In embracing the leper, St. Francis experienced a singular moment of grace. That act of mercy should encourage us all.
St. Francis of Assisi had a fear and abhorrence of lepers. One day, however, he met a man afflicted with leprosy while riding his horse near Assisi. Though the sight of the leper filled him with horror and disgust, Francis got off his horse and kissed the leper. Then the leper put out his hand, hoping to receive something. Out of compassion, Francis gave money to the leper.
But when Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper anywhere. It dawned on him that it was Jesus whom he had just kissed.
Francis believed in divine synchronicity and saw it as essential in his spiritual life. Surely it was synchronous that Francis showed up at the church of San Damiano and then listened to the guidance he received. No doubt it was synchronous for Francis to notice a leper as he traveled the roads of Umbria. Mortified and disgusted by leprosy, Francis may have wished to pass by on the other side of the road. But God’s still, small voice told him to stop, reach out, and embrace the man with leprosy.
Both the man with leprosy and Francis were transformed in that moment.
What St. Francis Learned. In his Testament, Francis wrote, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”
Francis Did More Than Meet the Leper. Francis’ embrace of the leper was not an isolated instance. No, his ministry to lepers would only expand. Francis would go down to the colony of lepers two miles below Assisi, outside the city walls. Francis and other friars continued to minister to the lepers, feeding them, while also caring for and kissing their wounds. This became an ongoing ministry for Francis and the friars.
John Quigley, OFM, recounts the experience that prompted St. Francis of Assisi to renounce his family's comfort and status in order to embrace the poor Christ.
Reaching Out to Others. There are many ways today that we can assist those whom society rejects—those with mental illness or those who just don’t fit in because of lifestyle, orientation, or religion. In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, we can kiss and wash their wounds. We can offer them comfort or compassion. Or we can add to this list people who are seriously ill at home or in a hospital.
Leave No One Behind. In his Testament, Francis writes, "The friars are free to engage in any other activity which is not contrary to our Rule, with God’s blessing. But if there are lepers in urgent need, the friars may beg alms for them, only they must be on their guard against money." The great saint of Assisi wanted to make sure that his brothers were as open to embracing outcasts as he was.
Francis was informed and fueled by the Gospels. The Gospel of Luke would have us heed the words of Jesus: The Kingdom is in our midst, but we truly appreciate it only if we walk with Christ in his suffering and death. By embracing his way of the cross we welcome the Kingdom. By embracing the lepers as he did, Francis was fortifying the kingdom.
WWJD? Francis goes on to write in his Testament: "The friars should be delighted to follow the lowliness and poverty of our Lord Jesus Christ, remembering that of the whole world we must own nothing; but having food and sufficient clothing, with these let us be content, as St Paul says. They should be glad to live among social outcasts, among the poor and helpless, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg by the wayside.
If they are in want, they should not be ashamed to beg alms, remembering that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living, all-powerful God set his face like a very hard rock and was not ashamed. He was poor and he had no home of his own and he lived on alms, he and the Blessed Virgin and his disciples."
The stories passed down about the lepers is full of emotion. We sense God’s power at work through Francis. How have you or I become isolated from the community of believers? How is Jesus calling us to reconnect? At Sunday Eucharist we’re invited to lay aside our isolation, and to witness to one another what Christ has done for us.
Jesus cleared that path for us. St. Francis encourages us forward.