Bishop Bhai Speeches

Leprosy
Public Address, October 27, 2004

I want to begin by mentioning that the bulk of what I have to say about leprosy itself comes from the World Health Organization website devoted to the disease. [1]

According to that information leprosy is a chronic infectious disease. It is caused by a bacillus that mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. The oldest documented case of the disease is in India , in the fifteenth century BCE. Historians think it came to the west from Egypt . Many think that the infection came from the waters of the Nile and some unsanitary eating habits of that people. Historians also credit the spread of the disease to the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt , the travels of Phoenician sailors, and later the Jewish diaspora and Roman army campaigns. By the sixteenth century CE, leprosy had spread to every known continent.

The incubation period for leprosy can be as short as a few weeks or as long as forty years. There is a preliminary stage to the disease and then periodic outbreaks of red, white, and brown blotches. These appear and then disappear in various parts of the body. The sites are usually insensitive. Sooner or later small tumours arise on the joints, fingers, and toes. As the disease advances it affects the skin, mucous membranes, and the nerves.

Lepers also develop an offensive smell which combined with disfiguration contributes to their social isolation. Generally their minds remain intact which means they know and feel the deterioration and the ostracism. Without treatment the disease usually lasts for eight to ten years. It also opens up the patient to a wide variety of other disorders and can hasten death from them.

There are references in the bible to leprosy as early as the Exodus and as late as the life of Jesus. It is necessary to take a look at those ideas because many of them have formed our opinion of the disease for thousands of years.

All disease was considered a punishment for sin, either the sin of the individual involved or of his or her forbearers. Because of that, the pursuit of healing of illnesses was considered to be pointless. Leprosy was considered to be both contagious and hereditary. Contact with a leper was contact with the “unclean” and since only the “clean” were permitted to worship, lepers were excluded from the Temple and from the community at large. They were required to dwell on the fringes of the encampment or the city and had to beg for a living.

It was the priests in the Jewish community who were required to diagnose the disease, quarantine and banish the victims, and in some rare cases, restore them to the community. In general, lepers were required to wear loose fitting clothing, cover their mouths, sometimes wear or ring a little bell, and shout “Unclean, unclean” as they went about.

Jewish and Christian scholars now suggest that some of the “lepers” whose disease went into remission, in effect, had eczema, or psoriasis, hives or even what we call prickly heat today, and that when those diseases cleared up they were able to return to the community. Not every bit of patchy, scaly skin in the ancient world was necessarily leprosy any more than it is today.

What I have just described is the traditional view of any disease found in the Book of Deuteronomy, that is, it was a punishment for sin as was death. But there was another tradition in ancient Israel and that was the Wisdom school of thought. Both the Prophet Elisha and Jesus stood in this latter tradition. [2]  

. For Elisha, Jesus, and others who followed the Wisdom tradition, sickness and suffering were not punishments for sins, but part of life. The causes of illness and death were often mysterious and unknown, possibly less true today but sometimes as mysterious now as then. Jesus believed that he and his followers were to have compassion for the sick and suffering and to do what they could to alleviate any and every kind of evil. In the Gospel of John we have him saying clearly that he has come that all may have life, “and have it more abundantly”. God’s “Shalom” required this and required human beings to work toward it. The Christian scholars Kelsey and Crossan go so far as to say that without this determination to eliminate suffering Christianity would likely have faded into the oblivion that was the fate of many another Jewish sects around in the time of Jesus. But it would be a thousand years later that hospitals for lepers emerged in eleventh century England . In fact, there are some who argue that all the health care and social services that we know today emerged out of these hospitals for lepers. [3]

It was not until 1873 that G. A. Hansen found the bacillus that caused the disease and it took another seventy years for a successful treatment to be put into place. Unfortunately the bacilli soon developed into a strain that would not longer be affected by the original treatment and today a multi-drug antibiotic therapy is employed. The horrible disfigurements of the past are becoming history when the disease is detected and treated in its early stages. Leper colonies and the physical separation of patients from their families is no longer necessary. Beginning in 1985 about 90% of all leprosy cases have been cured worldwide. But there are still remnants of the disease among the poorest of the poor in Angola , Brazil , Madagascar , Mozambique , India , Nepal , and Tanzania .

I have suggested to you that Jesus was in favour of cures. I believe that he was also in favour of healing. I want to spend the rest of my time with you on this topic. Those of you who were with us at mass heard me say that we must be the best medicine for anyone with whom we work and in whatever capacity we work. In many ways, that is what I mean by healing.

Let me define some terms. A cure occurs when a treatment removes all traces of a disease. It is what a physician usually hopes to bring to a patient. Healing can certainly take place at a physical level, for example when a wound closes up or a broken bone mends. Healing can also take place at emotional and mental levels as we put meaning into things which otherwise seem to have no meaning. Healing can also take place at a spiritual level when we become more connected to others and/or to the Divine. Healing and curing are different but deeply entwined. It is possible for healing to take place when a cure is not possible. Healing is involved very much with hope.

There are several scientific studies which have been launched to determine the role of hope in relation to the quantity of life. They are inconclusive in the minds of most scientists. But there seems to be considerable evidence about the effectiveness of hope in terms of the quality of one’s life. In the scriptures it seems that those who were cured picked up their beds and walked and went about their business. Those who were cured and healed were grateful. They no longer took life for granted. In his meeting with Elisha, the leper Naman is reported to have been cured and healed. His sense of gratitude is overwhelming. The Samaritan leper returned to Jesus and thanked him for his cure and for his healing. The other nine were not grateful it would seem.

When I suggest that we need to be the best medicine, I am really suggesting that we need to be men and women of hope. We need to believe that with God all things are indeed possible. We need to exude that conviction from our very pores. We need to take nothing for granted and to be grateful for all that is. Please do not misunderstand me.

Medical treatments and procedures are necessary. The advances we have made in this field today – not just in terms of leprosy -- are stupendous. But they are not enough. They are not all there is. All our patients and clients need our loving support, encouragement, and service, and they need our good humour. Learning is important but our students must be loved and not browbeaten. Balwadis are vital but our babies must be loved and not feel threatened in any way. And we need to love each other, our companions in whatever enterprises and apostolates we are involved. John Powell, S.J., has done us all a great service in writing, “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You That I Love You?”

I am not talking about some sentimental, gushy, pie-in-the-sky, God wills it language that touches no one because it is not real and it is not genuine. It does not do so because it is the mouthing of words that have not been lived and not experienced in any depth. I am talking about the resurrected life that comes from being well and truly loved by even one other human being. That is the life and hope that needs to be shared. That is the best medicine that we can bring to anyone and to anything including our own selves.

In November of 1997 speaking at the opening of a multi-media exhibit on leprosy held at the United Nations, Koffie Annan, Secretary General of that organization, appealed not only for the proper medical care for people affected by the disease for also “for the dignity of those affected by the disease which is the birthright of every person on earth.” Another speaker, Dr. P.K. Gopal, President of the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement (IDEA), commented that “victory over leprosy can only be considered as completely achieved when there is no disability occurrence due to leprosy, no segregation of or discrimination against persons affected by leprosy, and when those who have had this disease lead normal lives like other citizens.”

I want to suggest that in India we should substitute the word communalism for leprosy, along with casteism, and every and any “ism” that keep any of us from the dignity that is our birthright. All of us need to root out spiritual leprosy to be the men and women of hope that our world so desperately needs and to truly be the best medicine for any and every ill of body, mind, and spirit. Amen.

[1] Cf. www.who.int/lep/disease/disease.htm. There is also a wealth of information on this topic available from an Australian couple who worked with lepers in India for almost forty years. It is at www.newadvent.org/cathen/09181a.htm.

[2] Much information about this tradition is available in Morton Kelsey, Psychology, Medicine, and Christian Healing, San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1988. There are also references to it in John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus, San Francisco , Harper & Row, 1989.

[3] Cf. www.building-history.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Bath/Medieval/Outcast.htm .

 

Contact Web Editor | Site Contents | content ©2005 Leobard D'Souza | electronic edition ©2005-2010 Ingrid Shafer