Today is observed as World Leprosy Day. Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the new president of the Pontifical Commission for Health Care Workers, has prepared a message for this day.
‘World Leprosy Day’, which was founded during the first half of the 1950s thanks to the role of the French writer Raoul Follereau, is not only a day of reflection on the victims of this devastating disease. It is first and foremost a day of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are afflicted by it.
Leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s disease, in reality continues to infect hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world every year. According to the most recent statistics published by the World Health Organisation, 210,000 new cases were registered in the year 2009.
In addition, the people who are infected by this disease but are not registered as having it, or anyway are still without access to treatment, are certainly very many in number. From a statistical point of view, the countries that are most afflicted are in Asia, in South America and in Africa. India has the most number of people with the disease, followed by Brazil. There are also numerous cases in Angola, Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania.
Hansen’s disease is an ‘ancient’ disease, but not for this is it less devastating physically and often also morally. In all epochs and all civilisations the fate of people with leprosy has been that of being marginalised, deprived of any kind of social life, condemned to seeing their own bodies disintegrate until death arrives.
Unfortunately, still today those who suffer from it or – although they have been cured of it – bear its unmistakeable mutilations, are far too often condemned to loneliness and fear, to live as though they were invisible to the eyes of other people, of society and of public opinion. In the most economically advanced countries it appears that this disease has been forgotten about, as have the people who are afflicted by it.
When it is remembered, when the word ‘leprosy’ is spoken, various kinds of feelings are provoked: incredulity in those who ask how it is that this pathology can exist; fear and repugnance or a no less grave ostentation of indifference; but also the pity and love that spring from the attentive and merciful attitude of Jesus towards these sick people (Mk 1:40-42).
The role of Follereau, of many institutions and bodies of an ecclesial and/or non-governmental character which fight against leprosy, the exceptional work of St. Damian di Veuster and very many other saints and men of good will, have helped to ensure that negative attitudes towards people with leprosy have been overcome, promoting their dignity and their rights and at the same time a more universal love for neighbour.
Today effective treatment for leprosy exists but despite this fact Hansen’s disease continues to spread. Amongst the factors that favour its perpetuation there is certainly individual and collective acute poverty which far too often involves a lack of hygiene, the presence of debilitating illnesses, insufficient alimentation if not chronic hunger, and a lack of rapid access to medical care and treatment. At a social level there persist at the same time fears which, usually generated by ignorance, add a heavy stigma to the already terrible burden which leprosy involves, even after a person has been cured of it.
I thus appeal to the international community and to the authorities of each individual State and invite them to develop and strengthen the strategies that are needed in the fight against leprosy, making them more effective and capillary above all where the number of new cases is still high. All of this should be done without neglecting campaigns of education and sensitisation that are able to help the people who are afflicted and their families to move out of exclusion and obtain the treatment that is necessary.
At the same time in a heartfelt way I thank the local Churches and the various missionary and nonmissionary religious institutions for what has already been done by so many of them, by consecrated men and women, lay men and women; for the good that has already been done by the World Health Organisation through its praiseworthy commitment to eradicating this and other ‘forgotten’ illnesses; the anti-leprosy associations and non-governmental organisations; as well as numerous volunteers and all men and women of good will who through their work, which is marked by love for our brothers and sisters afflicted with this disease, dedicate themselves to their care in an overall way, restoring to them the dignity, the joy and the pride of being treated as human beings, so that they can safeguard or, according to their situations, regain their rightful place in society.
May Mary Salus Infirmorum (the Refuge of the Sick) support these sick people in their difficult fight against the sufferings and tribulations provoked by this disease and may the veil of silence be torn away through an increasing number of acts of true solidarity towards people afflicted by leprosy!
President of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers
In the synoptic gospels, there is a powerful story of Jesus' cure of a leper, which, in Mark's gospel, contains tones of an exchange of roles: at the end of the narrative the leper is restored to the worshipping community ("Go, show yourself to the priest...") and society, whereas Jesus, because of the report about him, could no longer enter a town but was forced to stay out in desert places (Mark 1:40'45).
Of course, in the past year Pope Benedict XVI canonized Damien de Veuster, the Sacred Heart Priest who served the lepers on Molokai (Hawaii) and, one day, after many years began his homily with the poignant address: "We lepers...."
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Though the liturgical observance of the Apostle of Youth is not permitted this year (as it falls on a Sunday) the following are a few notes on this attractive follower of Christ and founder of a new religious community in the Church (the Salesians of Don Bosco) and of the importance of the Salesian charism:
John Bosco educated the whole person—body and soul united. He believed that Christ’s love and our faith in that love should pervade everything we do—work, study, play. For John Bosco, being a Christian was a full-time effort, not a once-a-week, Mass-on-Sunday experience.
It is searching and finding God and Jesus in everything we do, letting their love lead us. Yet, John realized the importance of job-training and the self-worth and pride that comes with talent and ability so he trained his students in the trade crafts, too.
John Bosco’s theory of education could well be used in today’s schools. It was a preventive system, rejecting corporal punishment and placing students in surroundings removed from the likelihood of committing sin. He advocated frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. He combined catechetical training and fatherly guidance, seeking to unite the spiritual life with one’s work, study and play.
Encouraged during his youth to become a priest so he could work with young boys, John was ordained in 1841. His service to young people started when he met a poor orphan and instructed him in preparation for receiving Holy Communion. He then gathered young apprentices and taught them catechism.
After serving as chaplain in a hospice for working girls, John opened the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales for boys. Several wealthy and powerful patrons contributed money, enabling him to provide two workshops for the boys, shoemaking and tailoring.
By 1856, the institution had grown to 150 boys and had added a printing press for publication of religious and catechetical pamphlets. His interest in vocational education and publishing justify him as patron of young apprentices and Catholic publishers.
John’s preaching fame spread and by 1850 he had trained his own helpers because of difficulties in retaining young priests. In 1854 he and his followers informally banded together under Francis de Sales.
With Pope Pius IX’s encouragement, John gathered 17 men and founded the Salesians in 1859. Their activity concentrated on education and mission work. Later, he organized a group of Salesian Sisters to assist girls.
In March 2008, as the Salesians began a Chapter of Affairs, Pope Benedict XVI urged them to continue in the line of their founder by uniting union with God and a care for evangelizing youth:
In his message--conveyed to Father Pascual Chavez Villanueva, the rector-general of the Salesians--the Pope said that the order should cultivate "profound mysticism and a solid ascetism" in order to guard against "the dispersive effects of activism."
The top priority for the Salesian order must always be evangelization, the Pope said. He urged the members to redouble their efforts with young people, helping them to come to know Christ and to overcome the superficiality of a secularized world.
The Holy Father told the Salesians that their religious community should emulate their founder Don Bosco, showing the same "faithful abandonment to the Father and dedication to the evangelical mission."
That mission is doubly important today, the Pontiff continued, because of "the process of secularization that is gaining ground in modern culture." He cautioned that the effects of secularization can be evident even within religious orders, and warned against "lifestyles that risk weakening evangelical witness."
Noting the Salesians' involvement in educational projects, the Pope said that the world of schooling is facing its own crisis, "a crisis of trust in life which, in the final analysis, is a lack of trust in God Who called us to life."
The Holy Father said that to counteract that trend, Salesian educators must help to strengthen the families of their students and ensure the proper formation of their own community members.
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· The birth on this day of St. John Francis Regis, apostle of the Ardeche (France) to whose tomb Jean-Marie Vianney made a lengthy pilgrimage on foot, to implore the saint's intercession for the grace of learning enough Latin to be ordained a priest.
· Today's blog entry is #300 since April 2009.