Like in the time of Jesus, the lepers often feel abandoned by their family and excluded from the community. Due to the distance and the lack of money to defray travel expenses, a lot of them never get visitors.
by Fr. John Keenan, SSC
Father John, a Columban priest from Ireland, first came to the Philippines in 1966 and has stayed on until the present. He is based in Manila.
Every year as Christmas approaches, the students of the Univesity of the East (U.E.), Manila visit the leper hospital in Tala, some 20 kilometers away from Manila. They do this in order to bring some Christmas cheer and gifts to the patients.
Some 40 college students assembled at the main entrance of the U.E. campus and boarded the bus for Tala. They began the 2-hour journey by praying the rosary. Accompanied by guitars and the lively merriment brought by singing Christmas carols and other popular songs, the journey seemingly felt shorter.
Elizabeth Briones, Campus Minister of U.E., leading the group in singing songs inside the bus
Upon arrival at the hospital, Mass was said in the chapel of St. Damien of Molokai. St. Damien de Veuster was a Belgian priest who joined the lepers when they were confined to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. He had done so much to improve their conditions that he contracted leprosy and died from it.
After the mass, the students were given an orientation by two nurses from the leper unit. They were informed that it was all right to touch and talk to the lepers. Many of the patients were severely disfigured, having lost both hands and feet. Out of sensitivity to the patients, they were advised to remove certain accessories, since many of them no longer have fingers and/or ears.
We were cordially welcomed by staff and patients in every unit, with our medley of Christmas carols inspiring some patients to render their own favourite tunes, much to wild applause.
Afterwards, we sat down and personally talked to each patient. Like in the time of Jesus, the lepers often feel abandoned by their family and excluded from the community. Due to the distance and the lack of money to defray travel expenses, a lot of them never get visitors. Some do not receive messages or visits, even from their own children. Being disowned by their families hurts them deeply. Despite those circumstances, they are very cheerful and appreciative towards the young people who are so interested in befriending them and in listening to their life stories.
Fr. John Keenan, with some of the students from UE, spending time with a patient
Some patients wanted to go to confession and receive the Sacrament of the Sick.
After the individual sharing, gift-packages were handed to each one. They contained soap, toothbrushes and tooth pastes, hand towels, five kilos of rice, canned goods, and etc. Of course, in typical Filipino fashion, many photos and selfies were taken.
The whole experience impressed upon the students on how fortunate they themselves are to have all their faculties intact. On the other hand, I was reminded of St. Francis of Assisi who, upon sighting a leper, dismounted the horse he was atop of, and embraced him. It was a “Kairos” moment for him. Since he saw Jesus in the leper, he had a profound conversion, giving up his privileged lifestyle and becoming the poor man of Assisi. Pope Francis has chosen him as a model of Christian charity and as patron of the environment. But that is another story.