'Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God...Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ...' -- 1 Cor 10:31,33

When I was a very young boy, I remember watching a television movie starring Ken Howard (who was best known, at least to me, as the basketball coach on the series "The White Shadow"). It was titled, "Damien, the Leper Priest," and it made quite an impact on my young mind. It's hard to imagine a TV movie today being made with such a religious theme, and with such a heroic vision of a priest.

This film made me want to know more about this man, canonized a saint by Pope (now Emeritus) Benedict XVI in 2009. In fact, along with St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Isaac Jogues and his companions and St. John Paul II, Damien's heroic example of priesthood was among the many influences that led me, at a young age, to consider the possibility of a priestly vocation.

I had the opportunity to pray at his tomb in Louvain, Belgium, not far from the (now-closed) seminary, the American College. Damien was a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, assigned to serve the leper colony on Moloka'i, Hawaii, in 1873. These victims of what today is known as Hansen's disease were ill, but were also in need of leadership and a general improvement in their state of living. Father Damien assisted the people in organizing themselves, improving their farms and schools.

Upon his arrival on the island, Damien told the islanders that he came as "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and to die with you."

Damien's illness
He did. After 11 years, in 1884, Damien discovered when he scalded his foot and felt no pain that he had contracted Hansen's disease. The one who ministered to the lepers; who so identified with his people; who so often reminded his people that, no matter what the outside world thought of them, they were beloved children of God with a God-given dignity, became one of them in this horrible illness.

Even in his sickness, nothing stopped this pastor of souls. Damien loved his people and died with them in 1889 at the age of 49.

The readings this Sunday all involve the theme of leprosy. In the first reading (Lv 13:1-2,44-46), Moses and Aaron learn from the Lord what to do when one of their fellow Israelites is stricken by this serious illness.

"Unclean! Unclean!" would be the shout by the sick person, after the Levitical priest verified the illness. The idea was that, for the good of the community, the afflicted person was to "dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."

We see this situation reversed in the dispensation by Jesus in Sunday's Gospel (Mk 1:40-45). In this case, the leper has the courage to go before Jesus, who is mercy made flesh, and ask for healing. Instead of being outside the collection of God's people, the leper is healed.

After being told to fulfill the law of Moses and show himself to the priest, and having been told not to broadcast his healing (as the Lord's time had not yet come), the healed man goes and sings the praises of the Lord.

Lessons for us
What can we learn from the life of St. Damien, and from Scripture? We are all, in our own ways, lepers. We are ill from our sins, our sorrows and our fallen human nature.

It is not enough for we, as the Church, merely to act like the Old Testament priests, identifying the illness. We must, like Damien, see ourselves as who we are: sinners, in need of healing. We are ill and need to be cured. The only one who can heal us is Jesus.

As the psalm (32:1-2,5,11) reminds us: "I turn to you, Lord, in times of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation." In these few days leading up to Lent, let us ask the Lord for healing, knowing our condition but knowing that we can be healed.

There is no greater way to ask for this healing than to take advantage of the grace and forgiveness offered in the sacrament of penance. He loves us and does not want us outside the camp. Be "unclean" no more!