mother Teresa, a young Missionary of Charity tells a delightful story which is the theme of much of what I want to say to you today at mass and at the talk which will follow. This is it.
The sisters had and have mobile dispensaries and make the rounds of locations where people have almost no medical assistance. One of these is a colony of lepers. One week, the sisters had no medicine for the lepers because a shipment had not arrived and so they did not visit.
The next week when they came, the elders of the village asked them why they had not come and they explained about the lack of medicine. The men looked at each other and then at the sisters and one of them said, “Sister, YOU are our best medicine. Please come whether you have tablets to bring us or not. We need and want YOU.”
When I look at the work of the Greengardens Sisters, as they are often known, whether it is in Jeevoday with the cognitively impaired, or work with the physically handicapped of every kind, or with lepers, I admire tremendously what it is that they all accomplish. For me, it is all in the spirit of service which marked those who were designated as deacons and deaconesses in the early church. And like those earliest Christian workers it is often to those who are the least accepted and the least respected among whom the sisters work.
It is true that some of our critics denounce our charitable works in the country questioning our motivations for doing them but there are few among our worst critics who deny the gift we have been to India in terms of our schools and social service efforts of many sorts.
When the Assisi Sisters came to me years ago and said they wished to establish their provincialate here in Nagpur and to take up a mission among us I told them of the more than one hundred developmentally challenged, cognitively impaired children and adults we had in our midst right around the cathedral area. I told them that I had just come from a trip abroad where I had seen schools, and training centres, and sheltered workshops for such persons. I mentioned, too, how many Catholic schools abroad were working to integrate developmentally challenged students into regular classrooms for their benefit and for the benefit of their peers. The sisters took up the challenge immediately and now here and in Amraoti they have excellent facilities for these persons and have a nation-wide reputation for the excellence of the athletic events they organize periodically for them.
And now they will return in Nagpur to what was the original goal of their founder, Monsignor Joseph K.V. Thomas, beginning in 1949, to work with and for lepers. I rejoice in this.
Leprosy has afflicted humanity since time immemorial. It once afflicted every continent and has left terrifying images in history of mutilation, rejection, and exclusion from society. In both the Old and New Testaments we have stories of the healing of lepers. We are told that Jesus healed ten lepers, nine were Jewish and one a Samaritan. The Samaritan, a double outcast as it were, was the only one who returned to thank Jesus for what he had done for him. He had not only ended the disease but Jesus had restored the man to his family, his community. He was no longer a social outcast, as important in Jesus’ time and place as it is in ours.
It was only in 1873 that the bacillus which causes leprosy was identified and treatment of it began only in the late 1940s. It is unfortunate that the bacilli eventually became resistant to the earliest treatment and new medications had to be found. Thank God, and modern science, they have been.
But that is not my chief point in these reflections. It is that we, you and I, along with the Assisi Sisters, must be the “best medicine” for those sick in body or mind or spirit, or even all three. If we are not that, if we are not the best medicine that any and all people experience, then we do not understand the Jesus way of life, nor do we understand this Eucharist.
When Jesus said, “This is my body, this is my blood”, he meant that exactly. He was telling those around him that he was giving his life for them and he expected them to do nothing less than that in his name if they were to be his true disciples. The way of life he offered was the “best medicine” for their hurting bodies, aching minds, and bruised hearts. When, in just a few minutes, I say, “This is my body.....”, I hope with all of my being that you will be saying along with Jesus, this is my body – me, Charley, Daisy, Mary, Assunta, Leo, Cyrilla, Johnny – my body, along with Jesus’ that I give today for the cause of our Christ. I give my time, my talent, all that I am, that all humanity will have life and have it in abundance.
This is my hope and prayer for today. No matter what our work, in schools, hospitals, social service operations, offices, banks, sales departments, pedaling rickshaws, everyone whom we encounter will then have to look at us and say, in their hearts, if not out loud, “You are our best medicine.” Amen.