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Compassion: The Touch of Mercy

Compassion: The Touch of Mercy

“God’s mercy overcomes every barrier and Jesus’ hand touches the leper. He does not stand at a safe distance and does not act by delegating, but places himself in direct contact with our contagion.” —Pope Francis

Mark 1:40-45

And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Words of Pope Francis

. . . Mark the Evangelist speaks to us about Jesus’ actions against every type of evil, for the benefit of those suffering in body and spirit: the possessed, the sick, sinners. . . . Jesus presents himself as the One who fights and conquers evil wherever he encounters it. In today’s Gospel (cf. Mark 1:40-45), this struggle of his confronts an emblematic case, because the sick man is a leper. Leprosy is a contagious and pitiless disease, which disfigures the person, and it was a symbol of impurity: a leper had to stay outside of inhabited centers and make his presence known to passersby. He was marginalized by the civil and religious community. He was like a dead man walking.

The episode of the healing of the leper takes place in three brief phases: the sick man’s supplication, Jesus’ response, and the result of the miraculous healing. The leper beseeches Jesus, “kneeling,” and says to him: “If you will, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). Jesus responds to this humble and trusting prayer because his soul is moved to deep pity: compassion. “Compassion” is a most profound word: compassion means “to suffer with another.” Jesus’ heart manifests God’s paternal compassion for that man, moving close to him and touching him. And this detail is very important. Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him. . . . And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean” (verses 41-42). God’s mercy overcomes every barrier and Jesus’ hand touches the leper. He does not stand at a safe distance and does not act by delegating, but places himself in direct contact with our contagion, and in precisely this way our ills become the motive for contact: he, Jesus, takes from us our diseased humanity and we take from him his sound and healing humanity. This happens each time we receive a sacrament with faith: the Lord Jesus “touches” us and grants us his grace. In this case we think especially of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which heals us from the leprosy of sin.

Once again the Gospel shows us what God does in the face of our ills: God does not come to “give a lesson” on pain; neither does he come to eliminate suffering and death from the world; but rather he comes to take upon himself the burden of our human condition and carries it to the end, to free us in a radical and definitive way. This is how Christ fights the world’s maladies and suffering: by taking them upon himself and conquering them with the power of God’s mercy.

The Gospel of the healing of the leper tells us today that, if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, we are called to become united to him, instruments of his merciful love, overcoming every kind of marginalization. In order to be “imitators of Christ” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1) in the face of a poor or sick person, we must not be afraid to look him in the eye and to draw near with tenderness and compassion, and to touch him and embrace him. I have often asked this of people who help others, to do so looking them in the eye, not to be afraid to touch them; that this gesture of help may also be a gesture of communication: we too need to be welcomed by them. A gesture of tenderness, a gesture of compassion . . . Let us ask you: when you help others, do you look them in the eye? Do you embrace them without being afraid to touch them? Do you embrace them with tenderness? Think about this: how do you help? From a distance or with tenderness, with closeness? If evil is contagious, so is goodness. Therefore, there needs to be ever more abundant goodness in us. Let us be infected by goodness and let us spread goodness!

— Angelus Address, St. Peter’s Square, February 15, 2015

Grow!

Have you ever felt like an outcast from God’s family? If so, how were you able to experience being restored to fellowship with Christ and his Church?

When have you experienced Jesus drawing near to you in your “contagion” and suffering? How did Jesus’ touch of mercy change you?

Act!

At times people in our churches can feel like outcasts, isolated from God’s people. Is there someone you know in your parish who needs to experience God’s welcoming embrace? How can you, like Jesus, overcome those barriers and be an instrument of mercy?

Excerpted from The Holy Year of Mercy: A Faith-Sharing Guide with Reflections by Pope Francis (The Word Among Us Press, 2015). Available at wau.org/books

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