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Holy Spirit Interactive: Fr. Rufus Pereira: The Curse and Cure of Leprosy

The Curse and Cure of Leprosy

by Fr. Rufus Pereira

The leper knelt and begged of Jesus, "You can heal me - if you want to." Jesus felt sorry for him and laid his hand on him, "Of course I want to! Be healed!" (Mk 1:40-42)

It was good to meet once again Fr. Marcelino Irragui, OCD, the Carmelite Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Seminary at Alwaye, Kerala. He was the one who had come all the way to Mumbai to attend our first national charismatic retreat for priests in 1975. He was also the one to invite us to give the first charismatic retreats both to the seminarians and to the priests of Kerala in 1976. He shared with me in childlike joy all the wonderful things the Lord had been doing in his priestly life ever since and especially in his preaching and healing ministries. He now pressed upon me to visit without fail a certain family in Kerala who was close to him, in order to pray over their son over whom he had himself prayed a number of times.

I went at once and was led right to the very last room at the back of that spacious mansion belonging to one of the most well known families of Kerala. As I stood at its threshold and peered into the semi darkness of that small dingy room, I noticed a young man lying there on the bed with disfigured face and deformed fingers. I then realized to my horror that he was a leper. Immediately my childhood fear of leprosy came back to me. I remembered that if we saw a leper on our way to church as we were walking on the left side of the road, our father would huddle us all at once across to the right side, warning us children that leprosy was extremely contagious. When my younger brother won a prize book in a competition conducted by a schoolmaster who had been a leper, my father had that book burnt much to the chagrin of my brother. We were even cautioned not to take the name of leprosy on our lips as according to my father the very word was contagious.

And so, don't blame me, I prayed for that young man standing at a safe distance on the threshold, not daring to enter the room even one step. And then there came before my eyes so very vividly the touching scene of a leper falling at the feet of Jesus and pleading with him, "Lord, you can heal me - if you will". Jesus felt sorry for the man; so he reached out his hand and touched him saying, "I do will - Be healed". And immediately the disease left the man and he was healed (Mk 1:40-42). I then wanted to do what Jesus did - but how to do it. In fact I wished Jesus were there instead of me.

Then the Lord seemed to be speaking to me, "Rufus, if I were here, what would I have done?" As if in answer there came to my mind a Scripture verse that revealed so clearly Jesus' line of action whenever he was confronted with the sick and the oppressed: "The people got to know where Jesus was and they went after him. (Then Jesus seeing the crowds, had pity on them.) He made them welcome, and talked with them about God's Kingdom, and healed everyone where they needed to be healed (Lk 9:11).

Then it struck me that the first thing Jesus did, even before he preached to them and much more prayed over them, was just to welcome them, to make them feel at home, treating them not as prospective guinea pigs to evangelize or try out one's healing gift but simply as human beings under some burden or in some need. And so crossing the threshold of hope (dividing the 'clean' from the 'unclean'), I went up to his bed and just looked at him. Jesus was always moved then with pity at the sight of the dejected crowds (Mt 9:36), and even now, the compassionate 'gaze' of Christ continues to fall upon individuals and peoples, - through our own 'gaze' of compassion.

There are three simple things, costless but priceless, that can change someone's life: a warm smile, a kind word and a friendly touch. And so I first smiled at him very warmly and he smiled back in turn (the ice was broken); I greeted him very kindly and he returned the greeting with joy; I 'touched' him on the forehead in my friendliest way - and he looked up at me with glad amazement. But for me, the moment I did this all my fear of leprosy disappeared never to return. Ever since it has been my great joy to pray over lepers, who seemed to be Jesus' favourites, precisely because everybody else and especially the so-called religious leaders had disavowed them and distanced themselves from them.

The next thing I did was to speak to him about God's kingdom, that is, about the things that really mattered to him and that he wanted most to hear. I did not dish out the commonplace platitudes, 'How are you?' or 'I am praying for you', but the core of the Gospel message, that God loves him, forgives him and has a wonderful plan for him (Jer 29:11; Rom 8:28-30; Eph 3:20). Everybody is waiting for someone who will speak to them with compassion and authority, for someone who will listen to the outpourings of the secret burdens of their heart in complete confidence and without the slightest condemnation.

And then as the young man began to speak to me, I realized that for him more crushing than his physical sickness was the burden of feeling rejected by his family, of being considered useless, meant only to carry out errands for them. As he gained my confidence he told me that the family business was in tatters. Being convinced by 'experts' in the field that there was a curse on the family and the family fortunes, since their house was built on a place of former pagan worship, his father had sent him regularly to very many witch doctors to undo that spell. Even right now there was something placed under his bed, given by a professional tantric, to cure him of his leprosy.

And only once I knew his real burdens and needs, did I go to the third step of praying for the healing he needed. I don't remember having prayed for his physical sickness of leprosy, but definitely for the far more devastating personal leprosy of sin and guilt, of rejection by the family and the community, and the consequent feelings of self pity, anger and unforgiveness, for leprosy in Hebrew means blow, stroke, or wound. And above all and most of all I prayed for what I felt was the most destructive leprosy of a curse or spell that seemed to have a damaging effect on him, through his deep and prolonged involvement with the occult, thus breaking the very first commandment. Then I left the house, his parents making sure I washed my hands thoroughly in dettol, the disinfectant - and I forgot all about him.

A month later, at the start of a retreat that I was giving in Kerala, a participant came up to me and asked, "Don't you recognize me?" "No", I replied. "I was that leper you came to pray over at home," he stated, "And I want to tell you that within a week I was totally healed". I stared at him in disbelief for I could see no disfigurement on his face, or any distortion in his fingers. He then continued, "Now I would like you to pray that I find a girl to marry me. For I feel that no girl, knowing my past history, would want to marry me." "You want me to pray for that?" I asked. "Yes," he said. Well, I prayed for that too.

I met him again two months later at some program in Bangalore and he introduced me to his newly wedded wife, whom I recognized to my surprise as my former student at the Catholic Charismatic Bible Institute in Mumbai. He now wanted me to pray over them both for the gift of a child. For he was worried that because of his past illness his wife would not be able to conceive. "You want me to pray for that?" I asked. He said, "Yes." I prayed for that too.

Some time later I met them again at the National Charismatic Convention in Chennai and they gave me the good news that she had conceived. "But now, Father," he said, "we want you to pray that she may deliver a healthy normal child because, knowing my health background, we are filled with anxiety about how our babe will turn out to be." "You really want me to pray for that?" I asked. "Of course!" he replied. I prayed for that intention too.

Some months later I met them at a Regional Charismatic Convention (Conventions had become occasions when we used to meet everyone we knew in the Lord). They were no longer two, but three, - the third being a sweet little baby girl. This time he didn't ask me to pray for any thing more, Thank God. But the story is not yet over.

I was invited to preach at the Millennium Family Retreat at the Divine Retreat Centre, at Potta, in Kerala, in the last week of December 1999. After my first talk on the first day, the second speaker took over. As I heard him over the loudspeaker system from my room, I was struck both by the contents of the talk and by the unction of the speaker. As I entered the hall to see who it was, his voice seemed familiar to me and then - I recognized his face. Tears of joyful wonder welled up in my eyes, for that anointed speaker, one of the most forceful speakers, I was told later, at that well known retreat and evangelization centre, was that leper boy, whom I had first seen lying helpless and hopeless on a cot in that dim lit room, waiting for a living death - and here he was in the limelight on the stage, God's chosen instrument to give life to others. The Lord continues to tell us today, as he told the Apostles, "Cleanse the lepers" (Mt 10:8) - physically, emotionally, spiritually.

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