Our Lord, in the course of his active ministry, cured many sick men and woman, including those with leprosy, which up into modern times was an incurable contagious disease. Indeed, leprosy was not medically curable until the introduction of antibiotics that were effective to stop mycobacterium leprae.
It always struck me as odd when reading the Gospels how the writer made it a point to mention how Our Lord, when curing this or that leper, touched the person He cured. And on first blush when hearing this fact, you think to yourself something along the lines of, "Oh that's nice!" But, upon reflection, you ponder why. Our Lord as God could certainly have cured the lepers from a safe distance without even touching them — like He cured many sick individuals as the four Gospels attest, from even miles away. Yet, in many of the accounts of our Lord healing lepers, He touches those He cures.
Many saints over the centuries have reflected on this peculiarity in the Gospels. Saint Francis of Assisi early on — even before founding his religious community — took to heart this factoid of the Gospels and forced himself one day to embrace a leper he encountered outside Assisi. The saint forcibly challenged himself to go behind his human fear and natural revulsion and after hugging this leper, would become a changed man, a man who no longer knew fear of disease or death. Francis and his first followers would go on to care for lepers in their communities, and Francis would grow and mature into the saint the entire world has come to love.
For us in this new millennium wherein few literal lepers exist and those with contagious diseases are quarantined, it's hard for us to imagine even the gut revulsion St. Francis had to overcome to hug a leper — but he did it. For us, what St. Francis did by embracing a leper would be like forcing oneself to hug one of the local homeless people that lives under an urban expressway, to force oneself to embrace a human being attired in filthy rags who often has to go without a bath for days. I, for one, who have loads of experience working with the homeless, after running a soup kitchen for years in South Chicago, can honestly say: St. Francis I am not! I never, not once, embraced the homeless that frequented the soup kitchen. On the other hand, I recall how I would on a summer day, for the sake of other patrons of the kitchen, direct particularly rank patrons to a side table. But to give them a heartfelt hug: never!
But during His active ministry, Our Lord frequently touched the lepers He encountered, and He cured them. The reason I bring this up today is that, in the aftermath of COVID, many in our society have adopted a strict policy of "no-touch" — which, in part, seems opposed to the very Faith we profess. Moreover, on a human level, no person can thrive without the touch of another human being.
Many decades ago, when an undergrad and getting my first degree in the study of psychology, I wrote a paper on the importance of human touch for preemies to develop well. I was a preemie myself, born a month early and underweight. The topic of proper care for preemies from a psychological standpoint was close to home. As you can imagine, upon examination when doing my paper, study after study showed what good mothers and midwives have known from time immemorial — that human touch makes all the difference for the newborn to develop well and thrive.
Those newborns who lost their mother's touch and affection, through death or indifference, were often stunted in their development both physically and psychologically — a prime reminder of the fundamental importance of human touch to a person in infancy.
The reason I obsess about this today, in the aftermath of COVID and the residual hysteria that grips our world, is that many have forgotten the importance of human touch: a mother's, for her child, children for one another and so forth. I believe Our Lord would be shocked at this development, and at the utter lack of faith demonstrated by so many in our society, even those in the clergy. Bishops advocate for the administration of the sacraments of anointing of the sick and confirmation with Q-Tips, for example.
What does this say about our Faith when the sacrament is sterilized so much so that the component of human touch is removed? Yes, God can cure people and administer His grace from Heaven on high without the touch of another human being; but why thwart God with the removal of it? Over the last two years, so much has been lost; it's time now to regain ground and reintroduce the normal administration of the sacraments, following the example of Our Lord in the Gospels.
Another very, very peculiar miracle cure we find in John's Gospel: "When He had said this, He spat on the ground and made clay with His saliva and then smeared the clay in the eyes of the man, and said: 'Go wash in the pool of Siloam.' So he went and washed, and came back able to see" (John 9:6). Another miraculous cure by Our Lord in the Gospels. Our Lord could certainly have cured the man just by speaking a word, without a touch, without any ceremony or procedure. But Our Lord purposely went through this process involving the use of his own saliva to cure the man.
Talk about a health code violation! For myself, all these centuries later, I believe that Our Lord cured this poor blind man in this fashion just to demonstrate how touch is important in caring for one another and that faith is more important than the slavish adherence to universal precautions.
When talking with so, so many these days, I find that many have weak faith — a faith that does not include a belief in the Almighty curing the sick, or in miracles. For myself, I was once just a 3-pound preemie, who would go on to thrive, despite being small and sickly. (In addition to being small at birth, within that first three months of my life, I ended up with hepatitis B from a bad blood transfusion.) I thrived to grow up to be a man and was ordained a priest, not because of great medical care (it was non-existent in 1961 when I was born — the bad blood transfusion I received to give me hep B attests to this reality).
Rather, I thrived because I had a mother who insisted on staying in the hospital with her child to caress and to love him. My mother reported years later, when talking with me about my birth and infancy, that she told the hospital staff at St. Mary's that if her child was going to die, he would die in her arms; to die apart from her was unthinkable.
At this moment in time, a year and a half after the first wave of COVID, tragically, many have died, separated by the government and an unsympathetic Church, with no loving family members by their bedsides. Many have passed away without the benefit of the Church's sacraments. My prayer today is that, from this moment forward, we make an effort as a society and a Church to move beyond all the COVID fear and hysteria and act as men and women of faith, commending our sick to God's care and providence in our prayers. Moreover, I wish that, as men and women of faith, we have the courage to accompany our loved ones in their final illnesses at their bedsides and with our tender loving embrace.
I am not saying to abandon universal precautions. If a gown and facemask are needed at a loved one's bedside, then wear them; but be at the bedside of loved ones!
I was given the grace in the past three years to hold my parents before they died. This I believe helped me tremendously with dealing well with their deaths. My prayer today is that people move beyond COVID and related fears of it, to walk in the footsteps of our Redeemer — who touched the lepers, who embraced them in the stench and putridness of their illness and made them whole again, in a love that was limitless and unconditional. May our faith as disciples be strong and courageous!