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Unclean! – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s difficult to read today’s scripture readings dealing with leprosy and not dwell on the era of COVID and the contemporary year of the plague. We are being inundated with language of masks, face coverings, hand sanitizer, physical distancing, isolation, quarantine, herd immunity, bubbles, and so on.

There’s been public shaming of politicians and other leaders and individuals who have disregarded government and health official guidelines by traveling outside of their area or for ignoring guidelines about safety measures. My assumption is that when this is all over, there will be a shelf full of books detailing and analyzing the years 2020 and 2021.

Early in the pandemic I read Daniel Defoe’s account of the 1665 bubonic plague that struck the City of London. A Journal of the Plague Year reveals some amazing similarities with our time, even though several hundred years separate these plagues.

I live just a hundred meters from our Jesuit infirmary.  If the Jesuits who live in community there have communicable diseases, such as COVID or even a bad case of the stomach flu, they are kept in isolation and there are safety precautions – for their own sake and for the sake of an innocent visitor who does not want a bout of gastroenteritis or whatever else is going around.

These COVID days, they have to be in a period of isolation if they have gone to a hospital for a simple procedure. Modern health care facilities have all kinds of precautions for patients with diseases that can spread like wildfire. Outside visitors are not allowed, but if they approached the front door, they’d be met with a sign alerting the potential visitor to the dangers that lurk inside.

That notice from the department of public health is basically a polite version of what we hear about the leper in today’s reading from Leviticus. “Unclean, unclean! That person shall remain unclean as long as the disease persists; and being unclean, such a one shall live alone with their dwelling outside the camp.” Today we find ways of treating the sick person without sending them outside the camp.

I had the privilege of working with lepers and tuberculosis patients at Jesu Ashram, in Matigara, India (in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal). This was for a few months in the early nineties, when I was in the Jesuit stage of formation known as tertianship.

Jesu Ashram provides free medical treatment and care to destitute sick people, especially those living with leprosy, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.  Jesu Ashram was established in 1971, in the Jesuit Province of Darjeeling. It was actually initiated by Canadian Jesuit Brother Robert Mittelholtz (from Southern Ontario).

No one is running around shouting, “unclean!” Jesu Ashram is tremendously welcoming and friendly. You can check the website  (https://www.canadianjesuitsinternational.ca/?s=jesu+ashram [1]) for Canadian Jesuits International and find out the latest capacities and developments in Matigara, including how they are responding to COVID.

Leprosy and COVID and other communicable diseases are very real. Our Christian challenge is to treat the disease without rejecting the sick person. Jesus is faced with a leper in today’s Gospel. He responds with pity, reaching out his hand and touching the leper. Let’s do likewise!