INTERNATIONAL ASSEMBLY OF
LEPROSY MISSION INTERNATIONAL
Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
An Grianan, Termonfechin, 3rd June 2005
I am very happy to be with you this evening for the presentation of the two Wellesley Bailey Awards to recipients from Brazil and Thailand and indeed to pay tribute to the work of Leprosy Mission International. Leprosy Mission International was founded in Dublin in 1874 and still today its work is relevant in a world where medical progress has done so much, but in which about a half million cases of Leprosy emerge each year.A Multi-drug therapy cure for Leprosy was discovered also in Ireland and has cured millions of patients. But drugs alone are not the only dimension of that cure. A process of caring for and curing victims of leprosy involves a wide range of medical treatments. But this must take place within a concrete community and it must address all the needs of the patient.
An approach centred on the dignity of each human person is essential in the fight against the stigma which still attaches to Leprosy in many cultures and which may indeed lurch only skin-deep in the thought of people in any part of the world.
As a Christian leader, I find it useful to recall Christ’s attitude to the sick. Everywhere Jesus went during his ministry he preached the good news and he met with the sick. Probably there is no other group so constantly mentioned in the Gospels as the sick. On many occasions we note that Jesus met them, touched them, was moved to compassion and helped them. The Gospels talk always in the same breath of the sick and of those who were bound by other burdens. Illness is rarely just physical in its effects. It touches the entire person, as well as the network of relationships within which the sick person lives.
It is interesting to note in the Gospels the details of how Jesus met with the sick. He did not work what we would call today “tele-miracles”. There were no big shows. He met rather with each sick person individually and laid hands on them individually. Sometimes it was the sick themselves who just wished to touch his garments because they knew that in any encounter with Jesus, healing power would come from him and their lives would be changed. The encounter was always one which recognised the uniqueness of each sick person.
Each sick person is an individual person, with his or her own history, joys and sorrows, sins and secrets, weaknesses and strengths, doubts and hopes. Caring and curing is about more than the metabolism. It involves the person as such.
Jesus has a special love for the sick. There is even the extraordinary scene told in the Gospel of Saint Mark (Mark 5: 5-6) in which Jesus visited his own home town and was not accepted by his townspeople. Mark notes that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith” and that therefore “he could work no miracle there”. But Mark adds immediately “though he cured some sick people by laying hands on them”! Jesus special care of the sick remained even when he was unable to work any other miracle. His care for the sick is so great that even the lack of faith of his townspeople cannot hold it back. The Christian, as a follower of Jesus, is obliged therefore to be concerned about the sick anywhere in the world.
Jesus changes the role of the sick person. In many ancient traditions the sick were outlawed, people turned away from them. Lepers were the personification of this rejection of the person. For the Christian, however, the sick person becomes the image and the sign of Jesus. At the judgement Jesus will say: “I was sick” and you visited, or did not visit, me. The task of caring for the sick is not something that we can delegate to others. It is a responsibility for the entire community. Just as Jesus shares in the condition of suffering humankind, the Christian community must learn how to bear the illnesses of all.
All around the world, we need a new sense of our common responsibility for the sick, the lonely, the troubled and those who are weak with the passage of years. They all belong to our community. We have to ensure that the sick can live within their own familiar environment for as long as possible and with the highest degree of dignity possible.
Health care needs today to be professional. But there is also the danger that it becomes so professional that it is left to the professional, to the experts: that the community stands back and leaves hope to technology. But sick people need human warmth; they need to know that they are not forgotten; they need to know they are remembered. They need to know that they still have, even in weakness, a contribution to make through their goodness and their wisdom. Their very weakness should help us all to remember that human satisfaction is not merely success in an increasingly competitive rat race: it is about the goodness we show and the love we share.
Our award winners this evening show us very clearly how important it is in our contact with the sick to look on people not as clients or objects of our attention, but as people with potential. They have shown us that their contact with the care of Leprosy Mission International changed them and enabled them to release the innate potential that was in them and make them leaders in the communities to which they belong and farther afield.
I congratulate them and I hope that their example will be an inspiration for us in our support of Leprosy Mission International and indeed in our understanding of sickness and of care which place the individual person at its centre.