“This event constitutes for all Christians...a valuable opportunity to relaunch their efforts in favor of those who are directly afflicted by Mycobacterium Leprae or are indirectly affected by it,” Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, said Jan. 25.
He urged “a renewed drive for the social integration of those people who bear its marks.”
Leprosy causes skin lesions which often become infected. In 2011 some 220,000 persons contracted the disease, which can now be treated. Despite this, a social stigma around the disease persists, and leper colonies remain around the world, particularly in India.
Archbishop Zimowski pointed out an insufficient level of access to medical centers that can diagnose the disease, as well as a lack of education and medical initiatives. He also said that this and other diseases which afflict “disadvantaged” countries “do not receive sufficient attention from the international community.”
The archbishop noted several saints who have been shining examples of service to lepers. He first mentioned Saints Damian of Molokai and Marianne Cope, both of whom served at the Hawaiian leper colony in the late 19th century.
St. Marianne Cope was canonize recently, on Oct. 21, 2012. At a Mass said in celebration of her canonization Jan. 12, Bishop Clarence Silva of Honolulu said, “She believed the story of his (Christ's) being cruelly confined to a rough-hewn cross, with many wishing that he would just disappear, and therefore found Jesus in those who had been cruelly confined, with the hope that they would soon disappear, on this rough cross of Kalaupapa.”
In his message, Archbishop Zimowski also mentioned Blessed Jan Beyzym, a Jesuit who served the lepers of Madagascar much as St. Damian did for those in Molokai, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity.
Finally, the Polish prelate discussed the Servants of God Marcello Candia and Raoul Follereau. Candia was a lay missionary, and Follereau was a spokesman for leprosy patients, establishing World Leprosy Day in 1954.
Archbishop Zimowski addressed those suffering from leprosy, as well as those who help them. The community, he said, are called to help establish a more just society, to promote leprosy's diagnosis and treatment, and to stress “the need to receive therapies so as to be cured.”
An afflicted Christian, he said, “also has the possibility of living his or her condition in a perspective of faith, 'finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love,' praying and offering up his or her suffering for the good of the Church and humanity.”
Anticipating the 60th World Leprosy Day, the head of the Vatican council for health care workers encouraged Christians to intensify their love and service to those afflicted with the disease.