A confronting visit

Columban Fr John Keenan (back right) with the University of the East students, Philippines. Photos: Fr John Keenan SSC

Columban Fr John Keenan (back right) with the University of the East students, Philippines. Photo: Fr John Keenan SSC

Every year as Christmas approaches, the University of the East (U.E.) students in Manila, Philippines, plan to go to the leper hospital in Tala, some 20 kilometres away. They do this in order to bring some Christmas cheer and gifts to the patients there. 

For many, it is their first time seeing a leper. They go there with great enthusiasm and goodwill. About 40 college students assemble at the main entrance to the U.E. campus and board the U.E. bus for Tala. They begin the two-hour journey singing Christmas carols and other popular songs, accompanied by guitars, and praying the rosary. Before they know it they arrive at the hospital. 

Upon arrival, Mass is offered in the chapel of St Damien of Molokai. St Damien de Veuster was the Belgian priest who lived and ministered to lepers when they were confined to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. He did much to improve their conditions and he himself contracted leprosy and died from it. 

After the Mass, the students are briefed and given an orientation by two nurses from the leper unit. They are told that it is all right to talk to and touch the lepers. They are also advised to remove the rings on their fingers and their earrings out of sensitivity to the patients, many of whom have no fingers or ears. Many of them are severely disfigured and some have lost both hands and feet. On entering each unit, we are cordially welcomed by staff and patients. A medley of Christmas carols is sung. Some of the patients render their own favourite carols to wild applause. 

Next, we visit each patient individually and sit down and talk with them. Like in the time of Jesus, the lepers are often excluded from family and community. Some never receive any messages or visits, even from their own children. This hurts them very much – to be disowned by their own families. Because of distance and lack of money for travel expenses, many never have visitors. Despite this, they can be very cheerful and very appreciative that young people are so interested in befriending them and sharing their life-stories. Some want to avail of the sacrament of forgiveness and the sacrament of the sick when we visit. 

Columban Fr John Keenan with patients at the leper hospital in Manila. Photos: Fr John Keenan SSC

Columban Fr John Keenan with patients at the leper hospital in Manila. Photo: Fr John Keenan SSC

After individual sharing and chatting, gift-packages are distributed by hand to each one. They usually contain soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, handtowels, five kilos of rice, canned goods and other needed articles. They are very much appreciated. Of course, in typical Filipino fashion, many photos and selfies are taken. The whole experience impresses on the students how fortunate they themselves are to have good health. 

This reminds me of St Francis of Assisi who when mounted on his horse saw a leper, dismounted and embraced him. It was a “Kairos” moment for him. He had a profound conversion, saw Jesus in the leper, gave up his privileged lifestyle and became the poor man of Assisi. Pope Francis has chosen his name to highlight his spirituality of love for the poor and God’s creation. And that is another story.

Columban Fr John Keenan is from Ireland. He first came to the Philippines in 1966.  He is based in Manila.

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