The readings today are about leprosy. In 1873 a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Hansen, isolated the micro bacteria causing the disease, and cures were developed. For thousands of years before that, it was the world’s scariest ailment; and preachers have employed it as a metaphor for all types of sinful habits. Anyone seemingly saddled for life with a drug or alcohol addition is a leper in his or her own way.
But for today let’s stay with the physical disorder. The falling incidence of leprosy brought the U. S. government to close down the leprosarium at Molokai in 1940, and at Carville, Louisiana in 1994.
However, it was still so common in Korea when I was there in the 1950’s and 60’s that I had many sad dealings with lepers. In the spring of 1954 I was so delighted at being able to take part in a cathedral wedding, that it struck me as horrible the following year when the disease took young Gregory away from his Louisa.
We had a group of regular lepers in the small town where I spent ten years. They used the threat of hugging people to induce them to hand over money.
They had a burlap tent on a temporary island in our river. And one day in walking across the bridge I noticed the oddest of our regulars as he readied himself for wading out to that home of theirs. The man had very long legs, but a very short trunk, and I found myself idly watching him slip those shanks out of their make-shift trouser legs, Then, he startled me by looking up, and shaking his fit at me for invading his privacy.
Our lepers got blamed for it when a mangled body of an eleven-year-old boy was found in a shallow grave. Someone spread the story that had the lepers killing the kid to use his spleen for a cure. That had men battering the lepers with clubs. Then, a truck driver came forward, saying he had run over the boy in the dark, burying the body. I thought highly of him for confessing to take the blame away from our lepers.
There are burnt-out-cases who have been cured of the disease, but are left with the disfigurement that keep them from mixing with people. There used to be several thousands of those people in shacks on the wide red mud flats by the Yellow Sea. A bishop going out to say Mass for them, brought me along for hearing confessions. Through four hours of it what repeatedly struck me was that the problems of Korean people are no different those of Americans, and the burnt-out-cases are no different from any others of God’s souls.